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Shonen Jump presents "Fiery New Bear Ronin Squad!"

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TITLE: Shonen Jump presents "Fiery New Bear Ronin Squad!"
FANDOM: Hot Fuzz
AUTHOR: annlarimer
WORD COUNT: 6,200
RATING: PG for violence and language and violence and some violence
SUMMARY: You've seen the movie. Now read the anime.
WARNINGS: American spelling; spoilers; batshittery; Godless killing machines
NOTES: This had a working title of "Rumiko Takahashi's Hot Fuzz," which should tell you all you need to know about it.
DISCLAIMER: Obviously not mine.
ARCHIVE: Please ask first.

Shonen Jump presents "Fiery New Bear Ronin Squad!"

Many years ago, in Kyoto, there lived a young boy named Nikorasu. He was raised by his uncle, a wealthy member of the Emperor's court. Nikorasu idolized his uncle, as children do.
Nikorasu was taught to add and subtract. He was taught to read, and to write beautifully with ink and a brush. He was taught to use a sword. And he was taught to be brave and honest.
But, as Nikorasu grew up, he came to realize that his uncle was neither brave nor honest. One day, a short lifetime's overheard adult conversations, observed odd behavior, glimpses of shadowy couriers, and meetings in the dark of night all came together in his head at once, and Nikorasu realized that this uncle was both wicked and corrupt.
Nikorasu took his own education literally and to heart -- perhaps more so than was wise in that day and age. Or, really, any day and age. He decided that he would convince his uncle of to give up his evil ways. Surely the man who had raised him could be made to see reason.
He put on his sword, and confronted his uncle by the side of a lily pond. "You must go to the Emperor, confess your crimes, and beg his forgiveness. I know that you are better than this." (Nikorasu meant well, but he was still very young. To him, 'pragmatism' and 'practicality' were nothing more than difficult kanji.)
His uncle laughed. "If this evil world upsets you so, boy, then never look upon it again." And he drew his sword, and put out Nikorasu's eyes. He walked away, and left Nikorasu to die.
That didn't go at all as I'd planned, thought Nikorasu. He lay in the grass and waited for death.
But the lilies in the pond took pity on him. Nikorasu, they said, come here. We can help you.
You sound very nice, Nikorasu replied, and I appreciate your kindness, but I'm kind of dying here.
We can help you; come to us. You're too young to die, and someone must stop your wicked uncle.
Nikorasu realized that he had nothing to lose in trying. He groped toward the water, reached in, felt around a bit, found one of the lilies, and pulled her out.
Hello, Nikorasu, she said.
Hello, Lily.
Put me over your eyes, she said.
Nikorasu did.
The lily was cold and wet, and stung. And then she was delightfully cool, and soothed away the pain, and stopped the life draining out of him.
You sleep, she said. Let me work now.
He slept.

****

Nikorasu came back to himself some time later. The sun was low in the sky. He was mildly annoyed that his uncle had not even bothered to retrieve his body. On the other hand, it was better than waking up inside a coffin, or on a pyre. Or both.
How are you feeling? The lily's voice.
You're...inside my head?
Yes.
Are you...is it all right in there for you?
Bit salty, she said. Piquant.
I can see? The world had a slight green tint that it had not had before, but it was infinitely preferable to being blind and dead.
Obviously. I'm afraid you may be a bit more petal-y around the eyes than before, but it really can't be helped.
It would be churlish of me to complain, said Nikorasu. Thank you very much, Lily-sama.
Lily chuckled. Good boy. You're welcome. Now. With my help, and if your sword arm is strong, you can revenge yourself upon your wicked uncle.
Actually, Nikorasu said, That didn't work out too well the first time. He spoke aloud: "I think that a different approach would be better."

***

That night, Nikorasu returned to his uncle's house, and stole his accounts ledger. He took it to one of his neighbors, who happened to be the Emperor's bookkeeper.
Nikorasu's uncle was sent to prison, and Nikorasu ran off to join the shinsengumi.

