Tightness, lifting with moist air. There's a rumbling noise, a drone at the edges of his mind. Whispers, a scent of clay and rain. It's dark.
Night. The moon. A glimmer of white above and Kai blinks, and a buzz surges, spirals in on him.
He sees eyes, a stranger's face above and then something dark coming towards him, a sharp pain and then blackness.
Something jolts him and he turns on his side, vomiting on wooden planks. There's shouting, pressing in on the throbbing in his head, and he heaves, sour and thin and bitter.
Something is wrong.
There are voices again, some rising excitement. "It's woken up! Quick!"
He's being handled, one leg pulled here, an arm pulled there. Some sharp scrape at his wrist but his head isn't steady, the nausea still pulling him this way and that and he can't stop the drift.
There are men around him who think he's alive. They shackled one leg to the side of a cart, and both his hands are in chains. When he breathes too deep he still feels like he's falling but the nausea is fading.
This isn't supposed to be. He's not supposed to be. There was pain, such deep pain but everything was all right.
Mika's face is there, sharpening his mind. Oishi, a firm grasp of his arm. A round little man who gave him the greatest gift.
He died, and now he's here on a cart, breathing. Nothing about this is right.
"Not your fucking business," the man gruffs.
"Are we still in Akou?" he presses. "We've been going for a few days." He was asleep for longer, somehow he can feel that, and it's not just the change in season.
"I don't know where the fuck we are and I'm not telling you," the man says. His sideways look is scared. He still flinches whenever Kai moves and makes the chains rattle, like Kai might break them.
Kai still feels weak as if he has a fever, and it's an effort to sit upright and avoid the puddle of vomit on the side.
They seem to find it strange whenever he does something human, but somehow that's familiar enough it helps him focus, think through how to act. He's known how to deal with that his entire life.
And the dead probably don't get hungry. He has to accept he's alive.
"Some water, please?"
The men exchange glances. One of them, a young one with a strange weak beard, starts rummaging at the back of the cart, and turns up a water skin. He doesn't come near Kai, just drops it on the cart and jumps back.
"Thank you," Kai says. He pulls the skin closer with his feet until he can get his shackled hands on it. The water feels so good, he has to watch it so he doesn't make himself sick again.
He keeps his head low. The young bearded one is still near, and Kai waits until the water skin is empty, just in case.
"What happened to Akou?" he asks then. "What happened to the princess?"
The man snorts and pretends he's not there, but he's not very good at that.
"You must have heard something."
The bearded man eyes him again, maybe figuring out that he'll put an end to their interaction quicker with an answer. He shrugs. "That demon whore got married last year, had a daughter, too bad. I'm glad to be out of that creepy shithole."
One of his fellows laughs like he agrees.
Mika is married. Mika has a child and is still in Akou.
Kai lets himself sink back and pictures it. It's a beautiful thought, only hurts a little. Not all things were meant to happen but this is one of them, a bright glimmer in his mind as the cart rumbles on over fallen leaves and autumn slush.
They're fighting over him. The leader of this gang wants to keep him shackled, fed, and drag him along to wherever this journey goes.
The second-in-command doesn't. "I don't want to deal with a fucking demon. We were just going to dig up some bones and sell them to a fucking pillmaker!"
Either they still forget he can understand, or it doesn't matter.
"Well, I didn't go to all this trouble to ditch it here, as long as we can keep a fucking move on we'll get far enough away it's not going to matter. Do you have any idea what someone'd pay for a slave like that?"
"We don't even know what it can do! I say we cut off the head and bury it again."
Kai holds his breath. He doesn't think he should be alive, but he doesn't want to go under again, and he doesn't want to think of what might happen if they cut him in pieces.
"You shut your mouth and do your work," the leader says.
For now, it holds.
He keeps watch on how he deals out his questions and learns to read the signs when they get too unsettled. When he asks too much, they take away his water. Eventually they realise that he's not just pretending the chains can hold him, and after that, when he asks too much, too quickly, they take him out and beat him and make him walk behind the cart.
Sometimes moving is better than sitting still and chained up all the time, but he hates the rumbling pace and being afraid of falling. The mockery, he mostly doesn't mind, because he's heard worse and it almost helps as he puts himself together, now that he didn't even die.
