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Someday Our Flame Will Reach the Heavens

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Mutsunokami Yoshiyuki was the first to step out of the forge, and was excited at the prospect of being alive again - properly this time, to see the world that his former master would have wanted to see.

He was every bit as cheery as Sakamoto Ryouma, and livened up the whole Citadel with his antics and barking laugh. He was content to serve under a new master, the Saniwa who chose him and gave him form, and there was never a boring day that passed, for every day new swords joined them - Yagen Toushirou, who was the second to arrive and also emerged from the forge; Gokotai, whom they found on sortie and brought back to the Citadel along with his five tiger cubs; Tonbokiri, who came to them from the government for whom the Saniwa worked for; even Horikawa Kunihiro, who arrived at around the same time as his brother Yamanbagiri and would not stop asking about a “Kane-san".

 

Idly Mutsunokami wondered who this was. For Horikawa to go on and on about him, he must be a pretty interesting guy. Before long, Mutsunokami found himself wanting to meet this "Kane-san" as well.

So he did the only thing he could think of to satisfy his curiosity. He asked.

 

"Master, who's that Kane-san guy that Horikawa keeps harping on about?"

To his surprise, the Saniwa smiled, almost shyly, looking embarrassed. "Ah. He's an uchigatana who also served the same master as Horikawa did - Hijikata Toushizou of the Shinsengumi. His name is Izuminokami Kanesada."

Mutsunokami wrinkled his nose. "That's a hell of a mouthful."

The Saniwa rapped him sharply on the head with her pen. "Hey, coming from the man whose name is only one syllable shorter.”

 

He grinned bashfully, and the Saniwa went on: "In fact, I've actually been waiting for him to arrive for quite some time. Horikawa isn't the only one who's looking forward to his arrival."

Mutsunokami opened his mouth to reply, then closed it. He didn't quite know what to think of that.

 


 

 

On the night after a particularly tough sortie, Mutsunokami was sitting in his room writing up a report for the Saniwa when there was a shuffling noise outside and a soft voice sounded: "Mutsunokami-san?"

"That you, Horikawa?" Mutsunokami called, not taking his eyes away from his writing. "Come on in.”

 

The shoji door slid open and Horikawa entered the room, bringing with him a tray of tea and cups. He knelt by the desk as Mutsunokami finished the word he was writing and put down the pen, picking up the paper to examine it above the light of the candle by the desk.

"Is that the report for today's sortie?" Horikawa inquired. "Toba, where the Edo period ended, was it?"

Mutsunokami grunted, both as an acknowledgment and as thanks while the shorter sword began to pour out the tea. "Mm. At least we brought that one sword back...what was his name again? The wakizashi?"

"Nikkari Aoe."

"Ah, right."

They both fell silent for a moment, thinking back to the afternoon's activities when the Saniwa had been so spooked by Nikkari's eccentricity that she brandished an umbrella at him when he cheerfully explained the meaning behind his name and offered to kill any spirits inhabiting the Citadel.

 

"He, ah, means well, I suppose," Horikawa remarked, chuckling.

 

Mutsunokami coughed, but his smile was pleasant. "I'm not too worried. He'll fit right in, probably telling ghost stories to the tantous this very moment." His gaze fell to the plate that Horikawa had just put down in front of him and his expression brightened. "Ohh, more daifuku? I thought there weren't any left after dinner, I swear I saw Tonbokiri inhale them all!"

"These are different. The Saniwa made them for everybody.”

 

"She did, eh?" Mutsunokami picked one up, noting how it felt colder in his fingers, and when he popped it into his mouth he nearly passed out. "Shit, it's cold!”

 

Horikawa burst into laughter. "It's ice cream daifuku. Like normal daifuku, but instead of red bean paste, it's a kind of frozen food that's made with milk and cream. Master is really fond of it, and wanted for share them with us, since most of us never had anything like this.”

 

"Man, the future is full of new things, isn't it?" Mutsunokami split the second daifuku between his fingers, surveying the substance inside that melted as he spoke. "A box that can keep food as cold as ice, a camera that gives ya yer pictures right away, and great metal birds that can carry people to other countries faster than any ship!"

"You're more surprised about refrigerators and planes than a machine that can send us back to the past?" Horikawa teased.

Mutsunokami shrugged, a bashful smile on his face. "That's the world Ryouma wanted to see. I guess I was born with the same thought. Seeing all these new things, experiencing them for myself that Ryouma would have wanted...I couldn't ask for anything more. Plus, I get to meet all of ya! All of that is thanks to our Master, right?"

"Even us Shinsengumi swords?" Horikawa asked with a wry expression.

Mutsunokami stuck his tongue out at him. "Hey, quarrelling with ya old-fashioned guys is a pasttime, too. Speaking of that," he added casually, remembering his conversation with the Saniwa earlier. "Aren't we missing a few swords from the Shinsengumi? Er - I was talking to the Master and she mentioned trying to forge someone.”

 

"Ah, Kane-san?" Horikawa brightened, his cyan eyes shining. "Was Master asking about him? Oh, actually, she could have been referring to Nagasone-san as well... since only Yamatonokami-san and Kashuu-san have joined us..."

"I'm pretty sure she was talking about, er, Izuminokami.”

 

"He's my partner." Horikawa's expression had softened, his speech quickening the way it did whenever he talked about "Kane-san". "I'm sort of like his assistant. We had the same former master, after all.”

 

Mutsunokami leaned forward, his report forgotten. "What's he like?”

 

"Well, he's strong." Horikawa sat back proudly. "Our master used him constantly for quite a while. Though...I haven't seen him since we separated at Hakodate, when my former master sent Kane-san away to his hometown, and only brought me to the battle." Horikawa looked away, suddenly distant. "That was where Hijikata-san died. I remembered feeling the pain that he felt...when he got hit by that bullet. I wonder if Kane-san felt it too, even though he must have been far away by the time it happened.”

 

Mutsunokami fell silent. He felt as though he was intruding on some sensitive memory, something that he didn't really have the right to know about. But he let Horikawa keep talking.

 

"Later on, there was some kind of...disarmament policy, or something like that. I remembered being taken away and...dumped into the ocean." Horikawa gave Mutsunokami a humorless smile. "It wasn't cold, just strange. But I remember feeling afraid...I was so scared. I didn't want to be alone down there. And I didn't want to leave Kane-san alone, either.”

 

"The ocean..." Mutsunokami echoed, and his gaze slid over to the open window, where the ocean was visible beyond the trees, its waves calm beneath the silver moon. “Then..."

"Afraid of the ocean, yeah." Horikawa's smile looked forced. "I don't want those unpleasant memories to come back, you know?”

 

Mutsunokami knew how it felt to be alone. He was the first sword, after all, and even though Yagen Toushirou, the second sword and the Citadel's first tantou, came along quite quickly, there was a period of time where Mutsunokami waited, alone. The Master would be busy and he'd roam the empty hallways of the Citadel, trying to amuse himself at the koi pond, counting the types of flowers on the grass hills behind them, standing at the beach with the waves lapping his bare feet until the sun went down. His only companion had been the deafening silence.

 

"We all have our unpleasant memories," Mutsunokami found himself saying, and his hand moved subconsciously to the side of his abdomen, above his hip, feeling the scar on his skin that he had been born with in this human body, a reminder of when Ryouma died, a bloody hand reaching for a sword in a broken scabbard. "But, well...being human now means we can share both our happiness and our sorrow, right? And our pain, whether it's an injury or it's in our hearts, we don't have to bear it alone.”

