Kaname says, "Risai?"
He can't hear her turn to him over the rush of the wind. He doesn't look at her: he keeps his eyes fixed on the horizon, where he thinks he can feel his heart (his king) beating. His hands tighten on the suugu's fur, short and coarse and so unlike his own (he thinks; all he has is vague impressions of what he should be).
He forces his hands to unclench. "When we reach Tai, you shouldn't call me Taiki."
"Or Kouri," she says after thinking. "If Asen hears that you've returned, it would put you in grave danger."
"Yes," he agrees.
"What should I call you?"
He takes his time to consider her question. "Takasato."
"Takasato," she tastes the name on her tongue awkwardly. "That's a strange name."
"That was my name in Japan," is his reply.
"Yes, but--" she says. "Will you pose as a Kaikyaku?"
Kaname hasn't thought of doing that. He gives Risai a small smile, forgetting for a minute his anxiety and his fear for a place and a people that should've been his home. "That's a good idea," he says.
After all, at the moment he is more of a Kaikyaku than he is a kirin.
Kaname almost gags the moment he sets foot on Tai. He manages to swallow back the bile, and after some time standing still he feels he can move without retching.
His hope that Risai hasn't noticed while she sent the suugu back to En is dashed when she draws near and puts her hand on his shoulder. He struggles not to turn into her and bury his face in the crook of her neck.
"Are you all right?" she asks him.
"Can't you smell it?"
His nose is thick with the stench, heavy and blurry and sharp. It enters his mouth, falls onto his tongue. He finds it difficult to swallow.
Risai tightens her hold. "Smell what?"
Kaname finally understands, and mumbles, "It smells like blood." He disentangles himself from Risai and risks a deep space.
It's a surprise when he finds that while the smell is still vile, it doesn't bother him as much anymore.
"I'm fine," he says, and wills it to be true.
Tai's sky is gray with clouds. The ground is gray with rocks and muddy snows. The people are gray with hunger and despair and the lack of sunlight.
Kaname tries to help when he can. Mostly he finds that he can't.
In their travels, Risai catches him time after time giving his meager share of food to the people who are his. Eventually she tells him, "If you give away your food, so will I."
Kaname looks her over, up and down, and sees that she cannot give anything she has.
He starts eating, just in time for the food that Nakajima has supplied them with to run out.
Risai eats the flesh of the lesser youma she kills. Kaname has to dig in the snow to look for roots.
It takes Kaname a month to start calling Risai 'sister' in public. A sister and brother looking for refuge from the youma are not as suspicious as a Kaikyaku and an ex-general who are searching for the rightful king.
Knowing who they are and what they're doing eases the sting of having to slip past the soldiers via mouthfuls of lies.
Two months later, they're no closer in finding Gyousou. Kaname dreams of him often (every night), and in the mornings he wakes up crying.
Risai, who shares his blankets, pretends she doesn't notice.
The first time a youma tries eating him, Risai chases it off and bandages him tight to stop the bleeding, with Kaname woozy and nauseous.
The second time a youma tries eating him, Risai does the same. Kaname's way of thanking her was to vomit over her shoes, the smell and sight of blood -- both his and hers -- driving its fingers into his throat, past the gag reflex.
Risai doesn't mind being vomited on. She cleans herself as best as she can with the snow, and rubs circles with her one hand along Kaname's spine.
To do that, she has to put down her sword.
Sometime when he isn't looking, Tai becomes his home and the people become his in more than just name. He's one of them in a way he's never been either in Japan or in the time he spent in Hakkei Palace. Kaname knows them as they know him, and he no longer thinks of himself as Taiki.
Taiki is dead, the people of Tai whisper.
Sometimes after hearing them, Kaname tries shifting his form, always in the darkest hours of the night. He remembers having four legs, and a mane, and a tail. He used to have a horn, but it's not there anymore.
Kaname raises his hands to his forehead and searches for the spot where his own touch turns uncomfortable.
It's only sometimes that he feels it.
Kaname is desperate for both company and food when he suggests they take a job. On the shallowest level, Tai is still functional in the sense that people have jobs and farm their lands. Corruption might be a problem of a kingless country, but it's a problem that makes jobs, Kaname learns.
He manages to find work at a gem mine whose workers don't seem as gaunt or as gray (he doesn't ask why they still mine gems, when they are incapable of exporting them). Risai doesn't.
Having only one hand is not what people look for in a miner.
Kaname accepts the job, and follows one of his new colleagues to accept the equipment that comes with it. The room he finds is large and cramped, with tools in one side and newly cut gems in another. And at the center of it (actually, listing to the left of it), he sees Gyousou.
His heart skips more beats than he can count.
Kaname can do nothing but stare; the man he's following calls out, "Boss! I got the new guy here!"
Gyousou turns to them and smiles. He comes over and peers at Kaname, not recognizing the kirin that had made him king. For some reason it bothers him, even though some days he can't recognize himself as a kirin anymore.
"Welcome to our mines," Gyousou says to him. He looks old now, slightly bent at the shoulders, but he's friendly and doesn't look as desolate as the rest of the people Kaname has seen in Tai. "What's your name?"
"Kouri," he chokes out, and Gyousou stills where he stands. "My name is Kouri."
"Kouri...?" he breathes out. Then his smile returns to his face and he claps Kaname on the shoulder. "You've grown."
Kaname nods. He resists the urge to throw his arms around Gyousou, to put his ear against Gyousou's chest and listen to his heartbeat.
But he doesn't need to, because Gyousou does it for him, draws him close and tight, and no one will ever be able to separate them ever again.
Gyousou whispers into his ear, "Now that you're here, what do you say we take Tai back?"
And Taiki whispers back, so low that he can barely hear himself, "Yes."