***

Many years later, Nikorasu was a well-respected member of the shinsengumi, and had learned how to wield a sword without getting any more bits of himself stabbed.
One day, his superior called him in for a private conversation.
"Good news, Nikorasu!"
"Sir?"
"We're giving you a promotion and a squad of your own to look after."
"I see."
"Lovely town called Bridge-Over-Sand. They can't wait to see you. Best get packed as soon as you can."
"But that's...in Hokkaido." Hokkaido was far away to the north, and was reputed to have bears and wolves.
"Yes. It's lovely."
"Are there no positions here in Kyoto?"
"Oh, lots. At least half a dozen we've been actively recruiting for over the last six months, with no success at all."
"I don't understand. Why send me away from the city, then?"
"The problem, Nikorasu, is that you're very good at your job. You've arrested more -- and more dangerous -- criminals than, well, anyone in the Shinsengumi, ever. The peasants and merchants like you. Even the old Emperor spoke well of you, before he was mysteriously poisoned last week."
"I'm beginning to see now."
"Your allies are out of favor at the moment, and the upper echelon of the shinsengumi -- myself excepted, of course -- find your style of policing unacceptable in the current political climate."
"My style of policing?"
"Yes. Yes. It says here..." Nikorasu's supervisor fished around on his desk, until he found the scroll he wanted. He unrolled it and read: "Too brainy. Needs to be more swordy."
Nikorasu blinked. "I'm sorry?"
"Oh, heavens, yes. I can see the point. If the common people start to believe that they can expect a fair hearing from the authorities, instead of, say, an instant disemboweling, well, Amaterasu only knows what could happen then."
"But--"
"No, no, much better this way."
"I could simply tender my resignation."
"Oh, certainly, certainly. But really, you should probably leave Kyoto in any case."
"Why?" Nikorasu asked.
"We're putting word round that you are the greatest swordsman in all Japan."
"What? Me?" He was competent with a blade, but his skill was certainly nothing to write Zatôichi, the blind swordsman, about. And if you did, Zatôichi wouldn't be able to read it.
"That means that all the other swordsmen in Japan will want to see evidence of this. Doubtless in the form of personal demonstration. And in hopes of becoming the greatest in turn by defeating you."
"You utter fuckers," said Nikorasu.

***

Nikorasu had a sweetheart, once. She was a performer in the theater, a tsure, and wore a mask. All the time. The mask had, as you can imagine, been part of the problem with their relationship. Before he began his journey, he went to say goodbye to her. It seemed only polite.
"Nikorasu," said the maiden with the mask, "I have heard tales of you lately. That you are the finest swordsman in all Japan, and have embraced violence. This is very unlike you, and I am sorry to hear that you've changed so."
"I'm not. Honestly. It's just a story." Another part of the problem with their relationship had been that they were both very, very bad at listening to one another.
"At least you are still modest," said the maiden with the mask. "But, Nikorasu, hear me. I say this to you: you will never find peace until you love something more than your sword."
Nikorasu wanted to point out that there were many things he loved more than his sword. Puppies. Tatami. Tea. Interesting rocks. But it would have been pointless. "Wait. Hang on. Are you cursing me?"
"I have not cursed you; I have spoken the truth. I am not a witch, but sometimes I am a prophetess."
I'm starting to remember why we broke up, Nikorasu thought.
Be sure to tell her you want your albums back, said Lily.

***

The journey to Bridge-Over-Sand was long, and Nikorasu's new reputation traveled more quickly than he did. Many wished to try their luck against the greatest swordsman in all Japan. Fortunately for Nikorasu, none of them were skilled enough to challenge even an ordinary member of the shinsengumi. All died or fled.