 

There was a pause and Mutsunokami was suddenly aware that Horikawa was staring at him, a little open-mouthed. "What?" he asked, defensively.

"Nothing, it's just...I didn't think you were the poetic type, Mutsunokami-san.”

 

"Wha...what part of that was poetic, huh?" Flustered all of a sudden, Mutsunokami grabbed the rapidly cooling cup of tea on the table, intending to down it in one go to diffuse the tension, only to knock it over in his haste, making it spill across the table and on top of his completed report. "Wait, shit!"

"Mutsunokami-san!" Horikawa yelped, sounding exasperated. "Jeez, you're just like Kane-san.”

 

"How would ya know if I'm like him or not? He's not even here yet, and all ya told me was that he's strong." Mutsunokami gazed sadly at the ruined paper, the ink words spreading in pools. "I'll have to redo that, ugh."

"I'll get some towels to clean it up for you." Horikawa stood up, and gave Mutsunokami a stern look. "In the meantime, you can finish your daifuku before it all melts, otherwise I'll never hear the end of it from Master. And don't even think about slacking and doing the report tomorrow instead.”

 

Horikawa left the room in a hurry, and Mutsunokami sat glumly at his desk, watching the spilt tea spread slowly across the desktop, the image of the moon reflected on the liquid's surface.

"I'm like him, huh...guess I'll find out when I meet him. If I ever meet him.”

 

Chapter Text

He was vaguely aware of a lot of things at once. The feeling of fire on his skin, the sound of hissing steel in his ear, the smell of charcoal and ash in the air. He felt his hair, long and cascading, down his back, then the weight of the clothing on his body, armour and haori and all, and finally, the reassuring press of his sword at his side by his hip.

Then all of a sudden gravity struck him, and he felt his legs buckle, falling forward on one knee as his hands hit the ground beneath him. He felt his breath come out in a sharp exhale, feeling the familiar texture of tatami under his skin, just like how it was back then—

 

He heard a voice, shrill with excitement: “Kane-san!”

Then another, soft yet firm: “Calm down, Horikawa-kun. He’s not quite used to his human body yet - the manifestation process for retrieved swords is different from forged swords, after all. It’ll take him time.” There was a rustle, then the second voice was closer, and he got the impression that he was being examined. “Can you answer me?”

 

Was he being spoken to? He opened his mouth, found his voice. “Y-yeah.”

 

“What is your name?”

They knew, but this was a test, wasn’t it? And at their words, he felt information slowly surfacing in his head. “Izuminokami Kanesada.”

 

“Who was your master?”

Memories, flooding up like flowers in a pool. “Hijikata Toushizou, the Vice Commander of the Shinsengumi.” And he paused. “And he is still my current master,” he added, a little matter-of-factly. Didn’t this person know anything?

 

He heard a sharp intake of breath from the person next to the speaker, and suddenly got a strange, foreboding feeling, like he’d trespassed into someplace forbidden without realising it.

“What is it?” he demanded.

 

A pause, a sigh. Then— “Open your eyes, Izuminokami-kun.”

 

He did. It took him a while - his sight was different from when he was an object. There were more colours, more texture to everything he looked at. He blinked a few times, almost as if to burn the images into his memory.

And in front of him sat two people: a woman wearing a veil and white robes, and next to her, a young man, no more than a boy really, who had dark hair and round cyan eyes and whose name Izuminokami felt at the tip of his tongue, a familiarity that tingled through him when he looked at him.

“…Kunihiro?”

The boy’s eyes shone. “Welcome, Kane-san! You’re finally here!”

 

“Wha…what’s going on? You’re…we’re…human?” Izuminokami’s gaze slid to the woman sitting next to Kunihiro. “Who are you?”

 

“Your new master,” came the reply.

 

Izuminokami frowned. “No, that’s not right. My master is Hijikata Toushizou. Isn’t that right, Kunihiro?”

 

To his surprise, Kunihiro’s ecstatic expression faded, replaced by a slightly mournful look. “Kane-san, that’s…”

“Kunihiro?” His voice sharpened. “Where’s Hijikata-san?”

 

It was the woman who spoke in his place. “Izuminokami, the year is 2205. It has been many, many years since your - your master’s - time in the Bakumatsu. I am afraid that Hijikata no longer lives on this earth.”

 


 

It’s laughably simple, what the Saniwa told him.

And at the same time it was so much to take in. Hundreds of years since the Bakumatsu. A future where it was possible to detect changes in the past, where there existed mysterious enemies who sought to change history by thwarting plots, protecting key figures, preventing assassinations, even turning tides of war to ensure that the true history was changed. And where it was possible to send manifested warriors like himself and Kunihiro back in time where they were familiar with the territory, where their swordfighting skills could come back into use again and make history run its proper course.

 

“There are others?” Izuminokami found himself saying, interrupting his Master. He heard Kunihiro click his tongue, almost chidingly, but he didn’t care. “Other swords, who have become human, too?”

“Yes. Some you may recognise, too - Okita Souji’s swords Kashuu Kiyomitsu and Yamatonokami Yasusada. I have not yet acquired Kondo Isami’s sword Nagasone Kotetsu. In terms of Bakumatsu swords, there’s also—”

 

“General?”

There was a knock at the door, and the Saniwa straightened. “Yagen-kun, is it? Come in.”

The shoji door slid open and there stood a boy with short hair and piercing pale lilac eyes, contrasting with his dark uniform. “Ah, so he’s finally here.” He cast a glance over Izuminokami. “We’ve been waiting for you. Good of you to join us at last.”

“Er…yeah.”

“This is Yagen Toushirou,” the Saniwa explained. “He’s one of the best fighters in this Citadel, the second oldest sword here, so he’s quite familiar with everything. I’ve asked him to show you around. Horikawa-kun, you can join them as well, and show Izuminokami-kun to his room later.”

“Yes, Master.”

 

“Welcome to the Citadel, Izuminokami-kun.” His Master’s tone was warm. “I hope you enjoy it here, with others like you.”

 

“Come on,” Yagen prompted. “We don’t have much time, and I’d like to show you the whole Citadel before dinnertime comes. Quite a feast is being prepared to celebrate your arrival.”

“Oh?” Izuminokami grinned. “I’m honoured.”

“Don’t be. You’re not the only one who gets an arrival celebration, everyone here does, so you’re not special,” Yagen replied dryly, and Izuminokami choked. Kunihiro laughed.

 

“We’re heading off, General.”

“Thank you, Yagen-kun.”

 

The tantou waited until both Izuminokami and Kunihiro had left the smithing room before closing the shoji door behind him, turning to face them. “Well then. This is the forge, obviously, where new swords are manifested. Next door to us here is the Armory, where troops are made—”

“I’ll show you how to make them later on,” Kunihiro told Izuminokami helpfully. “So don’t worry about it.”

“—and the infirmary right here.” Yagen finished his sentence. He gave Kunihiro an amused look. “So the rumors were true. I wouldn’t have believed it otherwise. You do baby him.”

 

“O-oi, I’m not being babied—”

Yagen chuckled. “I’m not making fun of you. I’m curious, that’s all. Besides, I’m the one who brought you back to the Citadel. We just got back this morning, in fact.”

 

“Oh,” Izuminokami said, surprised. “You were?”

“Mhmm.” He started walking briskly along the engawa, and quickly Kunihiro hurried after him. Izuminokami followed more slowly, barely needing to take larger steps to keep up with Yagen and Kunihiro’s stride. “We found you in Osaka, at the enemy’s stronghold.”

“The enemy? Oh—you mean the Time Retrograde Army.”

