Chapter 32: Culmination of Consequence
"Choices made, whether bad or good, follow you forever and affect everyone in their path one way or another." -J.E.B. Spredemann, An Unforgivable Secret
"I know that's what people say-you'll get over it. I'd say it, too. But i know it's not true. Oh, you'll be happy again, never fear. But you won't forget." -Betty Smith, A Tree Grows In Brooklyn
"She worked her toes into the sand, feeling the tiny delicious pain of friction of tiny chips of silicon against the tender flesh between her toes. That's life. It hurts, it's dirty, and it feels very, very good." -Orson Scott Card, An Unforgivable Secret
* is a quotation from Mercedes Lackey.
The sun was not visible as it rose that morning, instead the horizon before me was a gray dawn, matched by what seemed to be a grayer sea that morning. We were drawing to the end of the winter in the Fire Nation, even if one could call it a winter here, after have lived in a land of constant ice and snow. The weather was a consoling gloom that matched the somber situation I now found myself in. I stood on the small dock at the secluded alcove below the cliffs behind Katsu's estate. The ferry ship had not yet arrived and we had already awaited its arrival for sometime already. Even though I did not look behind me, I could feel Katsu's gaze burning at the back of my skull from where he stood at the beginning of the dock, meters away and out of earshot from us. My attention flickered back from the endless line of the ocean meeting the sky back to my companion who stood next to me. His attention was not fixated at all on the ocean, but entirely on me instead. Hotaka and I had already spoken for some time, telling each other in more detail about what had occurred to us individually over the last three years, after the initial pleas and grief. Hotaka's ocean-misty eyes were a swirling tirade of emotions that I knew must mirror my own, though he kept his face calm, contrary to his internal battle. There were large shadows underneath his eyes, along with what I am sure was a large bump on his head from where Katsu had knocked him unconscious the day prior. There were also several unpleasant looking bruises on his face that he had brushed off my inquiries about. Whether they came from the guards or Katsu I would not ever know.
"Are you sure about this?" Hotaka asked for the hundredth time. "If he is willing to let you go, perhaps the child could be…"
"No," I reaffirmed firmly, trying to keep my rattled emotions from making my voice tremble. "Kokai wouldn't belong back...and nor would I be so cruel to rob Katsu of another child."
Something flashed vehemently in Hotaka's eyes, disappearing as quickly as it had come. He probably thought me to be mad, which I was somewhat thinking myself currently. Here I had been given a chance, a real chance, to escape and with no worry that I would be sought after. The cruel irony of it had not escaped my notice either, for the first time and the only time, my freedom had been offered to me freely….and I had rejected it, turned it away…I had known it from the moment Kokai had looked at me with his father's eyes. Mostly I had not wanted to acknowledge it or the reality that here, of all places, in the Fire Nation, amongst my supposed enemies, I had known peace and the most happiness I had felt in a very long time. Not that I forgot all the pain and suffering I had gone through here.
The largest question that had been nagging me was how Katsu had been made to offer me my freedom willingly. He loved me, that I will admit, but it had always been a selfish love. Katsu was not the sort of man whose mind was changed easily and he was used to getting what he wanted. I had never even thought of the possibility of him offering me my freedom for it had not even occurred to me. Neither Hotaka or Katsu had told me of what had passed between them before Katsu had come to me. Hotaka and I had spent several hours in conversation in the dining hall with Katsu brooding off somewhere, though a guard had been posted at the door. Many things had been discussed and grieved over between Hotaka and I, but now I needed to know…
I let out a deep breath to keep my voice steady as I spoke again. My emotions were still all over the place, part of me crying within the void and another of understanding resignation. "Tell me, what did you say to him?" I asked carefully. "He would never-I had not thought him to offer…" I could not finish the words out loud to Hotaka for I knew it would pain him. He had not saved me and after that being his main goal in life for three years, well...it would be rather callous of me to remind him. His sacrifice for me I was in awe of and some part of me regretted that it could not be the way he wished for things to be.
Hotaka turned to look at me with the storm swirling in his eyes contrary to his calm face. "My purpose for the last three years was to find you and free you, because I love you. Even now when you have made your choice…" He paused as his breath caught in his throat and I could see the look that he was bitter, heart-broken, and thinking me crazy, but understanding the why of my choice all in the blink of an eye. Hotaka looked away before looking back towards me. "I abide by it because of that love. Love is not selfish and that is what I told him. If he truly loved you, then he would offer you the choice."
