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...I couldn't. Even considering it makes my stomach lurch and my throat stiffen. You deserve this least of all, dear...but then, the thought of bearing silent witness to the cold-blooded murder of a sincerely remorseful woman – a rarer and more remarkable trait than innocence itself – inspires an even deeper disgust. My hands reach out almost instinctively, snapping around Sanae's throat and dragging her close with a wretch.
I suppose I could.
Her scream, though little more than a choke, is strong enough to stop both gods dead. Suwako stands a long stride's length from a still-dazed Kanako, who staggers to her feet from the site of impact. The spear lands in Suwako's waiting hand in position to be launched through Kanako and, likely, the better part of the shrine. Both sets of eyes, as intense and furious as their first meeting, glare intently at the single thin stream of blood pooling on the edge of my pocket knife, still too small to break its own grasp on the metal.
Before I begin, I whisper into a whimpering Sanae's ear, "I'm sorry. I need to use you one more time." Her reply is a short whine and a weakening tremble, though I dare not look her in the face. Even imagining her crying breaks my heart; if I actually saw it I'd never be able to go through with this. Steeling my face and hoping that my resolve will follow suit of its own accord, my voice bellows at the two with a force that shocks even me. "There will be peace in this house!"
The two share a sideways glance, though one of Suwako's eyes stays trained on me. Judging from the curses that immediately bear down on me, she's waiting for a chance. Just as well; they serve as a grim reminder of how dangerous this is for everyone. If I can at least drag them away from their duel first, they might still be convinced to talk it out with the only person they've been fighting over in the first place. If they can't see that with a knife to her throat, then there's no point in saving them.
"Now you two are going to stop, drop any weapons you might be carrying, walk inside, and talk this all over. Nobody is going to get hurt, and if you come to the conclusion that this fight needs to continue we are going to arrange another, proper duel, this time overseen by the Hakurei. Am I understood?" So it would seem! Wonderful. My grip on Sanae lets only just loose enough to allow her to speak, but she stays silent as we follow the two into the shrine. The pace they set is slow and careful, either from each waiting for the other to back stab them or simply from the rush of holding tenuous command over two individuals who are very capable of ending me, but in time the four of us find ourselves seated around a quaint table. Sanae, of course, stays in front of me. Our eyes shift among each other, thin and hardened enough to give a frighteningly sinister tinge to every motion.
Suwako is the first to speak, and clearly the more irritated of the two. "So how exactly do you intend to talk me out of killing you?" With one eye focused on Kanako and one on myself, the statement sends chills through my body, seizing each muscle and joint as though the mere words were themselves working toward my end.
I can't let it slow me down, though. Tightening my grip on the knife, I shoot her what I hope is a convincing glare. "Do you mean to tell me that you're ready to risk the last of your descendants? There's no religion to head if there's no one left who knows your name, you know. Not everything can be solved by killing people." Suwako seems ready with a counter-point, but she's stopped with open mouth and pointed finger by a quiet sound from Kanako, barely a breath but spoken with clarity and intent.
"Plenty of things can be made worse by not killing them, though." Not helping. Suwako's hands slam onto the table, sending shakes through both Kanako and the walls, but she stops herself from standing when Sanae's pained gasp reaches her. Every tear I put in her flesh is another in my conscience, but my options are few and none are any better. Suwako's voice hisses through clenched teeth, simmering with hatred. "I'm beginning to see that."
"Kanako, I hope I don't need to tell you that our current warped peace is not a reason to get brave. You've got more to lose in Sanae than Suwako does." She doesn't need to be told, but something about her supposedly frightened nature makes me think that she hasn't quite accepted the direness of the situation. The sudden sinking of her posture and the creeping furrow in her brow make me think otherwise. "Now, Kanako. Have you actually made your feelings on the subject clear to Suwako, at any point?" I suppose if this is going to happen, I'll have to start it.
Her despondent look changes quickly to one of realization, and again to humiliation. "...No." About what I expected.
"And Suwako. Have you ever considered that death isn't quite a fair punishment?"
"Oh, of course. I've always had a policy of being merciful to my enemies." Not helping!
Finding some small strength, Kanako interjects, "Does that mean you would rather that I have killed you the countless times I considered simply destroying the burden I was bearing?" Could you really not have chosen any other phrase?
Almost instantly, rage flares up again in Suwako's eyes, but she (thankfully) restrains her body. "The burden you were bearing?! You had a home! You had a body! You had a family! You had a fucking life! I got to watch everything I loved grow and die without ever being able to touch them, and that was all that I got! I'd rather you have just fucking ended it!" As she speaks, her voice raises to a cracking shout, tears finally breaking away from her eyelids with the final words.
"What about me?" Sanae finally finds her voice, weakly choking out a few short words. Damn it, now I know she's crying. Her words come slowly and carefully at first, but as they go they pick up momentum, and emotion with it. "If you'd died, then we never would have met. It hasn't been long yet, but what about the rest of my life? What about my kids? Your life doesn't just end, as long as someone still believes in you, right? Maybe you had to just watch for a while, but now that you finally have it, are you really going to say that you still don't care? You don't want the rest of your family to know who you are, instead of just what people say you are?" Her voice never raises throughout the speech, but her body begins to quake against me wildly.
