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If Only to Feel

Shindara sat on a rocky outcropping above the beach. The sky was growing dim amid a palette of cerulean, coral orange, and the sweetest plumes of lavender. It was fascinating how life kept leading him back to the enigma of the waves. There was comfort in its thundering ripplets, and sometimes, he could almost hear words foaming in the tide.

Other words were lingering in his head right now, mostly when he bid good-bye to Aya. He never should have embarked on his damned pilgrimage. He never should have left her alone for twelve months while he prayed, feasted, and wandered across the Ryukyu Islands. The truth was he could still hear her voice in the ocean breeze. She would always be the one who got away.

A few hours from now, Aya would be wed to another man who loved her the same way someone might love his favorite cattle. She was a prize to him, not a romantic pursuit. Shindara had passion, but what was that worth at the end of the day? For all of passion’s naïve charm and whimsy, he was going home to an empty room tonight. Romance is a dead language that no one speaks anymore except masochistic fools like him. And this particular fool should have been waiting for her at the wedding shrine instead of a spoiled nobleman.

He couldn’t help but state the obvious as the tide murmured into the distance.

“I guess she’s gone.”

He was speaking to no one in particular, but perhaps he was talking into the wind because it answered him with a yearning gale. When he tried to search his feelings regarding his own future, his mind spiraled into an empty dot. He wasn’t sure where to go from here, but he knew what he would say to her now.

“I keep shutting and opening my eyes, wishing for each time that you’ll appear in front of me,” he mourned. “I made mistakes when our paths first crossed. I’m so sorry that I failed you and hurt you when all I wanted to do was give you love. I’ve cried myself to sleep so many times now, blaming myself and wondering if I disgust you. Or if you hate me.”

As he perched on that mound of rock, he rose to his feet without thinking. Abandoning his sandals, he found himself walking over the cool sand, lulled by the rumbles.

“Even if you did, you’ll always be the girl from the forge whom I fell in love with. Yes, I’m a hopeless fool, but I never forgot how you made me feel seen and understood. Somehow, I’m still thinking about you, wishing you all the happiness in the world, even if I can’t be a part of it.”

He was intrigued by the tide and how it looked like a means to eternity right now. He wasn’t sure what he was going to do when he reached it, but it kept calling out for him. And what a melancholious song it wove in all of its glory, hammering like the pulse in his neck. Haunting him to the edge of the shore.

“I didn’t do it.”

Shindara’s heart felt like it plummeted off a cliff. He remembered that ethereal voice. It sounded as if she was standing directly behind him, but it had to be a lie. The wind was wicked indeed for imitating her.

As much as he longed for her touch and her smile, he was afraid to turn around. He didn’t want the beach to be empty when he searched for the face he’d been dreaming of and taking solace in. There was only so much coveting a simple heart could take.

“I didn’t marry him.”

Her voice sounded so real that it was cruel, and a twitch of Shindara’s lips became a helpless smile. Even if it was just the wind, he humored it with a stupid response.

“Aya…?”

Instead of enduring the silence, footsteps crunched through the sand behind him.

“It’s me.”

When Shindara turned around, he couldn’t believe he was seeing her again, and it felt as if he was actually seeing her for the first time. It felt more naked and earnest than the moment when their eyes met across the markets in Nara, and it felt like he was seeing less of the fantasy and more of the woman instead. Unlike the first time, however, Aya was dressed in a wedding kimono. Shindara almost laughed in disbelief because she must have escaped the ceremony to see him instead. It billowed in the wind like a cloud of white silk, embroidered with a pattern of hand-painted butterflies. They flashed in a variety of colors that captured her inner glimmer, and with every gust of the wind, it looked as if those winged nymphs were taking flight.

Aya’s hair was still tangled up in jeweled pins and cherry blossoms, but most of it had came undone while she was running away. How did she know to find him on this beach? Did she really know him that well? He knew it had to be true when he saw the warmth mirrored in her eyes.