My mind and my mouth were thoughtless and speechless, as if I had been struck dumb by the spirits. Hotaka's coming here had been surprising, but Katsu's offer and the why of it was even more so to me. It seemed impossible that we were talking about the same man. This was not the Katsu I knew. My gaze turned from Hotaka as I caught the sight of sails in the distant horizon. The ferry was almost here! Hotaka's attention followed my own before we both looked back at each other, knowing that the time we had was drawing to a close.
"I will be alright," I said to him, seeking to comfort him somehow. "My life is comfortable and I have Kokai…"
Hotaka reached out a hand to touch my face and paused inches away from touching my cheek. His hand dropped back down to his side as he looked at me in defeat. "I promised that I would never return if he gave you the choice," Hotaka informed me somberly. Leave it to Katsu to have all possible angles covered I thought cynically. "I hope...I hope somehow…" Hotaka turned away from me. I knew he wanted to wish me well, for my happiness, but he thought that to be impossible for me here. Then there was the fact that he was anguished and still very, very angry right now, with himself or me I did not know. We both knew my earlier claim that the girl he had loved to be dead was not entirely true, but there was the singular fact we had both changed over the last three years.
I reached out gently to touch his shoulder, causing Hotaka to almost leap away from me. I will always remember the look on his face as he looked at me then. "Forget me, Hotaka," I requested with a silent plea in my words. "You cannot know how grateful and…." I ceased as the void in side expanded and grew until I felt as if I could not speak. "Go home. Help our people and love another," I managed to croak out. "I'm so sorry…"
Hotaka's hand covered my own as I held his shoulder. The ferry was only meters away from the dock, pulling up alongside it with the crew busy on its deck and several passengers eyeing us curiously. "Tell them I died," I ordered for I knew that our people would not understand. Better to think me dead then in my current situation.
Hotaka squeezed my hand in acknowledgement. "I'll do as you ask for I've always planned to return home," He said in the tightest and quietest of tones. "But I will never forget you." No more words were exchanged as the ramp was lowered and Hotaka released my hand. He strode up the ramp as I felt the tears gather. Slowly, as if time were freezing to mock me, the ferry slipped off into that grey smudge. He did not look back. My eyes could not look away from the ferry. Part of me thought that if he had looked back, we both would have jumped into the ocean to reach each other, trying to change my decision.
He did not look back.
The void exploded within my chest, as if someone had stabbed my chest with a knife and kept twisting it. It would seem impossible for me to have more tears after all the ones that had been shed during the night, but I wept. Oh, how I wept...
The next week was spent in an emotional lull as if nothing could make me really feel, as if I were in a blur and the world kept spinning on around me. I knew the signs for I had gone through them for a long time upon my arrival to the Fire Nation. I was utterly and completely depressed, even when Kokai gave me his innocent babe's smile, the void would plunge me down ever further. I spent the first several days in bed, refusing to get out, no matter how much Ran or Katsu pleaded or cajoled me to do otherwise. Even after I had emerged out of those entrapping bedsheets, I slept a lot, much more than normal. Even with return of my nightmares, more often than their occurrence, there was the sweet nothing of sleep, where I could escape the void and everything and everyone.
Finally, the only thing that pulled me out of this was Katsu's plea to be with Kokai, for I had not spent much time with him. My motherly instinct kicked in at that and brought me out of the complete miserable state I was in. Do not get me wrong, depression and grief lingered, but I was able to live my daily life and be there for my son. Katsu had not spoken a word about what had happened and at first had tried to comfort me, but after my repeated rejections, he had given up by giving me the distance I had desired. I only saw him at our usual times after I had emerged out of staying in bed and it was silent except for greetings and his talking of his day and so forth. I would answer him if asked a question, which reminded me greatly of the time when I had not spoken to anyone. Part of me wanted his comfort, to accept it, and yet I wanted him to suffer as I was suffering. My vindictive streak had not diminished as I would have thought for the first year of Kokai's life had been fairly peaceful. Back then I was not deliberately cruel to Katsu, unless I had been angered in one of our increasingly rarer fights. Now I needed him to hurt, just as I had used to before Kokai's birth. Even though he had offered me a choice, truly offered it, a part of him must have known there was no way I would choose otherwise. I did not blame Kokai, but a proportion of me did blame Katsu.