The angry shiver in Suwako fades slightly, and her expression softens as she grasps for an answer. "That...that's..."
Sanae continues unhindered, her voice gaining confidence as a member of the discussion instead of just its subject. I suppose I'm somewhat to blame for that little misconception... "And Kanako. You were so ready to die for so long for what you did, but you didn't think for a second to talk about it? You didn't think that maybe, just maybe, you could be forgiven? It's not like you really could have opposed the Yamato to begin with. For that matter," And her usual energy comes back to her, intense (though not necessarily angry) and focused on Suwako, "How did you not pick up on that? Maybe there are greater forces for you to hate than a woman who kept your lineage strong instead of killing it off because she loved them too much."
Sanae's emotions pour through every word, quietly softening their rage as they listen on. "And both of you – both of you – had a chance to talk to me by yourself for as long as you wanted, and not once did anyone ask how I felt. Not once did you even think to tell me anything private or personal, even though you can open up so easily to someone you barely know!" I know the fault doesn't lie with me, but I still cringe slightly at my mention. She pauses for a moment to let her words fester, the silence in the room a stark contrast to her passionate shouts. Before anyone can form a reply she quietly begins again, clearly holding something back. "Am I not worth talking to? Would I not understand? Am I not a human being?" Her voice trails off, barely getting out the last words before her head hangs down, focusing past the floor. After a few silent seconds, she whispers to no one, "I guess I am, aren't I..."
The next thing that occurs to me is how hard her back is, and how very fragile my nose is. Through the daze of her attack and the haze of worry that comes with it, all I can make out are her voice and the chill that steel leaves in the palm that lets it go. "What the fuck do I matter, then, right? No matter how old I get or how close I get to you, I'm just a foolish little creature that you keep around to milk for affection, right? What do I know about how families are supposed to work?!" By the time I catch a glimpse of the glinting metal held with quivering hands against her own throat, it's already being torn away by a gloved hand. The effort is met with piercing shrieks and a wild flailing, but as the futility of trying to overpower a tengu sinks in, she degrades into a sobbing mess. The two--three gods watch on silently, too stunned to act at all.
Each passing second that I don't die is a relief.
Sanae's muffled voice cries out from Grey's chest, though whatever words she says are too distorted for me to understand. Whispering consolations into her ear, his eyes pass quickly among the remaining three. When they meet Kanako's, they carry pleading. At Suwako, incredulity. And at me...There's no word to describe it, really. Perhaps he has a way of turning what should be a simple unamused stare into something more, but it's clear from one glance that he knows what I've done, why I've done it, and that he doesn't consider it justified in the least. Thinking on his relationship with the girl, I can see why.
The first to act is Kanako, who rises on unsure feet. Each step she takes toward the two puts another crack in her resolve, tears flowing from her eyes as she reaches out to touch her daughter. Her face wants to say so much, but she gets as far as choking out "Sanae..." before the girl turns to face her with reddened eyes. The last of Kanako's defenses falls as her daughter clutches desperately for her, who holds her against her breast and weeps softly into her hair as her loving hands stroke her back.
In turn, the last of Suwako's rage fades, and she too rises to her feet. Watching the two with a pained expression, she speaks so softly that it's hard to believe that she can be heard. "...I'm sorry. I'm...I'm not over it, by a long shot. But you're right. Everything you said, about me and Kanako and...everything. Just. I'm sorry. I'll...let myself out."
"No, you won't." Grey, now freed from Sanae's clutches, grabs for Suwako's arm. Only now does it occur to me to ask where he came from (and where he left to, for that matter) but now doesn't quite seem the time for all that. "I can't trust that you won't plot something. You've been hiding enough secrets." Kanako glares at Grey above Sanae's head, showing the same control over herself that she displayed above the shrine but not pausing her comfort for the girl.
"Let her go. We're dropping all of this. Suwako," Her expression softens, and is met with a sad, silent stare. "There are no words for how sorry I am, and I understand if you choose not to forgive me. Whatever you choose to do from here, though, please. Stay in her life."
After taking a slow, deep breath, and letting it out just as slowly, Suwako forces her lips up despite her sad eyes. "Okay." And with nothing else, she continues walking.
"Hey." Her shuffling steps are paused by Sanae, who's gotten enough of a grip on herself to look away. Her eyes are still bloodshot, and her cheeks still glisten with tears, but a thin smile shines past it. Part of me is astounded at the happiness that she can give me from such a simple gesture, but another hopes never to be given occasion for such a gift again. Grabbing Suwako's hand, she continues, pausing occasionally to sniff deeply. "We're all a little beat up right now. It's been a long day. Let's have dinner together, like a real family." Only then does Suwako smile, and only then does it seem genuine. She really is cute, when she's not psychotic. Her response comes in the form of a warm hug, her cheek squeezing against Sanae as she, too, lets tears loose. Just as I begin to wonder where I'll be staying, having discarded any trust she might have held in me, her eyes shoot to me as she finishes with a wink, "All of us."
...At least I held out while it was important.
I sincerely hope that this update was as hard for you to read as it was for me to write.