“Yep. Not sure how they got ahold of you, but, well, you’re here now, so it’s not like that matters.” Yagen turned sharply at a corner, and Izuminokami almost slipped on the wooden floor. “The baths are over there, behind the gardens. We have a farm near the stables out back, and the ocean is just a few miles away, if there’s ever the need for training like sailing or swimming. A lot of guys here like to enjoy the sunset view, too.”

 

“We’re not too far from the city area, either,” Kunihiro supplemented. “Every once in a while we go to the stores with Master to stock up on food and other necessities.”

 

Arriving at a point where the hallways broke into a fork, Yagen pointed down the right. “The rooms are down that way, but I’m not going to show you everyone’s - you’ll meet them soon enough at dinner.”

 

“Are there…a lot of other swords here?”

“I wouldn’t say a lot. Not enough for the number of incidents that our Citadel is tasked with handling, which is why Units have to be sent out quite often. Though, you won’t be going on any sorties for a while yet.”

 

Izuminokami stopped in his tracks. “What? Why not?”

“You’ve only just manifested. You’re not used to your body yet, not even eating and drinking, let alone fighting. You slipped several times before we got to this point.” Yagen turned to look at him, his gaze kind. “I know that you’re excited to go out and battle again, but take your time. There’s no rush.”

 

He was disappointed, but all he did was huff in mock impatience. “Well, I’d still want to get to that as fast as I can, don’t I? At least tell me you have a training hall here.”

“Of course we do. Down this way.” Yagen set off on the leftside corridor, and they followed.

 

Izuminokami heard the sounds before seeing the room coming up: there were people’s voices, and the familiar rhythmic tak sounds of training swords striking, the muted thumps of footsteps repositioning on the wooden floor. He could smell the faint scent of sweat and feel a buzz of energy in the air.

 

Soon the hallway opened up into an open space, the shoji thrown wide to let the sunlight stream in. Standing scattered around the room, some in pairs and some in small groups, were about a dozen people, all armed with bokken, practicing manoeuvres or moves, and some sparring in practice matches. The walls were lined with weapons - mostly swords, but Izuminokami spotted bows and arrows among them, as well as throwing knives and traps.

Izuminokami felt something tug at his sleeve and looked to his side to see Kunihiro smiling at him. “Nostalgic, isn’t it?”

“…Yeah,” he whispered. He could practically see it: the training hall at the Shinsengumi headquarters, seeing the members training together, hear the booming laughter of Kondo-san, and Souji’s teasing voice, and Hijikata-san replying in his usual rough manner—

 

“Oh?” One of the people closest to them, a man with snow-white hair and a playful glint in his golden eyes, turned to face them, grinning. “Now this is a surprise. Who might you be?”

 

His question did not go unnoticed by the others in the hall, and a hush fell over the groups as their attention was drawn to the doorway. Kunihiro nudged him forward, prompting him to speak for himself, and Izuminokami cleared his throat. “I’m the sword famous for having been used by Hijikata Toushizou, Izuminokami Kanesada. I look forward to working with you all.”

 

At that, a murmur rippled through the crowd, and Izuminokami picked up parts of conversations here and there: “…Kanesada, so he’ll want to meet Kasen, won’t he…” “…Hijikata? Then, he’s with Horikawa…” “…looks pretty strong, don’t you think?”

And above that, a roar of laughter rose, and instinctively Izuminokami skimmed the crowd for the source, eyes narrowed, and his gaze landed on a man standing near the back of the group, wearing a sunset-coloured kimono.

“Another Shinsengumi sword! So yer “Kane-san”, eh? Took ya long enough!”

 

Something about this man irked him. Izuminokami couldn’t pin down what exactly - his accent, or his wild and unruly hair, or something else…and the longer he looked, it was as though he could see the reflection of someone he does know behind this man—

Then it hit him.

 

Yep, he’d decided. Everything about this man irked him.

“Let me guess,” he growled, taking a step forward. His voice had been louder than he’d intended, and the room fell quiet once more. “You’re Mutsunokami Yoshiyuki. Sakamoto Ryouma’s sword?”

The man grinned at him, smile wide. “What gave it away?”

 

“Your annoying face.”

“Please don’t punch him,” someone whispered, probably Kunihiro. Izuminokami ignored him.

 

He took another step and immediately Yagen was in front of him, arm outstretched to put a hand on his chest, the other on the hilt of his tantou. “No fighting,” he said, in a warning tone. “We’re all on the same side now. Your past history doesn’t matter here.”

“It matters to me,” Izuminokami protested.

“You can quarrel all you want. But on the battlefield we take up arms against the same enemy, not against one another.” Despite his significantly shorter height and stature, Yagen had an imposing air about him, and suddenly Izuminokami understood why the Saniwa had asked him to be his guide - “he’s one of the best fighters in this Citadel, the second oldest sword here”: she must have known something like this might happen. “Don’t make me have to stop you.”

 

“Kane-san, Mutsunokami-san is our ally now,” Kunihiro pleaded, pulling at him. “Plus, I wouldn’t fight him if I were you. He’s the best warrior here - he was the first to arrive at the Citadel, our Master chose him above everyone else.”

Him? The best?” Izuminokami scoffed. “I’ll knock him on his ass.”

 

“Ha! Ya’ve got spunk.” Mutsunokami snorted. “I’d like to see ya try. You wanna go?”

No.” Yagen’s voice was sharp. “Mutsunokami, don’t egg him on. Izuminokami, go cool your head. I’ll overlook this since it’s your first day here. But if you two end up causing damage, I’m reporting you to the General - both of you. Horikawa, show Izuminokami to his room.”

 

“Of course.” Kunihiro yanked at his haori, tugging him unceremoniously out of the training hall with a yelp. The last thing he saw before Kunihiro pulled him into the hallway was Mutsunokami grinning at him, looking as though he was the most amusing thing he’d ever seen.

 


 

“Damnit, Kunihiro! Why didn’t you let me fight him?”

Kunihiro didn’t answer right away, instead shutting the shoji door of his new room and bustling around, opening the windows and making tea. With a huff Izuminokami sat down cross-legged, removing his sword from his sash and pulling the haori from his shoulders.

 

He felt humiliated. It felt as though he was being put in a timeout, like a misbehaving child. He was supposed to be cool and strong, not reprimanded for challenging his master’s - wait, his former master’s - enemy to a fight.

 

“Here, drink this.” Kunihiro pressed the cup into his hands, and grudgingly Izuminokami took a sip. The tea calmed him, which helped. Sort of. Kunihiro sat across him, looking sheepish.

“Sorry, Kane-san. I should have told you earlier. Just…don’t fight Mutsunokami-san, okay? Give it a few days. You’ll come to understand everything eventually.”

 

Izuminokami grunted. “He pisses me off.”

Kunihiro smiled. “Well, he is like that. You’ll get along with him, I’m sure. All of us do.”

 

“Ohh, speaking of that - Master said that Yasusada and Kiyomitsu are here?”

“Yes!” Kunihiro sat up straighter, eyes shining. “They got here after I did, actually, so they were a bit…erm, disoriented at the start, too. And they also tried to pick a fight with Mutsunokami-san. I think Yagen-san’s a bit annoyed with all of us Shinsengumi swords now,” he added thoughtfully. “Though I feel that Mutsunokami-san doesn’t seem to mind. He’s just enjoying himself.”

 

Izuminokami thought back to the expression on Mutsunokami’s face as he’d left the training hall - the face of someone who was extremely entertained with what he saw. “I really wanted to punch him.”