***

Bridge-Over-Sand was a small town, or a large village, and rather pretty.
The market bustled, the children went to school (the locals were a surprisingly literate bunch, but Nikorasu supposed they had to do something over the long winters), the carters carted, the thatcher thatched, and the fletcher fletched (after first plucking feathers -- he was also the poulterer). Nikorasu took a room at the inn, which had a properly terrifying landlady, and was quickly introduced to the market vendors, the solitary cabman, the brewer, the baker, the schoolmistress, the apothecary and, at the end of his first evening, the barman.
The barman looked very much like the innkeeper.
"I can't help noticing," said Nikorasu, "that you look very much like the innkeeper."
The barman said, "Our families have lived in Bridge-Over-Sand for many generations. We are all related in one way or another. Naturally there will be some resemblance."
This was certainly true. As Nikorasu walked through the town, he noticed that many of the people had similar features: The merchants, the carters, the weavers, the tanners -- they were as alike as two eggs. Except for the ones who were bears, of course.
Nikorasu couldn't help but notice that most of the people -- citizens -- of Bridge-Over-Sand were bears, and large ones. They were civil, and courteous, but nonetheless, bears. Farmer bears. Herding bears. Bears waiting tables.
All of the shinsengumi, he learned when he introduced himself the next morning, were bears. Large ones, brown or black. Two of them were cranky and whiskery. One was nearsighted. One was older than the others. And one was a she-bear that -- who -- was, in her own way, perhaps the scariest. Maybe it was just her laugh.
The last bear was marked in giant bands of black and white, with black-ringed eyes and black dumpling ears. He didn't look the least bit fierce -- Lily compared him to a giant, fluffy bee and claimed he was just adorable. But Nikorasu noticed his steak-knife claws, and withheld judgment.
The black-and-white bear was called O-Dan.

***

First, Nikorasu decided to find out what the members of the Bridge-Over-Sand shinsengumi could do. He drilled them in swordplay (they weren't bad), shooting with a bow (no one actually shot anyone else, which was about as much as he could hope for, and they paid for the dead chicken), spears and bo staff (they were good with these, if they didn't get excited, throw their staves away, and start clawing each other). He tried them on throwing stars and slingshots, but it was quickly decided that it was best never to mention either again.
On the other hand, they all showed amazing endurance, were unbeatable in hand-to-hand combat, could climb anything, and had no qualms about sleeping rough. Indeed, they had no qualms about anything -- bears fear very little.
They weren't as sharp as the Kyoto Shinsengumi, but Nikorasu thought he could do something with them, as long as they didn't make good on their constant threats to eat him.

***

One evening, when Nikorasu entered the tavern, O-Dan was already at a table, and waved him over. Whatever else one might think of Bridge-Over-Sand, they knew how to make a decent cup of tea. Or, in O-Dan's case, sake.
O-Dan showed Nikorasu a magic trick, appearing to hack off his own paw with a borrowed cleaver. Nikorasu, when he was done screaming and certain he wouldn't be sick, made a lily blossom out of his nose.
"That," O-Dan said, applauding, "is really fucking revolting!" He insisted that Nikorasu try the sake.
It wasn't bad at all. It wasn't tea, but then what is? After a cup or two, Nikorasu started to feel better about the world in general. "Forgive my asking, but I've never seen a bear that looked like you." He really hadn't seen that many bears at all, before his arrival, but still, one gets notions of what a species looks like.
"I'm what you call a panda. I'm not from around here."
"Oh. But you are a bear?"
O-Dan grinned -- at least Nikorasu was fairly certain it was a grin. "They keep changing it. Sometimes we're bears, then some taxonomist somewhere gets to fiddling, and says we're raccoons."
"You look bearish to me," Nikorasu said politely.
"Ta. I feel bearish, but then I don't really understand science."
"Your name is 'last column on the right side of the alphabet table?'"
"At least mine's a real word, Captain Romaji."
"Sh! If you don't mind my asking...how do bears get into the shinsengumi? We didn't have many in Kyoto." Or, really, any.
"How does anybody? Take the exams, try not to get killed."
"Fair enough."
"How do you get to be the greatest swordsman in all Japan?"
"Same thing. Except there aren't any exams."
"Fair enough."
The sake and high spirits made Nikorasu feel a bit guilty. He didn't like lying to anyone, even to keep from being killed, and trying to fool O-Dan seemed wrong, somehow. "Listen, keep it under your obi, but...I'm not actually the greatest swordsman in all Japan."
"I know. I saw you at practice." He took another swig. "But don't tell the rest of the squad. They're tetchy. They might eat you."
So, at least one of his squad didn't consider him a potential entree. Five to go.