He learns that Mika married the son of another Lord and that Akou is rich enough this gang did good business there, but that the Lord's samurai are strict and they didn't get to do all the business they wanted to. That makes Kai smile. It sounds like a strong, honourable force, and he hopes Chikara gets to be a part of that.
He has the scars from when he died, he can see under his ever more ragged burial robe. The rest of it, he doesn't understand, except in that he realises the people who called him a demon were right.
Then things become clearer and he's awake enough to notice how they watch him, when they watch him, and when they are sloppy. They're half-criminal traders and if he couldn't be a samurai in the end, he learned from one. A great one.
But Oishi is dead. He died with honour, and even if Kai could run, he couldn't go back to Akou. These are bad people and he doesn't know their plans yet, but he also doesn't know where he'd go. He can't go back like this. Some undead creature who doesn't understand himself.
He keeps watching because a warrior would, but when there aren't any moments to slip away, he doesn't rage about that.
The leader of the traders has a man with him, older and stooping. He's being half-dragged, half-shoved in front of Kai. They've had a first bout of frost but that's probably not why the man is trembling.
Kai jerks back when a torch is held in front of his face, the light blinding him, and for a moment there's only the trader's threatening voice.
"That's a demon half-breed who came back from the dead. You can smell his demon stench, too, can't you?"
The stench is someone, demon or not, not being able to wash for weeks after being dug up from the ground, but Kai thinks better of pointing out that fact with a torch burning right in front of him.
"Now I want to see some proper hospitality, unless you want me to let him loose on your daughters."
They stay for a week, and from what Kai picks up, they go through the farmer's food and drink with abandon.
Nobody from the family comes near him. He has a bowl of wet rice shoved in front of him now and then, and is otherwise left alone. That one look at him seems to have been enough.
He becomes wary and watchful, feels instincts wake up that are sharp like an animal's. That gives him pause sometimes. They seem to notice too, become more on edge around him again. One day when he moves not quite fast enough to an order to hide, their leader has him held down and slices both his palms open. He's so dirty it festers and makes him weak, and his hands hurt so much they're useless for days.
When they travel through villages he's to stay in hiding under a cloak. It's warm at least, and what would frightened village folk do anyway if a demon started making noise among them?
He's been sold before. Back then he even still thought he was human.
From conversations within earshot he picks up that it's a handsome sum, but he'll earn it all back as a fighter.
He's done that before, too. Back then he even still thought he could die, and he cared about that as much as he cares now.
They give him a short knife, so that if he wants to do anything with it, he has to move in close. The bear has its claws and when it's not combative enough, they poke it with spikes until it roars. The villagers are laughing.
Kai is sweating, moving in a frenzied blur when the bear takes him for the evildoer and charges.
The clash takes his breath. Even with what the Tengu taught him he barely knows what's up and what's down, barely gets his neck out of the way, the bear's claws cutting and crushing his shoulder.
He struggles and pushes. It's a mess of a fight, the bear roaring in pain when Kai manages to move the knife right. He gets away, recovers.
Lord Asano's face is before him for a moment, the horror it would show if he saw Kai has come to fight with animals to the jeers of an audience.
But he would blame the men who hold him captive. Would have them punished.
Once he knows what he's doing he's faster, and despite his rush and panicked pulse, he wears the bear down with cut after cut, jumping in and hurrying away. In the end the bear tumbles, slumps, and voices around them rise in shouts and insults.
He feels a strange sadness when he presses the knife hard into the dying animal and the life flows out of it. Maybe kinship. Maybe that also fits.
Sometimes when he's hiding from the cold in a corner, used to the cowering and the stench, he wonders who was right, if maybe he fits here with the animals. Then those memories hurt the worst.
He'll run away. When he has more strength and when it's easier. If he can't die and can't go home, the wait makes no difference anyway.
When they set up camp, nearby villagers and farmers get to fight the half-breed demon now if they dare, for a price. Since he sits in a cage all day with a weak leg and not enough food, the contenders usually get some satisfaction out of defeating him, tall and wild-looking as he is.
Sometimes he gives as good as he gets, but when it's a few in a row he doesn't have the strength he had on the Dutch Island, and he's almost run out of anger too.
At least no one knows. Mika will think he died with honour, not that she loved a demon. In his heart, Chikara might still be his friend.