Don’t. Yagen-san will actually murder you.”

 

“Can he really?” Izuminokami wondered aloud.

“Yes, he can. He and Mutsunokami-san were the first ones here. By the time I arrived they were already the Citadel’s main fighters. Souza-san and Honebami-san as well.” At the look on Izuminokami’s face, Kunihiro added hastily, “Though I’m sure you’ll catch up to them in no time. Tomorrow we can get started on training together with the others. Now get changed out of your battle clothes; you’ll want to look cool and presentable at the dinner, right?”

 

“Of course.” Izuminokami tugged at the ribbon in his hair to undo it, and methodically swept it all over his right shoulder to tie it again with the ribbon. He accepted the white strip of cloth from Kunihiro with a grunt of thanks, tying back the bell-like sleeves of his kimono and knotting it over his left shoulder. “I want to meet everybody. I want to learn about everyone who’s here, their stories and their legends. And I can’t wait to fight alongside them, too.”

“Everyone is very kind here.” Kunihiro, ever so helpful, had removed his armour for him and retrieved a pair of black pants and boots in place of his white-grey hakama. When Izuminokami choked on his spit, Kunihiro said in a chiding tone: “Even Mutsunokami-san. I know you disliked his master, but things are different now. Trust me, just talk to him.”

 

Izuminokami frowned. “After that display at the training hall just now? I don’t think so. Okay, maybe not tonight,” he added quickly, at the look on Kunihiro’s face. “I’ll talk to him tomorrow, I swear.”

“And apologise.”

He sighed. Since when had Kunihiro gotten so pushy? “Yeah. That too.”

 

That night, Izuminokami walked into the dining hall to the applause of the Citadel’s swords, followed by Yasusada and Kiyomitsu clinging to him like leeches chanting about the arrival of their “demon vice-commander” until Izuminokami threatened to beat them both up. He met his brother from the same sword school, the illustrious Kasen Kanesada whom Izuminokami promptly began to address as “Nosada” instead; he ate and drank merrily with his new allies, learning names and remembering faces as he talked and laughed. His mood had improved considerably and his heart was light.

 

No one brought up the incident at the training hall and it was only until after the dinner was over and Shokudaikiri Mitsutada had to shoo everyone out of the dining hall to clean up that Izuminokami realised that Mutsunokami had not been present throughout the meal at all.

Chapter Text

He was with the Second Unit as its Captain in Osaka, during the Edo Period, when they found it.

Yagen and his teammates had made their way through the mountainside, skirting the area where his brothers supposedly burned. Namazuo had recently joined the Citadel and Ichi-nii had not made his appearance yet, so Yagen was glad that the Saniwa hadn't sent them to this period where memories may have been painful for them. She was mindful of each sword's history, researching as much as she could about them before sending them on sortie to fight the Time Retrograde Army, to the point that sometimes the Citadel went days without going to battle because of the Saniwa's insistence on checking and double checking everything.

 

Yagen didn't mind. He was the second to join the Citadel, days after Mutsunokami Yoshiyuki first stepped out of the forge, and he did his job dutifully, just as he did for all the masters he had served before. Yet with this Master he was more eager to please. Perhaps it was because of her magic, her ability, which allowed her to guard the past and which gave him form, a body to move and fight with and a mind to think for himself, that he was keener to try and understand his Master.

Which led to his realisation that beyond this final wave of Time Retrograde Army enemies, lay something that the Saniwa had been yearning for. And he was going to retrieve it for her.

 


 

"Do you ever feel lonely?"

The thing about this Master was that she didn't treat him - any of them - like a weapon, a tool to be used to fight battles. She didn't treat them like servants to bring her victory, either. She treated them as comrades, allies who fought on her behalf because she could not. She treated them like humans.

 

Yagen shrugged, focused on folding away the freshly-dried linens into their cupboards. "Not really. It's hard to feel lonely when you've got so many people around. There's never a boring moment, you know? Speaking of which, just this morning, Mutsunokami was on the roof again, and—“

"I mean..." To his surprise the Saniwa interrupted, looking as though she was struggling to find the right words. "Your brothers…"

 

Yagen's hands stilled on the soft fabric between his hands. He thought of terms like Awataguchi swords and brothers and Ichi-nii and family. It seemed strange to think that only a while ago, he had been an object for centuries, and to now use human terms, act like a human. To eat and drink alongside others like him, to fight in the battlefield again and worry about coordination and teamwork when previously his masters had done that for him, to love and grieve with the heart he now possessed.

"I know that you feel responsible for the other Toushirou swords," the Saniwa went on, as if sensing Yagen's hesitation in his silence. "I know that being human is a strange experience and that it takes some getting used to, especially now that you are now capable feeling many other emotions that you previously did not have or did not feel to such an extent...emotions that can be a burden. Even if you call each other brothers out of obligation because you share the same name, you still feel bound to take care of them, don't you?”

 

It's interesting, hearing words like this.

 

Yagen took a deep breath, folding his hands over the linen on his lap. "My former master...Oda Nobunaga. He was skilled, even though he was cruel; he was shrewd, even though he was fierce. You're nothing like him.”

"Thanks for that," the Saniwa muttered.

 

The corner of Yagen's mouth twitched. "I'm very glad to have served him," he continued. "Nevertheless, you're the one I serve now. I'm very thankful to you for treating us as your equals. You never make spicy food for us because Imanotsurugi doesn't like it. You bought Mutsunokami a brand new camera when he showed interest in yours. And you taught Tonbokiri how to make daifuku by himself. And I appreciate this care and concern - but even if we're human now, we are only your vassals. In the end we obey you because you are our Master, and so there is no need to go out of your way to worry about us. We're merely swords at your disposal.”

 


 

 

He gave the orders to his teammates - Souza, who took out the enemy wakizashis with ease, then Imanotsurugi working with Honebami to cut down the tantous in a flurry of blades. All that remained was the hulking figure of the ootachi, and Yagen surveyed his opponent, gauging its strength and his own.

 

"Yamanbagiri."

The hooded uchigatana gave him a nod, and together the two of them rushed the ootachi. It swung its massive blade, intending to strike Yamanbagiri first - just as Yagen expected it to, with his white cloak making such an obvious target - and Yamanbagiri, instead of dodging, blocked the hit, holding the ootachi's sword fast against his own. "Go!" he shouted.

 

Yagen jumped, landing briefly on the ootachi's massive sword, and when it withdrew to switch targets, Yamanbagiri dashed forward, taking advantage of the opening to slash once, twice, at its exposed stomach.

In a second Yagen had jumped again, landing on the ootachi's shoulder and opening a gash across its eyes, making it roar and stumble back as blood spilled forth. He slipped on the slick liquid, almost falling off the demon, heart leaping into his throat.

 

He heard Honebami call his name in concern, and for a brief dizzying moment Yagen envisioned himself losing.

Gritting his teeth, Yagen flipped his sword, and brought it down hard, driving it into its skull.

 


 

It had only been an hour since the Saniwa had entered the infirmary with Gokotai, but to Yagen it felt like an eternity.

His understanding of the details were minimal, shouted at him by a frantic Kunihiro as he and a tight-lipped Mutsunokami pushed the gurney down the hallway into the infirmary, Gokotai's slight figure motionless on the pale sheets that Tonbokiri had thrown over the smaller boy. Something had happened while they were on sortie. The enemies were stronger than they expected. They were being driven back. Gokotai was attacked…

 

Yagen paced restlessly outside of the infirmary, impatiently waiting for the Saniwa to emerge and fill him in. How was Gokotai doing? Was he going to break? Will he recover? How did this happen? It shouldn't have happened…

 

At last the heavy doors shifted open and the Saniwa stepped out. "Yagen. Have you been out here this whole time?"