***

The year rolled on.
Nikorasu drew up rotas and maps, and sent the shinsengumi out on regular patrols. Bridge-Over-Sand and its environs took up a hundred square miles, mostly farmland. It was ten times the size of Kyoto. There were seven shinsengumi. Somehow they managed to keep an eye on the place.
Of course, it helped that no one in Bridge-Over-Sand seemed to commit any crimes.
The locals weren't paragons of virtue. There was the normal amount of drunkenness, a prostitute or so, gambling, the odd missing sheep or chicken. But they didn't murder one another, or brawl (except for fun). None of the husbands or wives chased each other screaming into the street, even on holidays.
Nikorasu felt, deep in his bones, that there was something terribly wrong with all of this.

***

One summer night, under a lovely fat full moon, O-Dan appeared at Nikorasu's door, with two fishing poles and several bottles of sake.
"C'mon. We're going fishing and drinking."
"It's night. I don't have cat eyes like you do. I can't see to fish."
O-Dan pondered this. "I guess you'll just have to drink, then."

***

They found an inviting spot by a stream. O-Dan cast a line into the water (truth be told, it was much easier for him to simply stand in the middle of the stream and swipe fish out onto the bank with one paw -- but that meant getting wet, and not having a paw free for sake), and they settled down to watch the moon and get mildly hammered.
"D'you see the rabbit?" asked Nikorasu.
O-Dan looked around. "Where?"
"In the moon. There's supposed to be a rabbit, but I've never been able to see it. My vision's a bit wonky."
Bite me, said Lily.
"I was wondering about that, with them little bitty leaves you got. Anyway, I don't see a rabbit, and I can see the moon just fine. Sometimes I can sort of see a face, when it turns to the side and it's got a little snout."
"Nose?"
"If you like. Could be a nose, I s'pose. Heeyeah, that rhymed!"
"You're a poet."
"Don't I know it!"
They cackled. Fiendishly.
O-Dan yanked a fish out of the water with a deft twist of his pole. Nikorasu caught it awkwardly, and handed it over. "O-Dan, have you ever noticed that there aren't there any children in Bridge-Over-Sand?"
"What do you mean? The school's got cubs. Lots." He added the fish to the string he had already caught.
"No, I mean rea--human children."
"Ohhh. I suppose not, now you mention it. I can't always tell the humans and bears apart, unless I look for the thumbs. Bears mostly ain't got 'em."
"How do you hold your sword without thumbs?"
"Well, I don't know how the others do it, but I got thumbs. Look!" He held out a paw, and it was true. Attached was an entirely serviceable, albeit stubby, thumb. He waggled it to demonstrate.
"Wait," said Nikorasu. "Wait wait. You have..." he tried very hard to count, not easy with the sake and the darkness. "You have more fingers."
"Yeah?"
"Yeah. Look." He held a hand up to O-Dan's paw to compare. "You have exactly...more."
"I win!" O-Dan gave Nikorasu a high-six.
"Well done!"
After a moment, O-Dan was staring hard out into the night.
"What is it?"
"Dunno. Do you see that?"
Nikorasu stared hard in the same direction. There was a faint glow visible. "Somebody's got a fire going in the field, that's all. It's not moving or growing." But, being Nikorasu, a few moments later, he stood up and said, "Hell. We should go have a look, just in case."
"Aight." O-Dan propped his pole against a tree, and hung his string of fish up where wandering scavengers couldn't find it.
They followed the light as stealthily as they could, considering how liquored up they were. Fortunately, it soon became apparent that the people they found there would not have heard them over the sound of their own voices.
It was a group of several dozen people, dancing round a large fire, singing and chanting.
Nikorasu and O-Dan hid behind a clutch of panda-sized bushes, and watched.
"What on Earth?"
"There must be a hundred of 'em. Is that the fishmonger?"
"And the innkeeper. And the apothecary, and there's my landlady... What are they doing?"
"Why don't they have legs?"
"What do you mean? Of course they oh my God." They didn't have legs. Their bodies, from the waist down, were rippling, snake-like...snakes, apparently. "And they're sort of...greenish. Are we that drunk?"
"I don't think it's physically possible for us to be that drunk."
"I'm going up." Nikorasu pulled himself up the nearest tree.
A moment later he dropped down again. "Right. Well. Big monster. Very big. Each person out there? Basically one sort of really long neck thing with a head on the end."
"That's not normal for humans, then?"
"Not really, no. Unless...no."
"All righty." O-Dan nodded.
"It's also not illegal."
"Shame. What about all the curses and black magic and stuff they're doing?"
Nikorasu blinked. "The what now?"
"Well, I'm no expert, but that singing? One of your basic lunar-slash-demimetonic cycle dark transformation curse forms, possibly heptatonic but don't quote me. And the dancing is a group domination round with a little economic exploitation spin tossed in."
Nikorasu stared at him.
"What? I know stuff."
Nikorasu decided this wasn't the time to inquire about modern Sino-ursine education. "Black magic, you say?"
"Yep. Nasty and powerful and over-choreographed."
"Now that," said Nikorasu, "is absolutely illegal. The black magic, not the--"
"I got it. Groovy." O-Dan got to several of his feet. "Let's go and arrest them."
"No," Nikorasu said, and yanked O-Dan back behind the bushes.
"No?"
"Backup," said Nikorasu.
"Yeah, all right," said O-Dan. Besides, they were nearly out of sake.