Everyone I had loved in the past or come to care about always seemed to leave me at some point or I was taken from them. My family, my people, Teruko and Satoru, Hotaka, and now….now another person left me as well. Katsu was silently terrified of losing Kokai and I, something I could understand because a part of me was terrified of being alone. It was during the week after Hotaka's departure that made this the final flake out of box of flaming fire flakes of my melancholy.
It was the first day I had emerged out of bed and found myself up on the wall, glaring out at the evening sky. The sky was morbidly cloudy with just a slant of pure sky on the horizon, glowing a fiery red as the sun was setting. Below me the ocean roared as it hit the cliffs below and from where I leaned against the low wall with my forearms was naught but a far off sound. A light breeze teased my hair and nose of the ocean air. Before I had been allowed outside of the estate, I had used to hide up here to stare out at the ocean and try to get a waft its comforting smell. Though I did enjoy the view from the eastern wall, which gave me a view of the rolling hills on the island, this was also one of my other favorite haunts. Ran had been watching Kokai for me if Katsu was not able to do it myself since the beginning of my self- imposed bedrest. He had told me this morning that he had written to Akane to request her presence here, which I had merely answered with a careless shrug. Though I did appreciate his inviting her, for she always seemed to help when I had been in times of sadness or great distress. My head turned at the barest sound of familiar footsteps that could only belong to one person.
He came towards me on the walkway, dressed in his usual nondescript dark clothing. I noted that he had trimmed his mustache down, which had come to be too long in their style, growing down like two thin worms framing the sides of his lips. Thank the spirits that was done with. Iwao's face was a mask of indifference and his golden eyes were sharp as they evaluated me. The look in his eyes were unreadable, as if I were a blind man trying to read. He gave me the traditional low bow of the Fire Nation. Katsu had not discussed with me about when Iwao would return or why he had gone in the first place. Hotaka had implied that he had had some hand in Iwao's departure that involved the Society, the secretive group of bodyguards that Iwao was a part of. Basically I did not know if he had left for a real affair or some fabrication on Hotaka's part. "My Lady," Iwao addressed me in cold respect.
"Iwao," I returned quietly. The void had me in its throes with each wave of unsettling grief and desolation. His examination of me did not miss a beat, as if I were some fascination scroll that he was in the middle of reading. Even in my depression, I was curious to know the truth for he detected it.
"Your...friend…" He hovered over the word friend, as if it were a bug underneath his shoe he could not help to admire for its tenacity. Though his words were placid as usual, I had come over the years to sometimes detect what lay underneath it, or perhaps that was wishful thinking on my part. "He is rather clever. His Lordship has told me what happened, which explains my surprise when upon my arrival for my supposed business, I found out that I had not been called for or needed."
Smart indeed. Hotaka….what had he gone through and how much to form the connections that he had in order to find me? He had implied that he had become involved with unsavory people or secretive dealings, but even in our several hours of conversation he had kept it to himself mostly. Perhaps it was better that I would never know what he had gone through or done in order to find me.
Iwao seemed to pause as he looked at me, almost as if he were hesitant to speak what he had planned to say. "As it is, My Lady," Iwao plowed on stoically. "My services are truly no longer needed, so I will be leaving for good this time."
Once...it seemed so long ago….the only time I had successfully escaped outside of the estate's walls, later I found out was due to Iwao letting me. He had been dismissed afterwards, only to later be rehired by Katsu. Both had never explained why Iwao had been brought back or why Iwao had not simply been replaced by another. I had not asked or been truly interested in the why, figuring it be due to the fact that the one time I had gotten away had been on purpose. Although that had made me wonder if Katsu knew that part. For the most part, Iwao had been my shadow, constantly by my side over the last three years. He had helped to keep me a prisoner here and had also saved me from some of my own dangerous attempts at escaping. It had become a goal of mine to crack through that impenetrable armor of his and I had achieved some success over the years. Underneath that thick skin and emotional indifference, was a living being who I think was troubled, very troubled and bitter about his lot in life. The glimpses were few and far in between, but I think Iwao had been raised to be as he his, accepting of it, and yet also burdened by his role. What little I knew of the Society had helped me to form this idea and again I could be entirely wrong as far as I knew. In all of this, even though he had been another barrier to keep me from leaving, I had come to trust and to care about him. It was true in many ways that I did not know him as I knew Ran, Ira, or Akane closely, yet he had become a constant figure in my life.
How could he leave me now? After all this time?