"How is he?" Yagen blurted out.

 

The Saniwa sighed. "He'll make it, but he'll need his rest." She turned around, acknowledging Tonbokiri who had re-emerged from the infirmary, pushing the same gurney that Gokotai had been brought in on. The boy was asleep, but looked no worse for wear. Still, Yagen's heart gave a pang at the sight of him looking so frail, his five tigers burrowed snugly around his small body as he slept. "Bring him to his room, Tonbokiri. Thank you for your help. I'm sorry about all this.”

 

Tonbokiri bowed his head. "No, no, I should be the one apologising...if only I had been more careful and looked after him..”

"The fault lies with me entirely." The Saniwa's voice was hollow. "I should not have sent your Unit to this particular period without properly checking the strength of the Time Retrograde Army there.”

 

"Why didn't you?" Yagen found himself saying automatically, almost accusingly. "You're supposed to check before every battle before sending us out. What good is your ability to check the past when you can't even gauge the strength of our enemies?"

Tonbokiri frowned. "I'm sure the Master has tried her best—”

 

"Well, maybe her best isn't good enough. What use is this victory when we have losses of our own?" Yagen knew that this anger was unaccounted for, but he couldn't help the dark feeling swirling in the pit of his belly, a mixture of anxiety and rage. "So you got lucky this time and Gokotai came home alive. You've never experienced what it's like on the battlefield. What about next time? What if somebody breaks? In this battlefield we either win or we die!”

 

"Yagen-dono." Tonbokiri's voice was a warning now, and for the first time Yagen took a good look at his master, and was taken back by the redness under her eyes and the dry tear tracks on her cheeks.

"I..." Yagen's voice died in his throat, and he averted his gaze quickly, hands clenched so tightly that his nails dug into his palms.

 

There was a shuffling noise and when Yagen looked up the Saniwa had fled down the hallway in a flurry of robes. He sighed and Tonbokiri cast him a sideways glance. "That was unfair of you, Yagen-dono.”

 

He didn't answer right away, but he knew he was wrong. Noting Yagen's silence, Tonbokiri went on gently, "If it were your old master, he would not have cared much for his soldiers' losses, would he? He was an ambitious man, and would have prioritised the victory over all else. It's not every day that we serve a master who cares so deeply for each and every one of us.”

 

Yagen thought about his conversation with the Saniwa before. We're merely swords at your disposal. He'd said that, but she didn't listen to him. She cared for them anyway, and perhaps it was this soft-heartedness that caused her mistake this time. Gokotai had made it back alive and the Saniwa had prioritised healing him first. She was unlikely to have this happen again, resolved to keep them safe even before Yagen had spoken to her.

 

"I messed up, didn't I?" he asked at last.

Tonbokiri smiled. "Perhaps an apology is in order?"

Yagen thought about it. "Not just an apology. I have an idea..."

 


 

The creature stilled, and crashed to the ground with a heavy thump, sending autumn leaves flying up with its weight. Yagen tumbled off of it with a surprised grunt, his sword pulling free from the ootachi's skull, feeling its blood evaporate from his clothes and skin as its body disappeared in a mass of black mist.

Imanotsurugi was by his side in an instant, worry in his wide eyes. "Are you okay?”

 

"Yeah, I'm good." Yagen sheathed his sword in a quick movement, brushing the leaves off of himself.

"That was a good double attack you two did," Souza commented, regarding him and Yamanbagiri with a nod. "I wasn't sure if you had a chance against that ootachi by yourself."

Yagen shook his head. "Not by myself, no. Thanks for the help, Yamanbagiri. I owe you one."

"...it's nothing," Yamanbagiri mumbled.

 

Despite himself, Yagen grinned. "It's not nothing. She's going to be happy when she sees what we picked up from this battle."

They all looked at him in surprise. "What do you mean?" Souza asked.

To illustrate his point, Yagen bent to unearth a sword with a scarlet sheath, blood-red against the amber autumn leaves, and there was no mistaking the tsuka cord on the hilt with the dragon beneath it, the cherry blossom decoration at the bottom of the sword's tang, and most notably, the black phoenix on the sheath's surface.

Chapter Text

Mutsunokami was an early riser, and it was no different the day after Izuminokami’s arrival. He was out and about before the sun was fully up, refreshed after a quick shower, and armed with two buckets, one filled with feed and the other stuffed with grooming supplies, he marched out to the stables, whistling to himself.

 

“Ohh, Mutsunokami-dono, good morning!”

“Hey, Yamabushi,” Mutsunokami called, grinning at him. Yamabushi was standing knee-deep in the river, his pants rolled up, and Mutsunokami yelled, “What the hell are ya up to?”

“Looking for crayfish!” To showcase his point, Yamabushi reached down and picked up one of the said crustaceans, waving it haphazardly in the air. “Tsurumaru-dono mentioned seeing them in the rivers and this humble servant of Buddha thought it would be a good idea to catch some to add to the dinner menu tonight!”

“Yeah? I’m sure Shokudaikiri wouldn’t mind.” Mutsunokami beamed at him. “Well, I’m headin’ off to the stables! Good luck on yer fishing!”

“And you with your duties!”

 

“Oh, speaking of that, do you know who’s on horse duty with me today?” Mutsunokami asked him. “The board didn’t have anyone else’s name on it aside from mine.”

“I’m afraid I don’t know that, Mutsunokami-dono.”

“Eh, as long as it’s not Namazuo, or I’ll be washing horse dung out of my clothes again,” Mutsunokami commented ruefully, and Yamabushi threw back his head in laughter.

“That’s true, too!”

 

Leaving Yamabushi to his fishing, Mutsunokami made his way to the stables, making a beeline for his horse, a chestnut-coloured mare, grazing at the plains. He approached her, coaxing her forward with gentle words as he stroked her nose. “There, there…let’s get ya cleaned up, yeah?”

 

Humming a tune, Mutsunokami got to work. He laid out the grooming supplies on a bench, keeping his horse distracted with the other bucket of feed as he groomed her coat, brushed out the knots in her mane and tail, and cleaning out the dirt around her eyes. It was calming work, and Mutsunokami immersed himself in it, working his way through all the steps as the sun rose higher into the sky.

When he was done with the grooming he sat on an upturned pail and lifted the creature’s hoof, carefully using a pick to pry out stray pebbles, bits of earth and strands of straw.

He was on the fourth and final hoof when the mare shifted, almost uneasily, and Mutsunokami sighed.

 

“Ya know, if yer gonna sneak up on me, maybe don’t do it with heeled boots.”

“I wasn’t sneaking,” came Izuminokami’s indignant reply, and Mutsunokami suppressed a snort as said footsteps came around his side to appear at the edge of his vision, petting his horse’s neck. “If I really needed to launch a sneak attack on you, you’d be dead by now.”

“Still picking a fight, are we? Just because Yagen gave us a warning doesn’t mean I won’t fight ya if ya asked for it.” Oh, what Mutsunokami would have given to see the look on Izuminokami’s face at that moment. “Or ya still think ya can beat me?”

 

There was a pause, and then there was an uncharacteristic hesitancy in Izuminokami’s tone when he replied. “I will. Just…maybe not right now.”