***

They retrieved O-Dan's catch and walked back to the village. "How can they not have legs?" Nikorasu wondered. "How can they -- I've seen them with legs, in the village, walking on them and everything!"
"With shoes and all. Maybe it's part of the magic. No good being not a human from the waist down if you're trying to fool people into thinking you're people."
"Yes, but why? What are they and or it doing?"
"Dunno. I don't know why humans do stuff."
"No! Wait! You just said!"
"What?"
"Group domination with an economic exploitation spin!"
"Ohhh. You mean the dancing and that."
"These are all the people in the village who buy and sell things. All the humans. Even the prostitu--oh, God." Nikorasu looked stricken.
O-Dan thought very hard. "So, this bunch of snakes thingie--"
"Hydra. Or something like a hydra. Is there a word for a dragon with lots of heads? Or some kind of land octopus... Megapus? Multicephalo--"
"This thingie controls all the economic -- and by extension, political -- power in the area by controlling the means of production, and, in essence, the allocation of resources beyond a basic agricultural subsistence level. What?"
Nikorasu was staring at him again.
"It's got all the money," O-Dan explained.
Nikorasu just stared.
"What?"

***

"There is a hundred-headed beast, and it has cursed this village!"
"Get out!"
"It has put you all to sleep. Men I mean bears should not be slaves to beasts--monsters.
It was the next morning. Nikorasu and the members of the Shinsengumi had been arguing for at least an hour. The bears were, to say the least, unconvinced. Perhaps it was the natural stubbornness of bears, who don't like wasting time unless it's their idea. Perhaps it was part of the hundred-headed beast's curse.
"You're loony," said the cranky bear.
"You're mental," said the other cranky bear.
"I think we should eat him," said the nearsighted bear. He wasn't normally bloodthirsty, but it was getting on toward lunchtime, and he was feeling cross.
"I wish someone would eat me," said the she-bear.
"Head," said the oldest bear.
"No!" Said O-Dan. The others turned to stare at him. O-Dan never argued, or raised his voice. "Don't be stupid. Look at him -- he's all stringy. Also, he's telling the truth."
"You're loony," said the cranky bears, together.
"I am not loony. I'm very un-loony!"
"What does panda taste like?" asked the nearsighted bear.
"Well..." began the she-bear.
"Shush!" O-Dan cut her off.
"Wait!" said Nikorasu. "Before anybody eats anybody in any sense of the word. Let's wait until the next full moon. We'll plan. And we'll show you."
"Oh, for God's sake..." The cranky bear was starting up again.
"Look! If I'm wrong...eat me."
"Hey now!" said the bears.
Whoah, said Lily.
"No, I mean you can actually eat me."
They considered this. "Yeah, all right," said the bears.
It was a very long month.