Sometimes the women in the camp, loud prostitutes with harsh voices, come over when they're drunk and make lewd comments, or the men suggest perversions with him to the prostitutes' giggles. It drifts past him as he tries to ignore the latest bruises and guide his thoughts into a state where it doesn't matter.
Or maybe he dreams some of that too.
There's a man, one of his owners. Falling down. There's a figure, moving at hazy speed. A pose and strength that look familiar. From a different life. One where Oishi is alive and fighting, and then it flickers and the figure is taller, wider, Chikara on their best days, practicing together, the only times he wasn't with Mika and still felt fully right.
It's not real. He's losing his mind in the cold and the fire blurs in his eyes. It's not real even with the fourth man down because only Oishi was ever this good and Oishi is dead, and then the figure comes towards him, flickering before the fire, worn robes full of mud and a sword dark with blood.
His face is smudged with dirt and rain but almost the same. His soft eyes are wide, his breath in short clouds before his mouth.
"Chikara?" Kai hasn't heard his own voice in a long time, he doesn't scream in the fights. He tries to sit up, get closer. His hand wraps around the bars of his cage, to steady himself.
"Yes," Chikara says. He too sounds rough and his steps are slow, or maybe they just seem that way. He raises his free hand and for a tight airless moment Kai thinks he will wake up, but Chikara's hand is cold and solid as it covers his, warrior strength, touching him.
It's not a dream. Not a fever. Chikara came for him.
Kai is alive.
Chikara's hand tightens, holds on.
He's not alone here with the dead. He's not alone.
A breathless shiver takes him and lets the awful camp fade, turns everything lighter and strange and better.
"Kai," he says.
Kai nods. Kai is there, in the cage, and Chikara will get to take him home.
Then things become solid. They need to get away from here. "Are you injured?"
Kai's eyes have a haze in them, Chikara can see even in the low light.
"Not much," Kai says.
The cage is padlocked but this is old wood kept in cold and dampness. Chikara nods to himself and takes his hand off Kai's at last. "Sit back," he says.
It's not much he sees of Kai's face, and it takes a moment, but when Chikara loosens his sword arm there is understanding in Kai's eyes, and he lets go of the bar crouches back against the other side of the cage.
Chikara's blows are precise and steady, and he imagines destroying more than these people's wagons. Scum. All of them. Once the first bar splinters, it's easy to break it out of the frame.
Chikara straightens up and searches for Kai's eyes. "Come on," he says, but this time Kai is already moving, if slow and hurt. There's a terrible smell about him and he winces when his legs slip over the brim of the cart and he sits, his shoulders rising on uneven breaths. His hands are shackled together.
Chikara puts a hand on his shoulder, just briefly. Wants to feel that movement, feel him here.
For a moment Kai's shoulders sink heavier, and Chikara waits for the shaky disbelief to pass.
But Kai is injured and weak, and it's cold and after nightfall. "Where would they keep the key?" he asks. They could leave and try to find a blacksmith later, but it's conspicuous, not smart, and he won't have Kai leave in chains here.
The answer takes a moment, and comes hard. "That tall one. Fat with a beard. He was in charge of the animals."
Chikara doesn't remember the ones he killed though now he's wishing it had been all of them. Kai meets his eyes and nods, as if to confirm his answer.
It is the hardest feeling to turn his back on Kai, and as he tries to make out the bodies in the firelight he becomes frenzied, as if someone might come back and take this away again. It takes him all his focus not to rush and be silly like a child.
He doesn't find a tall fat man but there is a stand near the fire with a whole ring of keys on a hook. He brings the key ring back, and it's more tension until he finds the right one, but finally the chains fall away.
Kai's hands are dirty and scarred, his fingers flexing like he's not sure he can move them, but Chikara nearly loses focus, seeing them move at all.
"We can't stay here," he reminds himself. "We need to get you warmed up, and I want to put some distance between us and this place just in case."
Kai nods slowly. He tenses as if he's about to move, but then slumps down again. "Thank you," he mumbles.
Chikara doesn't have an answer to that.
The troupe's horses are kept on ropes at the front of the trek, and Chikara picks one that looks sturdy and bored and is still wearing reins, although it has no saddle. If he felt he had more time, he'd look for supplies and maybe take a second horse, but by now he is too intent on getting Kai away from here to complicate his plans.