 

Slowly Mutsunokami turned around. What he saw was Izuminokami averting his gaze, and through his horse’s mane he caught a glimpse of his hands tangled among the brownish-black hairs: bandages on his fingers and winding around his palms, disappearing beneath the black fingerless gloves that he wore. He must have stared too long, because Izuminokami abruptly recoiled and put both hands behind his back, but Mutsunokami had seen enough.

“…When did that happen?” he asked curiously. “Ya didn’t have those when ya manifested yesterday.”

“This morning.” Izuminokami answered, quietly, a little grudgingly. “I broke a bowl at breakfast. It’s nothing.”

 

“It’s not nothing. Go to the infirmary and get it fixed properly.”

“No. You sound like Kunihiro.”

Mutsunokami was baffled. “He told ya to go and ya still didn’t? I thought ya’d rush to the infirmary to hide it since yer all about being cool and stuff,” he commented, adding the sarcasm on. “Besides, there’s no shame in it. It’s only yer second day. Yer not used to yer body yet, are ya?”

“…No.”

“Yeah, it happens. Cheer up.” Mutsunokami returned to his work. “Was that what took ya so long to get here? Because of breakfast?”

 

“Yeah.” Izuminokami sounded more like his old self, which was still grumpy but the kind that was falsely grumpy and that he was clearly trying to act cool and aloof. “Master called me to her room and put me on horse duty so I could get used to my body through doing chores. But I slept late last night because of the dinner lasting about four hours. Which you weren’t at, by the way.”

 

“Oh? So ya noticed?”

If Izuminokami detected the teasing tone in his voice, he didn’t show it. “Where were you?”

“Something came up,” Mutsunokami answered vaguely. “How was it?”

 

“The dinner? It was great.” Izuminokami sounded distracted, and Mutsunokami was glad that he didn’t catch on to the ambiguity of his response. “Food was great. There was a lot of it.”

“Yeah, that’s the Master’s idea. It’s actually meant to be a bit of an experiment kinda thing, too, to let new swords discover food properly, ya know? Like taste and texture. What’d ya think of the others? Most of ‘em must’ve talked to ya, introduced themselves and all.”

“About that. It was…weird.”

Mutsunokami’s pick dug into a particularly stubborn pebble, and his mare gave a protesting whinny. He frowned. “Weird how?”

 

Izuminokami sat down on the grass, picking at the bandages on his hands. “No one asked about my past. Well, Yasusada and Kiyomitsu did, asking me things that we experienced together when we were in the Shinsengumi. But no one else was interested in any of that. They wanted to know what I liked to do, what my favourite colour was, if I’d decided what food I liked best from the dinner.” He sounded sulky. “Even though I’m famous for having been used by Hijikata-san for a long time.”

 

Was this guy for real? He really had his head up in the clouds, with that kind of pride.

 

Dislodging the pebble from the hoof, Mutsunokami lowered the leg back to the ground and stood up, wincing a little at the stiffness in his spine and remedying it by stretching his arms up, sighing at the satisfying pop noises that his back made. “Look, no one cares about that stuff. If they wanted to know about ya like that, all they gotta do is open a history book. We got plenty of those in the library. Master’s pretty proud of that collection.”

“Why would anyone want to read a book if they could just listen to me, huh?”

“Because yer the one who’s hung up about the past, not them.” When Izuminokami gaped at him, Mutsunokami sighed, setting down his supplies and brushes and sitting down on the grass next to him. Instinctively Izuminokami shifted slightly away from him, and Mutsunokami pretended not to notice. “I’m sure ya’ve heard a similar version from Master before, but all of us are here now because of the Saniwa. We’re human, we’re alive, because of her abilities to bring us to life. So we owe it to her, to be loyal to her and fight for the cause that she believes in. And that means putting our histories with our former masters behind us. It’s…kind of an unspoken agreement between all of us, ya know?”

 

Izuminokami was quiet. Then: “But my history with the Shinsengumi is all I have. I was forged when Hijikata-san wanted a partner sword to Kunihiro. My story started there.”

Mutsunokami shrugged. “Then continue it yerself. Make more memories, write out yer own story, create yer legend for others to see. Now that we’re human we can do so much more. But that means living in the present and going to the future, not staying in the past like a sentimental old man.”

“Hey!”

 

“Now come on.” Mutsunokami stood up and brushed off the grass sticking to the backs of his legs, grinning down at Izuminokami. “You’re here on horse duty too, aren’t ya? I’ll show ya to yer horse, and teach ya the ropes.”

 

Izuminokami squinted at him, then let out a long-suffering sigh, getting to his feet as well. “I do know how to ride a horse, y’know. I remember how it’s done from when I was—”

“Yeah, yeah, I get that. But have ya done it without Horikawa helping ya?”

A pause. “No,” he admitted.

 

Mutsunokami chuckled. “That’s what I thought. Let’s go, and if we have time I’ll even let ya race me.”

 


 

“First!” Izuminokami gasped, pulling his horse to a skidding halt. “I was first. I win.”

“Bullshit. I was first.”

“You wish.” Izuminokami slid off his horse’s saddle, wobbling slightly in the soft muddy earth of the riverbank. His hair was a mess but he was smiling, his cheeks pink.

 

Mutsunokami couldn’t help grinning from ear to ear. He hadn’t had this much fun in ages.

 

After taking Izuminokami to his steed - a jet-black horse with berry-bright eyes - and showing him the basics, the Shinsengumi sword had taken to the work quite quickly, and efficiently, too. Within the hour both horses were fed and cleaned up, and Izuminokami was itching for the promised race.

Mutsunokami had agreed, though jokingly added: “I’ll win, though.”

“No you won’t,” Izuminokami had shot back.

“Yeah I will. Watch me.”

 

And just like that, they were off.

They were going from one end of the plain to the other, racing to be the first to touch the willow tree at the base of the hill near the river. At their simultaneous commands, both horses had broken into full gallop, and and in those precious seconds Mutsunokami had practically felt the adrenaline coursing through his body, tingling in his blood as if it was on fire, the wind singing in his ears and the sheer joy of the freedom he was experiencing. It was different from all the fighting he’d done so far, and it’d been so long since he’d - since anyone had - time to unwind like this.

And, hearing a whoop of laughter next to him, he’d seen Izuminokami keeping pace beside him, with the same expression on his face.

 

So Izuminokami Kanesada wasn’t that much of a stick in the mud, after all.

 

“No you weren’t. I was first, hands down.” Izuminokami flung the reins back, jogging ahead to the river.

“Yeah I was!” Following suit, Mutsunokami went after him, though more slowly as he took both horses’ reins and led them to the river to drink. Izuminokami’s back was to him, his hair swept over his back to prevent it from getting wet as he lowered his palms into the river and splashed water onto his face.

Izuminokami scoffed. “Nope. I definitely touched the tree first, so there.”

In a sudden moment of daring, Mutsunokami put his hands on his hips, an idea in his head. “Yeah, well, you can touch the riverbed first, too.” And promptly planted his foot square on Izuminokami’s back and pushed him into the water below.

 

“Wha—”

Splash.

 

Mutsunokami burst into laughter as Izuminokami resurfaced almost immediately, spitting. His hair was in disarray, the ribbon gone, and the white cloth tying back his sleeves had unravelled on his left shoulder, leaving one side of his kimono billowing out on the water. “You bastard!”

“Aw, c’mon, it’s not even that deep!” Izuminokami was only a little taller than he was, and upon standing the water came up just to his elbows. “And you can swim, can’t ya?”

You pushed me in!

 

Izuminokami’s shriek echoed through the surrounding hill, and Mutsunokami’s laughter only increased in volume. “Man, the look on yer face!”