***

On the night of the next full moon, the shinsengumi were concealed behind the panda-sized bushes, watching the villagers dance around the fire.
"I have to admit, that is a hundred-headed beast," said the cranky bear.
"And it's definitely doing curse-magic," said the other cranky bear.
"Ar," the others agreed.
"Can we kill it now please?" Nikorasu asked.
"Yeah, all right," said the bears.
And so, Nikorasu stepped out into the firelight, took a very deep breath, and said: "BY ORDER OF THE BRIDGE-OVER-SAND SHINSENGUMI, AND IN THE NAME OF THE EMPEROR, YOU ARE UNDER ARREST!"
The villagers stopped dancing and chanting, and turned as one to stare at him. Then -- and it happened quickly enough that one might be excused for thinking it was a trick of the firelight -- they seemed to melt, and change, and grew taller and thinner and much, much fangy-er. The illusion of human beings was gone, and the shinsengumi could see the monster for what it was: a pinwheel of giant serpents.
"Please retract any organic toxin delivery devices, and accompany us to the station," Nikorasu said.
In answer, one of the serpent heads darted toward him, hissing and baring its dagger teeth.
Nikorasu sliced the head off with his sword. "All right. If you won't come quietly..."
"Oh, it's on!" O-Dan shouted gleefully, and the shinsengumi attacked, roaring.
Nikorasu wasn't the greatest swordsman in Japan. But in those few minutes, he was, by any accounting, the most productive. He cut through the monster's tentacles as though they were blades of grass.
The bears were not quite so quick, but they fought with swords and claws and jaws.
O-Dan was downright chatty. "It's not that there's anything wrong with making a pile of cash," he told one of the heads as he sliced it off. "But honestly, exploiting the proletariat?" he told another, before it, too, fell to his sword. "And with magic? That's just not on!" Another head flew off.
"Will you just fucking shut the fuck up and fucking kill it?" shouted one of the cranky bears.
"Well, it ticks me off!" O-Dan replied. There went another head. "This is the sort of macro-economic shill game that--" another head went "--creates unendurable pressure on the peasant class and leads to armed insurrection!" Stab through a throat, then another beheading. "It gets on my wick!"
"Shut your sake hole! And it's 'shell game,' you oik!" said the other cranky bear, before plunging his teeth into a serpentine neck.
"Wait. Go back. What's a proletariat?" The nearsighted bear clawed at a place where several tentacles joined.
"I could do with a bit of exploiting. Heh." The she-bear stabbed the heads at the other end with her short sword.
"Goal!" the oldest bear cried, punting a head straight into the fire.
The monster fought back, of course, and none of the Shinsengumi escaped without bites or bruises. But the creature was confused and overwhelmed, the different heads doing as much damage to one another as to Nikorasu and the bears.
Anyone who's ever slain a monster will tell you that killing the thing doesn't take long at all. A few seconds, or a few minutes, and either you're dead or it is. The real work comes in finding the thing, and cleaning up after.
In a few minutes, the hundred-headed beast was gone.
Well, nearly.
In the excitement of the battle, and the darkness, the shinsengumi had missed one of the heads. It hid, concealed amongst the remains of its fellows. And it was very angry.

