Ai shite imasu
Ai shite imasu: I love you!
One Year Later
In winter, nature was at its most beautiful in the early morning, when snow had arrived during the night, the world was covered in white, and the evergreen cryptomerias shimmered with frost. Mount Kurama soared majestically toward Heaven through thousand-fold white clouds, blending with the sky as it stood coated in its mantle of snow.
The spirits slept and the forest was quiet. Nature rested and recovered for a new year.
Winter was the season of the crane. The flocks gathered around river beaches and wept in the morning mist at the first hour of dawn. They passed over Mount Kurama in their journey to the many-harbored lake of Ōmi, famous for its fiery will-o’-the-wisps that scared the fishermen in summer.
Hiro had never considered winter one of his favorite seasons. It was cold, forlorn, and asleep. It lacked the beauty of the other times of year, the beauty made memorable by the birdsong and multitude of colors. That all changed one early morning when he emerged from the hut, looking for Ryū.
Hiro had a kudzu vine blanket wrapped around his shoulders, and he carried two cups of hot root tea. He heard the calling of the cranes and followed it, his feet clearing a path in the snow.
The cranes had been loud all night, their plaintive cry piercing through Hiro’s sleep, interrupting his nighttime fantasies. Even a year after they’d grown beyond friendship, Ryū still dominated Hiro’s dreams. Their imaginary kisses had once dissolved every morning like so much falling snow, but now when he awoke, his dreams became reality.
Hiro hadn’t been brave enough to put everything he’d learned from Kurohana into practice with Ryū, but they’d experimented endlessly. Their lips and hands never tired of tasting and touching. They craved the feel of each other’s skin against their own, the sounds the other made at his peak of pleasure.
Hiro smiled as he remembered last night. He’d fallen asleep in Ryū’s arms, spent and exhausted and happy. The perfect end to every day.
A mild flurry came from the sky as Hiro arrived at the lake. He lingered behind a cedar and relished the view, his breath forming little clouds. Fat snowflakes nipped his flesh before melting. The sun shined over the lake, its rays making the frozen surface shimmer. He drank his tea and was grateful for the warmth it provided.
On the bank where reeds grew tall in summer, black and white cranes now tread upon the snow. Among them, as if one of their own, Ryū twirled with open arms, his winter robe swirling around his bare feet and his hair flowing in loose waves down his slender back. As Hiro watched him dance with birds, kagerō drifted from the forest, ethereal and mesmerizing.
It almost hurt to witness such beauty. He was so in love that at times it felt painful. Ryū was his Iris in the Marsh. Even the cranes acknowledged his purity.
Ryū saw Hiro and stopped dancing. He beckoned to him, placing a finger over his lips in a request for silence. Hiro approached, careful not to frighten the flock, and handed Ryū one of the cups.
“Good morning,” Ryū whispered, a flirty twinkle in his eye. “Did you sleep well?”
“I did. But I woke up cranky,” Hiro said. “I was missing this.” He leaned in to kiss his lover’s cold lips. Two cranes engaged into a flapping, loud fight, and Ryū tried to turn to see them, but Hiro wouldn’t allow it. He brought Ryū’s head back toward him, wanting to be the sole attention of those brilliant brown eyes.
“You are stunning when you dance,” Hiro breathed over his lips.
Ryū flushed. “Am I?”
“Tell me more.”
Hiro hesitated and glanced away. He let out an anguished sigh, because it was always hard for him to find the right words.
“Ai shite imasu,” he said. There was no reason to be scared. Here in the woods, nothing else mattered. No status, no family expectations, no duties. “I love you as I’ve never loved anyone before, and as I will never love anyone again.”
As the cranes stopped fighting and took to the sky, Hiro dared to look back at him.
“What have I done to be blessed like this?” Ryū asked.
“Tell me. Tell me you love me too.”
“More than the gods themselves.”
They held each other in the snowfall, as at the base of the mountain, a man dressed in priestly Shinto robes began to climb in search of Fujiwara no Hirotsugu.