“Shut up!” To illustrate his point, Izuminokami splashed water at him, and Mutsunokami took a step back, his grin widening.

“Oh? Ya wanna go?” he challenged, spreading his arms wide in a mocking taunt. “Ya can’t reach me from here though, so there.” He spun on his heel, intending to pretend to walk away (he was going to help him out, he really was), only for his foot to sink into the mud of the riverbed, and with a surprised yelp he fell backwards.

 

There was half a second of empty air, a moment where the blue of the sky and the river blurred together, and then he hit the water with a smack, icy-cold water closing in over his head. His entire body sparked into momentary overdrive as he flailed and found himself, miraculously, standing upright.

Next to him - directly next to him, as if he had moved towards him in the split second when he’d fallen - Izuminokami was laughing.

 

Mutsunokami had been at the Citadel for a long time. He’d welcomed many new swords and helped them adjust to their human bodies, to their new lives as sword warriors. He’d trained alongside them, eaten with them, laughed and despaired with them, and seen every single one of them experience their newfound emotions, and he’d been happy about it, pleased to see that they, too, could be human.

Yet none of them gave him warm fuzzies in his stomach when they laughed, the way Izuminokami did as he was now. He felt himself grinning, and then he was laughing as well.

 

And when he thought about the fact that just yesterday, Izuminokami had wanted to punch his throat, but was now playing around in the water with him like a little kid, Mutsunokami couldn’t believe his luck.

Chapter Text

A week after his arrival, Izuminokami was made Captain of the First Unit, in preparation for his first ever sortie. The previous captain, Mutsunokami Yoshiyuki, remained as a member of the Unit and was asked to show Izuminokami the ropes, whether it was handling the Citadel's affairs or leading the team into battle to bring victory to the Saniwa.

 

Perhaps aware of Izuminokami's easily-inflated ego, Kunihiro was also assigned to the First Unit as a returning member alongside Mutsunokami and Yagen, and new swords Ookurikara and Nikkari Aoe. Their mission was the Battle of Sekigahara, where the Time Retrograde Army was suspected to be plotting to bring about Tokugawa Ieyasu's defeat, in an effort to stop the Tokugawa shogunate from ever being established.

It was a routine sortie, Kunihiro had assured Izuminokami. They were not to come in contact with the historical figures or any of the people there, only to scout for the location of their enemies and eliminate them. Once they were successful in ensuring that history moved on as dictated, the Saniwa's messenger fox, Konnosuke, would notify the Citadel and the team would be brought back.

Simple as that.

 


 

Izuminokami had been in battles before, but always only as his master's weapon, and even though he'd been in the Citadel for days practicing with Kiyomitsu and Yasusada, suddenly he was unsure of himself.

 

"Okay, uh." He squinted beyond the row of trees acting as their cover, surveying the enemy. "Their formation kind of looks like...well, kind of like a U-shape?”

 

Mutsunokami and Yagen exchanged a look. "Yer gonna have to be more specific," Mutsunokami pointed out.

"Erm. Like, the middle guys are further back, and the guys at the sides are closer to us..."

"Okay, crane wings formation." Yagen nodded. "Which formation should we take?”

 

Was this a trick question? He and Mutsunokami had been in so many more battles than he did, surely they knew the formations better. "Uh...to counter the crane wings formation, we should...uh..." Desperately he glanced at Kunihiro, seated next to Nikkari, and his partner mouthed something at him. "...let's, uh, go with the fish scale formation, then.”

 

"Alright." Yagen stood up, nodding towards Ookurikara and Nikkari. "You two, come with me. I'll show you how to set up your troops."

The three of them left the clearing, trudging through the bushes, and Izuminokami breathed a sigh of relief.

 

"Jeez, that was nerve-wracking," Izuminokami muttered. "And Kunihiro, you gotta show me how to set up these troops, too."

Kunihiro made a sympathetic noise and Mutsunokami chuckled. "It's only yer first battle after all," he remarked, not unkindly. "Ya'll get used to it.”

 


 

Despite Mutsunokami's words, fighting his first battle as a human wasn't something he could get used to in seconds.

 

Even though he felt instinct take over when he drew his sword, hearing the clash of steel and seeing the tear of flesh and smelling the scent of blood, it was another thing entirely to fight alongside teammates, staying in formation, covering for their mistakes, and them covering for his mistakes.

It was strange, fighting with someone's back pressed against his own, or being able to leap in and assist a teammate who was struggling, without the fear of getting in their way and endangering them. He felt...relieved, at being able to rely on others, and proud that others relied on him as well. Not in the sense that he was better than the others (though he secretly thought that, too), but in the sense that he was happy that he wasn't useless, despite only having just arrived and having next to zero experience in all this.

 

And at the same time it was frustrating.

He’d been training at the Citadel for a week. Throughout the hours he’d trained, he’d followed the same regimen that he remembered from his time with the Shinsengumi, and worked with Kunihiro, Yasusada and Kiyomitsu to perfect them, even sparring with other members of the Citadel.

As a result Izuminokami had overlooked a crucial fact - that fighting the Time Retrograde Army was not the same as fighting other human warriors. They were demons, they fought differently, and it was experience, not skill, that spelled your victory or defeat in this new battlefield.

 

They encountered horde after horde of the Retrograde Army, taking out small groups of them - either they ambushed them first, or a warning cry from Kunihiro, whose scouting skill was best among all of them, alerted them to the enemy’s presence.

And in any of these battles, it was Yagen who struck first, swift and deadly, followed by Mutsunokami, leading Kunihiro and Nikkari into the fray. Ookurikara, who had manifested just a few days ago, fell into step next to them as if he had been born for this purpose. Maybe he had.

And Izuminokami was always the last to join the fight.

He wasn’t sure why. He felt bitter at himself, wondered why he was hesitating so much. He was the Captain, he was supposed to lead the charge, not let others do it for him.

 

Hijikata-san would’ve been disappointed in him.

 

His irritation weighed dark and heavy in his chest, almost dragging at him, and he willed it to go away.

 

The further they travelled the more uneasy they got. Mutsunokami had voiced this concern, remarking that the air felt tense, and Kunihiro had said, in a hushed tone, that they were probably approaching the enemy's stronghold. Looking at his teammates, troops diminished and with mild injuries, Izuminokami had been about to suggest a retreat when the enemy struck first.

 

Four tantou flew at them, and Mutsunokami drew his gun, firing wildly to fend off the attack and managing to hit one, but the moment it vanished the remaining three lunged with more fervour. Yagen sprang forward, cutting down another, and Kunihiro yelled, "There's more!”

 

"More" meant two tachi, striding from the mist, their blades gleaming wickedly in the light of the sunset.

 

Izuminokami froze, adrenaline pumping through his veins, and realised with a jolt that Nikkari was already bleeding heavily, teeth gritted and his one gold eye filled with pain as he clutched at his arm, and next to him Mutsunokami was desperately trying to reload his gun. Their troops were gone and Yagen was calling for assistance against the tantou.

 

Izuminokami was about to open his mouth to give an order, to rally his teammates, anything, when the tachi's fist collided with the side of his face, and he barely had the time to gasp out a cry before he was knocked to the ground, slamming into the hard earth as his sword clattered away from him.

 

Winded, Izuminokami tried to draw a breath, aware that his vision was swimming but even the blurry shadow of his enemy looming over him was enough to make him panic, rolling instinctively onto his back to avoid the tachi's strike. The movement was huge and clumsy, and without his sword Izuminokami was defenseless and could only run.