***

The shinsengumi worked through the night, gathering firewood and feeding the heads and chunks of severed tentacle onto the villagers' fire. Occasionally they would be startled by a loud cracking pop, as a brain heated faster than the skull containing it, and a head exploded. But it was a big monster, with a lot of parts, and they had only started to make a dent in it as the sun rose.
Nikorasu was the unlucky one. Or the hydra had been waiting for a chance at the person in charge.
One moment he was exchanging cheerful insults with the cranky bear and the other cranky bear -- "You lot are always going on about eating stuff. Why don't you tuck in?" -- the next, he was facing a hissing, spitting serpent that seemed to rise up from nowhere.
Crap, said Lily. He'd never heard her sound afraid before.
We are going to die, Nikorasu said. He'd been foolish enough to take off his sword -- something the real greatest swordsman in all Japan probably never, ever did, in case someone challenged him to a duel while he was having a bath, or a nice cup of tea. The closest thing Nikorasu had to a weapon was the armful of dry branches he'd just dropped on the fire.
You are, said Lily. I'm just an ordinary harmless water-dwelling plant that will need a new home in about fifteen seconds.
Good-bye, Lily-Sama. Thank you.
Good-bye, Nikorasu. It's been a gas.
But from behind him came a roar that, though he'd heard it quite a lot that night, still amazed with its ferocity. To look at him, O-Dan didn't seem capable of making such a noise, or moving at such speed. Nevertheless, he leaped clean over Nikarasu's head and onto the very startled remainder of monster.
People kept telling him he was the greatest swordsman in all Japan, but Nikorasu was nothing like quick enough to follow what happened next, or to guess how it might end. O-Dan was angry, but surely he was also tired. The last of the hundred heads was exhausted and in pain -- but it wanted revenge, and knew it was dying.
Ten beats of Nikorasu's heart, and both were down. The light in the creature's eyes was dimming, as well it should -- O-Dan had crushed its neck in his jaws.
O-Dan hit the ground hard and lay still. His claws were soaked red, and his muzzle -- but so were his breast and belly, and very soon, the grass where he lay.
The rest of the shinsengumi came running, but only in time for one of them to split open the hydra's skull. The beast was dead at last.
But O-Dan was dying.
"No, no..." Nikorasu dropped to his knees, stroked the great head. O-Dan's dark eyes met his for just a moment. Nikorasu felt his friend's last puff of breath on his face. "Oh, don't."
Then Lily's voice was in his head. Nikorasu, she said.
Beloved, this is not a good time. He reached out and, with infinite gentleness, closed O-Dan's eyes.
Nikorasu, shut up! Stop blubbing and listen to me, or I'll fucking strangle you from the inside. I can help him.
Then do it, for God's sake!
Nikorasu, if I do, I will have to leave you. I can no longer be your eyes. And even if I cannot save him, I will not be able to return to you. Do you understand?
Lily-sama, I beg you, please help him.
I figured you'd say that, Lily said, but the rule is I have to ask.
Just--
She left him, and he fell alone into darkness.

***

Time passed, probably.
Someone was shaking him awake.
Nikorasu didn't know where he was or what was happening, but he knew that he really didn't want to be awake, and hoped that whoever was shaking him would attacked by wild dogs, and quickly.
"C'mon, c'mon. Wake up, now. You're missing all the good stuff."
"What. No. Don't wanna." Where are the dogs?
"C'maaaaaaaaahn you."
There are few things stranger than the sensation of being lifted up by panda arms when you're half asleep. "Erglnurdan?"
"Yup."
O-Dan looked happy. Whenever this was, it was much too early for anyone to be happy, and Nikorasu kind of wanted to hit him with a rock. "Stop shaking me. You're alive?"
"Yup."
"Lily did it."
"Yup."
I need a rock! Why aren't there any rocks! Wait. No. This is actually good. The next instant he threw his arms around O-Dan, or at least as far around as he could reach. Bear hug. Heh. "Oh, God, thank you, thank you, Lily."
"She says Bite me."
Nikorasu wanted to laugh, but worried he might not ever stop. "She does say that. Have fun with her in your head."
O-Dan set Nikorasu on his feet. They were in the shinsengumi's headquarters. "She says -- I ain't telling him that!"
"Wait. Wait. Wait. Wait." Wait. They were in the shinsengumi's headquarters, which he could see clear as day. Wait. What? "O-Dan, I can see you."
O-Dan nodded. "Yeah."
"But I don't...I have no eyes." He realized that this was demonstrably untrue even as he said it.
"Nah. You didn't have any eyes. You got one now. Take better care of it than you did the first two."
"But--but--" For the first time, he noticed the odd tilt to O-Dan's head. He took O-Dan's snout in one hand, and turned the bear's head to one side. One of the black rings was now a plain black circle. "Oh, no. Oh, why did you do that?" All the sadness in the world was in Nikorasu's voice.
O-Dan shrugged. "This way we each get one. It seemed fair. 'Sides, can't have the greatest swordsman in Japan going around with no eyes. It's embarrassing."
"I'm not the gr--I don't care about that!"
"I know. I know. Mostly, I wanted you to see what we did."
"What did you do?"
"We. You and me and everybody, but a lot of it's you, so you gotta see it, or it's just not right. C'mon out and see..." He led Nikorasu outside on a steadying paw. "And say thank-you."
"Thank you. You had a bath." Nikorasu had apparently gained a talent for noticing the blatantly obvious, and the banal.
"Well, nobody likes a blood-caked panda. And it itched, and there were bits of --"
"How long have I been out?" Nikorasu asked quickly. He didn't want to know about the bits. And found he rather needed a bath himself. And it was a lovely day outside. Huh.
"Day and a night and a day. That's the last of yer hydrant smoking over there." There was a thin column of smoke visible past the treeline.
"Hydra."
"Yeah."
Nikorasu hadn't seen a really good monster fire in years, not since the Kyoto shinsengumi's battle with the Kappa Tribe That Fell Over A Lot. But he was just as glad to have missed most of this one. Burning a hundred heads takes time, and doesn't smell pleasant. And there were no bears to eat them.
Because with the death of the last head, the monster's curse had finally been broken. The people of Bridge-Over-Sand -- the original people, who had lived there before the hydra had turned up -- were no longer bears. They were human beings now, just as they had been born, and been cursed to forget. (Except the youngest, who were all very surprised. And much less waddly.)
"Oh. Well, will you look at them!"
"Worth looking at, innit?"
Nikorasu grinned and nodded. O-Dan clapped him on the back, happily.
"Oh. Sorry." O-Dan picked him up off the ground. Bears back-clap hard.