When he comes back with the horse Kai has raised his head, and his eyes seem more alert. "I don't know if I can ride," he says. "Sorry."
He doesn't look like he'll walk very far either.
"Do you think you can sit?" Chikara asks. "If I lead the horse and help you up."
"I'll try," Kai says. Chikara holds out his hand to help him, and despite the weakness, the slowness in everything, having Kai grip his arm back is the brightest Chikara's felt in months.
They sway a bit when Kai is on his feet. It's tense getting him on the horse without falling but Chikara can see a grim determination in Kai's weakened limbs.
"All right?" he asks. Kai nods just as grimly.
"Leave the keys," he says, "in case someone comes back for…"
Oh. It's a good thought, a kind thought. If they had more time or the patience to deal with monkeys and other beasts, Chikara might let them all go, but they don't, so he leaves the keys where someone can see them, and takes the reins.
The horse is more used to dragging carts than riders and seems confused, so Chikara leading it is probably best anyway. He keeps glancing over his shoulder but Kai isn't falling, though by the time they reach Chikara's horse, he looks more sunken and like something hurts.
"I don't want to stay here," Chikara says. "But if you need rest, we can wait here for a while."
Kai shakes his head again. "No, you're right. I'll be fine."
He looks far from fine, but Chikara wants to keep moving. He wants to put at least a village or two between them and the camp and Kai's cage, even though he's sure he'd kill any man who'd dare follow them.
After some consideration, he helps Kai off the cart horse and onto his own, which is better trained and carries a proper saddle. It also doesn't startle when Chikara swings up behind Kai and puts his feet in the stirrups.
He has the spare horse follow behind, and like this he can keep Kai steady. He also feels every flinch and muffled groan, and it keeps him focused on the road and keeping a steady pace, not losing himself in the dizzy disbelief that he's really found Kai.
"And I fit right in," Kai mumbles as he slumps into a corner. There's nowhere to wash up, and in any case it's the middle of the night.
Chikara unpacks his blankets and some food from his saddle before settling down next to him. "At least we won't spook the cows," he says.
Kai gives a wheezing sort of laugh, and winces again. He leans his head back and breathes carefully. "Thank you," he says again after a moment.
"There's no need," Chikara says. He was only looking for bones. Something is coming loose in his chest and he turns his face away.
Kai falls asleep fast, half-upright and very still. Chikara puts the blankets on him and keeps watch.
In daylight, Chikara can see the full extent of the wildness of Kai's hair and beard, and how thin he's become under it. To someone who didn't know him he probably would look frightening indeed. His stare is dark and determined, and they only take a break when Chikara sees Kai can barely keep himself upright.
He makes them stop behind a line of trees where they're sheltered from the wind. The ground is wet from night frost and it's too cold to be comfortable but Chikara has food and puts the blankets on the ground because tonight he won't have Kai sleep in a barn and so he doesn't mind them getting wet.
Kai lies down cautiously to rest, but he doesn't go to sleep. "I tried to find out what happened in Akou," he says. "Is it true Mika found a husband?"
Akou. And Mika.
Between his surprise at finding Kai alive and his concern over getting them moving, Chikara hasn't thought through all that getting Kai home will mean.
There'll be no concealing it in the end. "She did," he says without looking up. "Lord Naganao. They married two summers ago." He keeps busy with the food, letting Kai take this in and giving his hands something to do. It keeps him from worrying, too. He hasn't thought this through at all.
"Is he a good man?"
Chikara hands Kai the food, and looks, but only briefly. He doesn't know if this is hard to hear, but at least it is not hard to answer. "I think so. He's kind. A good Lord for Akou."
Kai's face is thoughtful behind the beard and dirt.
"Lady Mika thought you dead. Like we all did." There is no need to defend her, and yet for a moment he worries Kai will think the wrong thing.
"Is she happy?"
He didn't expect that question, and it feels instinctively strange to him. Something he's not concerned himself with in a long time.
But Kai is waiting. "It's not my place to say," Chikara says in the end. "But I think things turned out well in Akou."
He lets Kai wait with the horses while he finds them a room, orders a meal and sake and the use of the inn's bath, some new clothes and everything else they might need. It's good he was frugal with Mika's stipend. "We've been riding a long time," he tells the inn owner as he pays for all that, and it seems to do as an explanation.