I knew it was because of the finality of it at long last being completely my choice after Hotaka's coming and with the existence of Kokai. I was never going home. So why should Iwao stay on? Katsu had no need of him and from my understanding of the Society, its contracts were not usually as long term as mine had been, except for the little part of the lifelong bodyguards for the Royal Family that Katsu's family secretly provided. My mind provided the rationale that if Iwao left me it was also the final note on the truth that had me in my current state.
...Never….Finality...There was no going back, no second chances.
It was done and he was going to leave me, as they all did or me being taken away from those I care about without a choice. I turned my head away from him quickly to hide the tears that were my closest companions these last several days.
"A part of me hoped you would escape as soon as I realized I had been fooled," Iwao informed me, startling me with his words as I turned my head to gape back at him. "But we both know that is now impossible." Katsu knew as well I thought with a twinge of bitterness. What if I had shocked them both by leaving Kokai behind?
"You told me once that I didn't deserve this," I uttered thickly, referring to the time quite like now, that he had been dismissed. "Is that why you hoped I had left?"
Iwao looked like he did not want to respond for he actually avoided my gaze. "Yes," He replied thinly.
No time like the present I thought. One last time to wheedle the truth out of him. He was leaving me and I did not want him to go, so let him be unhappy as I was! "You hate Satoru and said it's cause he is a fool," I confronted Iwao, my voice straining from the effort to not break out into sobs. "But that's not entirely true, is it? And it's the same for when you let me escape and even now a part of you wants me too!"
Iwao's eyes met my own once more and I saw that look that was a mixture of pride and annoyance underneath the indifference. "He is a fool," Iwao answered me with the loathing in his words, but his voice became softer in his next statement. "Yet you are correct in your observation. There is more."
The hesitation and defiance flared on in Iwao's eyes, while his face remained neutral the whole time. "I will not," Iwao said coldly. I opened my mouth to retort and Iwao hurried on to keep me from speaking. "I sincerely hope for you to find joy and happiness with your choice. Goodbye, My Lady." Without another word, he bowed and left with quick paces. I stared at his retreating figure, appalled and wanting to go after him. My feet remained where they were for I knew it would be a useless effort. He had left, as they always did, and just as Hotaka had done….
He did not look back.
I did not weep this time. Instead I looked back towards the setting sun, keeping in those wretched tears that were not going to change a thing.
Several weeks passed and within that time Akane visited me as promised. Her presence helped to pull me out of my self-pity and get me to return to enjoying life somewhat. I knew that no matter happened, I would remember my choice and sometimes it would haunt me. Was it for the better or worse? If only...those must be the saddest two words in the world.* Akane, Ran, and Ira became the three constant emotional pillars of support for me during this period. I even received another letter from Satoru and Teruko and was able to pen them a response. Satoru had arranged for our letters to be delivered through Ira, whom apparently had been friends with Teruko and Satoru. Something I had only recently discovered after Ira had handed me their letter with a knowing smile. Though she respected Katsu and he was her lord, she was capable of keeping her own secrets from him. I was eternally grateful for her assistance. In my letter to them, I was honest. Before Hotaka had arrived, I had been...almost happy….and now...Spirits...I told them that I missed them...like Iw-...No, he abandoned me! They had no choice! They all leave eventually anyways…Except for him. In the end, he would always be there or return when he left for one of his tours, although now he kept his distance and though a part of me wanted to reach back out to him, I did not. The gap seemed to worsen as we both let it thrive and neither of us willing now to reach out to each other. Katsu had tried at first and I had spurned his attempts. The biggest connection between us was now our son and at the end of all things, I knew that I would always have Kokai and even Katsu when he was not always wanted. They would be here for me….and I them….
Kokai would often in the future become a resolution or cause of our disagreements. A child has a way of driving you apart or back together depending on the situation. In this case, he brought us back when we were both too stubborn to do otherwise…
It had been two weeks since Hotaka's departure. I sat in the study on the low cushions, attempting to distract myself by reading a scroll about mythology that normally I would have found quite entertaining. Kokai was nestled in the cushions to my right. The main window of the study was to my left and the entrance was behind Kokai. He alternated between playing with the stuffed toy he had or pulling himself up by the table. My little son had become a master at holding himself up and even dragging himself from one piece of furniture to the next. Ran claimed she had seen him stand on his own legs for a few shaky seconds when I had been hiding from the world by staying in bed. It was the middle of the afternoon so Katsu was off attending to affairs of the estate. Ergo, I was somewhat startled to see him at the doorway, hovering as if he was afraid to enter the room. I looked at him with a raised eyebrow. "My business finished early," Katsu answered my unspoken question." I thought to spend some time with Kokai, but he wasn't in the nursery." Katsu walked hesitantly into the room. I found it a bit odd considering the man usually reeked of self-confidence.