"Kane-san!" Kunihiro shouted, but he was too far away. Izuminokami shook his head, his vision clearing, looking up to see the tachi raise its sword above its head.

 

He heard Mutsunokami yell his name, and he shut his eyes, flinching away as his arms shot up in front of him protectively, but all he heard was a grunt and a sharp clang of steel. Someone had darted in front of him, stopping the tachi's strike with his own blade - a mass of black, and red-and-gold armour splattered with blood. Ookurikara.

 

“Get him out of here!” Ookurikara snapped, and Izuminokami could only gape as a pair of hands grabbed at his haori, yanking him away from the growling tachi.

“I'm sor—”

“I don't want your apology!” Ookurikara barked, his golden eyes blazing. “Get up and fight!”

 

Someone thrust his sword at him - Kunihiro, Izuminokami thought - and he toppled forward, his hands fumbling on the grip of the hilt. Regaining his footing on the blood-slick ground for a single, decisive second, Izuminokami swept his blade forward, ducking beneath Ookurikara's arm to slice at the tachi's hands. Tendons severed, the tachi stumbled back as its blade fell to the ground with a clatter, and Ookurikara followed up instantly, thrusting his sword through the tachi's skull, directly between the eyes.

The tachi made a gurgling sound in its throat, a black mist rising up around its body, and it began to disappear, shrinking away in the air like ink.

 

Izuminokami collapsed to one knee, breathing hard. The sounds of battle were gone - it seemed that everything was over. Kunihiro was by his side again, telling him that Konnosuke had been notified, that they would return to the Citadel quickly, because Nikkari needed to be rushed to the infirmary as soon as possible and the others were also hurt, though not as badly as he.

 

His gaze low, Izuminokami heard rather than saw Ookurikara flick his sword to one side, scattering the blood from the blade, and sheathing it in a quick motion. The Date sword wasn't even out of breath, and didn't seem bothered by the blood on his clothes and his dark skin. He looked nothing like someone who'd only just manifested a human body and had had their first battle.

 

What kind of warrior am I, Izuminokami thought. When I can't even hold my own against a single enemy?

 


 

With the infirmary occupied by Nikkari and Yagen, the Saniwa had only glanced over the rest of the team before announcing that Izuminokami and Ookurikara's injuries were mild enough that they could heal over time on their own. Ookurikara had promptly stalked off, relieved at the clear dismissal, and Izuminokami had lingered uncertainly, waiting for her to reprimand him, but she had simply waved him off and gone into the infirmary, leaving him in the hallway with Kunihiro and Mutsunokami.

 

"Kane-san?" Kunihiro tugged at his sleeve, looking up at him in concern. "It's just a few scratches, but are you feeling alright?"

"Y-yeah." Glad for the distraction, Izuminokami gave him a forced smile. "Though I am a little tired, so maybe I'll take a nap."

 

Thankfully Kunihiro seemed to pick up on his unease, and after helping him set out his futon in his room, promised to wake him when it was dinnertime, and left Izuminokami to his devices.

Yet Izuminokami's solitude was short-lived. Within moments of removing his haori and his armour, there was a soft knock at the door. "Izuminokami? Ya still up?"

He suppressed a sigh. There was no mistaking that Tosa accent. "Yeah, I'm here.”

 

The shoji door slid open and there stood Mutsunokami, having changed out of his battle clothes into his normal ones, looking a little less threatening without the gun and the armour, and his unruly hair tied back with a bandana.

 

Something about seeing him again just served to worsen the feeling in his chest. On his first day here he’d picked a fight with him. The next day they’d raced  each other on horseback and he’d pushed him into a river. The past few days had been a wild ride of playful banter and ridiculous challenges that they came up with during chores, and they’d almost been like friends.

And then this battle had happened. Somehow Izuminokami felt like he’d let Mutsunokami down.

 

Mutsunokami closed the door behind him. "I thought I should let ya know that while yer healin', Master's taken ya off the First Unit roster." He coughed delicately. "And yer also relieved of attendant duties until yer all better."

Izuminokami looked away, not quite wanting to meet his gaze. His words were of no surprise to him - he'd expected this on the way back - but it still sent a chill through his entire body, as if a pot of water had been dumped over his head. He could barely make sense of the emotions he was feeling, fear and guilt and resentment, all at once and so much more. "So is that why you're here? Because you're attendant now?"

Mutsunokami shrugged. "Horikawa wanted to tell ya himself, cuz he said ya’d be mad. I told him I'd do it, since it's better if ya just yelled at me instead of him." He squinted at him. "But yer takin' this surprisingly well."

 

Izuminokami sighed. "Well, that's to be expected. I fucked up my first battle. Ookurikara had to save my ass and Nikkari was almost broken. I'm sure Master hates me now."

"Naw," Mutsunokami announced, with a grin. "She could never hate ya. She waited so long for ya to get here."

"Then...she's not mad at me?" he asked meekly.

 

"How could she be mad at ya? Yer not the first one to fuck up the first battle. I keep tellin' her to send the new guys to an easier time period, but she doesn't listen. It's her own fault and she knows it. Besides, what's done is done. And history was preserved. Both of ya just gotta learn from the mistakes. We all do in the end."

 

His attention drawn, Izuminokami glanced at him, remembering what Kunihiro had told him. "You were the first sword here, right? And you used to be the First Unit's Captain?"

Mutsunokami smiled sheepishly. "Yep. Until you came along, anyway. I'm sure the Master wants you to get all the experience you can, and help the newer guys when they get here. Teaching other people is also learning and understanding those things better yourself, is what I think, so it's always a good thing, right? After all, it's different being someone's protective sword and now wielding the sword yourself, after all."

 

"It's not that." Izuminokami looked away, suddenly self-conscious about what he was about to say. "...When we were swords, wielded and used by our former masters, we were already alive, in a sense. We could see and hear the world, even if we couldn't interact with it, and in that we learnt both knowledge and experience. But now there's...so much more. We have mouths to talk and eat with, hands to touch and fight with, and we feel things like anger and sadness. And it hurts, here." His hand rose to grip at the bandages on his chest, over his heart. "It doesn't bleed, and yet it feels like it's tearing me apart. What are we...what am I meant to do with that pain?"

 

"Wha?" Mutsunokami sounded genuinely surprised. "Why are ya askin' me that?"

"Because you were here the longest! Surely you must have—” Experienced more pain than I have, Izuminokami wanted to say, but he broke off at the sight of Mutsunokami's expression, his amber eyes wide with curiosity, like luminous flames. "At least when I bleed or break, I can be repaired...but how am I supposed to fix it when it's my heart?"

 

"Ah, well." With a soft chuckle Mutsunokami sat down, cross-legged at the wall next to his futon, his hands hanging loosely over his knees. "Sorry to disappoint ya, but there's no way to fix that."

"What?"

Mutsunokami burst into laughter at the look of utter betrayal on Izuminokami's face, probably dismayed at the possibility of having to spend the rest of his life with a throbbing pain in his chest. "Don't worry though. It'll go away eventually."

"How long is that going to take?"

He shrugged. "Who knows? Could be days. Could be months. But all we can do is to endure it. We bear the suffering, and that perseverance heals us, makes us stronger again. So that the next time it won't hurt as bad."

Izuminokami's face blanched. "But I don't want it to hurt anymore," he whispered.

 

Mutsunokami sounded strangely sad when he answered him. "There are some things that the heart can't heal. But at least the pain lets us know we're alive."

Without waiting for a reply he stood and left the room, leaving Izuminokami in the empty silence, alone with his thoughts.