Kai is stooped with exhaustion, and though he looks wild, the hair hides his face enough that Chikara doesn't sense any danger as they walk through the inn's hall and up to the rooms.
There's a small fire burning. Even from the entrance Chikara feels it chase the cold out of his bones. He drops his belongings on the clean floor but before they take off their shoes, or rags in Kai's case, he says, "The owner has a bath in the back. Let's get you cleaned up."
Kai breathes in a deep sigh, and even though he's still slow walking down stairs he does it with a firm purpose.
The bath is in a shack behind the inn, steamy and comfortably warm with fire under the stove. It's heating water for washing, and there's a larger tub, already filled, though the innkeeper's wife was not able to keep it above lukewarm.
Chikara strips out of his travelling clothes before he breaks into a sweat. He nods at the tub and wets a cloth with the hot water to wipe himself down. "Go on, this one is for you," he says.
"I'll get it filthy," Kai says, though there's a look of clear longing in his eyes.
"Well, you can wash the worst off first," Chikara says. "But I assumed. It'll be swapped. I've paid for it."
Kai takes off his clothes with the slowness of bruised ribs, and in the warmth of the bath the smell intensifies. "Sorry," he mumbles.
"Not your fault," Chikara says firmly. He picks up the rags of the burial robe before Kai can stop him and puts them outside for the innkeeper's wife to burn.
He still knows how Kai looked in that when he was dead. It gives him a chill, and he hurries to close the door.
"Sit down," he says and fills a bucket with hot water. Kai slowly lowers himself on the low stool. His alien look is emphasised by how it seems too small for him.
Well, they can do something about parts of that at least. Chikara wets a second clean cloth and steps behind him, applying it carefully to Kai's neck and wiping down.
"Does that hurt?" Chikara says, holding still.
"No." Kai's head moves in a slow shake. There's a rasp in his voice. "But you shouldn't do that. You're a samurai."
For a moment Chikara is rattled with uncertainty, the old, familiar kind he always used to feel around his father, like he's out of place and out of line. He never felt that way around Kai.
But Kai is still dirty, and talking nonsense. Chikara gathers his will and shrugs off the strangeness. "So are you," he says. "And I don't think you can even lift the bucket, so I think it would be a strange time to begin worrying about what samurai can or cannot do."
He waits a beat, in case he's too wrong. Then he washes out the cloth and goes on to wipe dirt and grime off Kai's shoulders. Kai doesn't object.
His bruises look green around the edges, some fading, some new. Chikara thinks of the here and now so as not to get swept up in rage again.
The here and now is warm, private, and they're as safe as they can be before they get home. Kai's hair is rough and tangled but that will have to wait. This is soothing, calming him. Kai's breathing comes more even now, and he doesn't try to stop Chikara or take over.
"I'm not just a samurai, I'm the commander of the guard," Chikara says after a while. He's not sure why.
Kai snorts, prompting another wince. He lifts his arms as much as he can to let Chikara wash under them.
"Thank you, that's good to know," he says.
Chikara finds himself smiling. It's an odd feeling.
His smile fades as he steps around. The bruises are worse around Kai's stomach, and Chikara stands still for a long time, staring at the long white scar, wide across Kai's stomach.
Kai's shoulders draw together, and he lowers his head. "It stayed, I don't know why," he says. "I don't understand any of this."
Chikara watched all of them, Kai and his father, everyone… Not one of them gave more than a low grunt. Would he have been that good? He felt ready…
"You can go back upstairs," Kai is saying. "I can take care of myself."
That brings him back. "I'm not leaving you alone," he says. Right now he wouldn't even if Kai really wanted him to. But he gives them both a moment for composure by replacing the darkening water in the bucket.
He helps Kai scrub down his chest and arms, and at some point Kai's gaze is focusing on his hands. "What are those scars?" he asks. "What happened there?"
The traces never quite went away. "I killed a water spirit," Chikara says. "Their blood burns, apparently."
"But it's fine now?"
"It's fine, it's only a scar," Chikara says, and then his gaze drops again to the line on Kai's stomach, and before he knows it he's almost touched it. "Do you remember it?" he whispers.
Kai's stomach goes taut with a breath, or maybe with Chikara's rudeness. "Yes, I do." There's weight behind it, almost like it's something precious.