Kokai beamed up at his father before his attention slid back towards the fuzzy toy in his little hands. Much to my own amusement and Katsu's chagrin, Kokai had yet to call Katsu "Dada" or any such variation. The only two words he had thus far said was "Mama" and "RaRa," which we had figured to mean Ran since he always directed it at her.
"It's good to see you back to your normal routines," Katsu commented as he settled himself across the low table from me, to the right of Kokai. Before Hotaka had come, my general behavior had become more genial towards Katsu, unless we were fighting or something. Of course, I would say the occasional biting remark, but in general our relationship had improved greatly. Katsu had become more amenable and I had not felt the need to spar with him verbally on every turn. Except for times like these and currently this was the worst had it been since before Kokai's birth.
"I do it for Kokai, not you," I told him flippantly. "Don't think that you have anything to do with it."
The fire entered Katsu's eyes immediately. We had not truly had a fight yet since I had emerged out of the bedroom a week and half ago. Nor had we had any crazy bad ones since Kokai's birth and usually we kept our arguments away from our son. Luckily he was too young to understand our words this time. Katsu's eyes narrowed down on me, challenging me with a warning not to take it further. Always our tempers could equal each other when it came down to it, for we both knew how to push each other at this point. My temper had always been short since I was young, it was worse when I first came here, although I think it had improved greatly over the last year. I could not quite say the same for Katsu though.
"Yes, I know," Katsu retorted with a snarl. "It took you three days of wallowing in self-pity before you thought of him."
At this the scroll had been dropped from my hand to the table with a loud clunk as I rose to my feet, shaking with thinly controlled rage. All the negative emotions I had been feeling, amidst my depression as well, came boiling over at this point. "How dare you!" I hissed quietly for I did want this to turn into a yelling match in front of Kokai. "I always think of him first!"
Katsu rose to tower over my short stature across the low table. The pent up resentment from the last two weeks was radiating off between us. "You use him as a shield for everything," Katsu accused me, his face contorted into annoyance and resentment. "You can't admit that you stayed for other reasons besides him!"
That was not true! It was a lie….right?
"Now whose wallowing in self-delusions!" I threw right back at him with my voice starting to become louder. Katsu opened his mouth to reply with what would surely have been an angry one, except for the perfect timing of Kokai. When we had both risen to our feet, Kokai had thought to imitate us by pulling himself upon onto his wobbly legs with the support of the table. When Katsu opened his mouth to speak, Kokai squealed out in excitement as he let go of the table and walked several shaky steps towards Katsu. The anger vanished out the doorway, leaving Katsu and I in a state of loving awe of our son.
Katsu smiled at Kokai as he hunched down onto his knees to meet our son's level. "Aren't you clever, walking on your own," He praised endearingly. His golden eyes were alight, all the shadows that been in them disappearing as he looked at Kokai. Kokai's arms were stretched out towards him and Katsu's large hands embraced his little body just as he began to lose his balance. Kokai made a noise of excitement as Katsu held him against his shoulder, praising his first steps.
It was at that moment that my depression left me. Katsu was a good father and I knew that it would have destroyed him if we left him. He did not want to be alone, just as I did not want to be. He needed us, as Kokai needed the both of us, as I needed Kokai and perhaps….just perhaps as I might need him. It hurt, do not think otherwise, knowing that I would not return to my people and with the knowledge of what was still happening to them. Neither of us could change the reality of it tragically.
I was not happy now….but I know that I will be again. Life is painful. Hard. It can equally be as happy and joyful. My choice was made and there was no going back. Yet as it stood, I had hope for the future, for my life here with Kokai and Katsu. Once I had thought hope to be a foolish notion, for Kanna had hoped for the future, while I had let my despair overtake me. Even with all the ills of the war and my turbulent relationship with Katsu, there was hope. Katsu looked over at me with a loving smile and the offer of a truce in his eyes. I smiled in return with my arms outstretched to take Kokai from his arms to praise our son. Kokai had taken his first steps and now we would take ours into an unknown, but hopeful future.