***

Bridge-Over-Sand celebrated its liberation with a great feast. As you do in these kinds of stories.
The strange thing -- or, perhaps, not strange at all -- was that Nikorasu found that he knew every person on sight, and could greet them by name. All his squad were there, of course -- the cranky, bristly bears ("Morning, Wankerasu-san!"), the nearsighted bear ("Is there anyone who can explain this to me just one more time? I've nearly got it."), the she-bear ("Wa-hey! Open up the furry wrapper and there's a surprise inside."), and the oldest bear ("Knockers."). They whaled on each other gleefully with wooden practice swords, and the town agreed that their technique was much improved with the addition of thumbs.
I'll have to try them on throwing stars again, Nikorasu thought.
Nikorasu now had an enormous dark eye on one side, and someone had found him a rakish patch to wear over the other. He looked like a pirate owl who'd been hit in the face a lot. And what a terrible shame, everyone said, that his lost depth perception would affect his facility with a blade. He could no longer be the greatest swordsman in all Japan. He accepted their sympathies quietly, and tried not to dance. That honor was now the problem of some samurai in Gamagori or Musashimurayama, and he was welcome to it.
Once the party was over, he knew, Bridge-Over-Sand would be in what his superiors in Kyoto euphemistically referred to as "a transitional period." The people displaced from their homes and jobs by the hydra would return to them -- and there would inevitably be difficult adjustments and arguments and feuds, and possibly the horror of legal proceedings. And who knew what effect going from human to bear and back to human again would have on the people themselves. Maybe some of them would start committing crimes again. One could only hope.
In any case, the shinsengumi would likely be busy for the foreseeable future.
One of the cranky (former) bears threw a dango at Nikorasu's head.

***

Everyone had gone home to bed, or to someone else's bed, or just passed out. Nikorasu and O-Dan sat in the grass, one trying out his new eye on starlight, the other just happy to sit.
"At least you didn't change," said Nikorasu.
"Well, I did come back from the dead. And I'm part plant apparently," said O-Dan. There was a lily curled quietly inside one of his ears.
Nikorasu ignored this. "I don't think I could take anything else weird today."
"You do know I'm a talking panda, right?"
"You were a talking panda before."
"Well, yes."
"And now you're -- forgive my mentioning it -- a one-eyed talking panda."
"Yeppers."
"So this isn't particularly weird."
"But...oh all right, then."
They lived happily ever after and bickered a lot.


Read
The further adventures of
Fiery New Bear Ronin Squad!

-in-

Bad Bears
Bad Bears 2
Manga on Fire
Bear Hard
Bear Harder
Bear Hard with a Vengeance
Live Fiery or Bear Hard
The Last Bear Scout
Swordpoint Break
Bridge-Over-Sand Confidential
How O-Dan Fell into the Magic Potion When he was a Cub
Fiery New Bear Ronin Squad! and the Goblet of Fiery
Fiery New Bear Ronin Squad! Defy the Emperor
Once Upon a Time in Hokkaido
The Bridge Over the River Sand