How lucky he felt to see her in a wedding kimono, even if this day didn’t belong to him. The days ahead would surely be theirs, and that was all that mattered now. When he wrapped his arms around her, it finally dawned on him that he had a second chance. He wasn’t sure he deserved it, but he desired her so badly that it was killing him on the inside.

“I couldn’t stop thinking about what you told me,” Aya revealed.

“But there were so many things I said.”

“You said you would rather worship me instead of your gods.”

Shindara remembered. He felt ashamed for voicing his truth, but he wouldn’t take it back if he could. He wanted her more than anything, even if it meant turning his back on the temple.

“I don’t want you to do that,” Aya said, catching the doubt in his eyes. “I think there’s a place for both of us in your life. That was the moment I realized I wanted another chance with you.”

“If I could kiss every inch of you right now, I would,” Shindara said. This moment felt so finely plucked from his yearning fantasies that it felt like a dream. Perhaps that was why he couldn’t stop looking at her and trying to convince himself she was quite real.

This needed to be real. Out of all the things going wrong in his life right now, this needed to be real.

“I might not be a lord, but I’ll find a way to make you happy. When all of this is over, we can build a house outside Nara, maybe on the lakeside.” Aya beamed up at him, but her smile was interrupted by a sob as tears collected in the corners of her eyes.

“…that sounds perfect to me.”

“And we can have the daughter you’ve always wanted.”

“Ryoko?”

“Yes. Ryoko. Now is our time and we can do whatever we want… but please, forgive me. I’m sorry for lashing out at you and threatening Iketani. Nothing I say will take it back, but I can promise to be better. I can be the man you hoped I would be, if you’re still willing to give me a second chance.”

Aya must have believed him on a fleeting level because she sank closer into him.

“What if we lose each other again?” she voiced, however. “Have you ever wondered if we shouldn’t be together? Be honest with me. Should we stop now before we hurt each other?”

Shindara was alarmed by the shift in her tone, but he knew her well enough to recognize what this was. She was already afraid and pulling away, just as she’d done countless times before. This time, he wasn’t going to let her slip away.

“If I could look into our future and see how this ends, I would choose you again and again. I’m not going to let what might happen tomorrow dictate what happens to me today. Fear will never have any say over who I do and do not love. We are temporary creatures passing through light and into shadow, and these are the twilight hours that we live for.”

“But just as you’ve said, one day there will be an ending. Would you still take me as I am, even if it breaks you?”

Shindara lowered his head and pondered her misgivings. There were no guarantees in love. He would have to take it as it was, including all of the riches, tears, aches, and joys attached to it. Even the stupidest fool knew this. Living without passion was like stumbling into an early grave, and trying to avoid it was just as pointless. Only a coward would repress it out of fear or regret.

The truth was Shindara felt like weeping for joy for the mere fact that he could feel her touch on his face now. This relief was worth any amount of heartache, even if it was years away from today.

“Yes,” he whispered, impulsively kneeling before Aya, feeling slightly stupid as he did so; but when he looked up into her eyes, gentle and reassuring, he decided to continue. “I take you and accept you for all of the future pain we might cause each other… because the truth is I would die to be your anything and I don’t want to go on living as your nothing. No matter how this ends, my heart will be soulbound to yours. Even in the moments when you hate me. I would rather share in your hope, your sorrow, jealousy, and your love than in nothing at all. Even if it breaks me.”

It took him a moment to realize the beautifully twisted poetry of this moment. She was already dressed in a wedding kimono, and he was making a marriage proposal out of their flaws and all the ways they didn’t match—and how he wanted her so much more anyway.

He might have laughed at himself if Aya wasn’t caressing the side of his face. Her touch lingered by his temple, lulling him to close his eyes.

“That might be the darkest wedding proposal I’ve ever received,” she replied. “But I think I finally understand you. You are the one who I can’t imagine my life without. I just need you to know I do choose you. And I do love you. Now… take me home, Shindara.”

Her voice wrapped around him, and he wanted to drift away on her words. And he finally let go.



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