"Do you remember… being gone?"
Kai's stomach rises and falls again. "No." Kai says it like a confession. "When I came back it felt like I'd been asleep for a long time."
"Good," Chikara breathes. "I'm glad."
Chikara doesn't understand the question. "Because it's a horrible thought and I wouldn't want you to suffer like that," he says, frowning. "And I won't have to worry that I didn't know sooner."
"You mean you didn't know sooner I was a demon who can come back from the dead?"
Chikara likes this less than the samurai talk. "I meant what I said," he says, and he doesn't touch the scar or anything lower but he runs the cloth over Kai's skin again, and if Kai wants to disagree with that, he'll have to say so.
Eventually they've done all they can, and Kai gets in the tub. Chikara adds two more buckets of hot water and even preoccupied as he is with scars and samurai, Kai's face shows a flicker of bliss as he sinks into it. It pleases Chikara.
He washes himself more while Kai sits in the warm water, though he keeps making sure that Kai doesn't fall asleep and sink under.
Kai was right about the water. When they are done washing out his beard and hair it looks like a film of grime is floating on the surface. Kai, on the other hand, looks much more normal.
Chikara helps him of the tub and into dry robes the innkeeper's wife left them. He's tired from the bath but he even moves better now.
"All right, this is not something I'm very good at," Chikara warns as he sits down in front of Kai with the grooming scissors. The dim light doesn't help.
"You'll hardly make it worse," Kai says. There's a smile around his eyes.
"I was thinking that," Chikara admits, and focuses.
He doesn't attempt a shave but he cuts Kai's beard back into a shape where you can see his mouth and the outline of his jaw. He also shortens Kai's hair and helps him tie it back.
"That looks much better," he says. Kai looks ronin, and exhausted, but human.
"I'll take your word for it," Kai says.
Kai takes it and drinks it. Some colour has come back to his face, though his gaze is slow and glassy. "This really happened, did it?" he asks, surprising Chikara. "I'm not going to wake up on a stinking wagon from screaming monkeys, am I?"
"It happened," Chikara says. He thinks of the last few weeks. Waking up every morning to a desperate anger and loss. He grasps Kai's arm, just for a moment, pulling back before Kai can comment or react.
It really did.
Then he is back in command of himself. "Now go sleep," he says. He keeps his sword in reach, but pulls his own cover over himself, and soon is gone too.
Kai doesn't leave their room and plays shy with the innkeeper and the maid, as they both think it's safest that way. Chikara doesn't want to leave him alone but eventually he goes out to try and find them a proper saddle for the cart horse and warmer riding clothes for Kai.
"I tracked down the saddle master," he reports as he steps back into their room, and warmth greets him. "He'll have a saddle ready tomorrow." He's also brought back clothes and spare blankets for the trek.
Kai is still thinner, but Chikara got him a razor and he trimmed his beard back into the old shape, almost like he always was. "That sounds good," he says. "Thank you."
"Do you think you can ride tomorrow?" Chikara asks. "Or should we stay longer?"
"I'll be all right," Kai says. After that first long night, he's started to move his body even in the confines of the room. Chikara knows he wants to be ready and is aching to be outside, but they both know it's safer not to start gossip about mixed-blood traveller. "Has the innkeeper said anything? I don't think the maid saw me but she was walking by as I put the food tray outside."
Chikara doesn't remember anything different in the man when he came in now. He tells Kai so. "They think we're ronin, but rich ones," Chikara says. "I think that's what he cares about the most."
"Good," Kai says, but there's something distant in his gaze. "I'd hate to give you any trouble now."
They pack their things, Kai moving better and more smoothly, and eventually Chikara makes himself stop observing from the sidelines, gets ready to load the horses. He's at the door when he realises Kai hasn't gotten up.
"Chikara," Kai says. "Wait."
Chikara halts without sliding the door open. "What is it?"
Kai looks up at him, and everything about him is very calm. "I think we should part here," he says.
Suddenly Chikara is afraid. More afraid than he was in the camp, more afraid than the first night he didn't sleep. "What are you saying?"
"You don't need to take me back to Akou. I could go further north. I appreciate the horse and the clothes, and I'll be forever in your debt for what you've done." He sounds careful, prepared. As if he were speaking to Chikara's father. "I can find work somewhere or fend for myself. You should go home."
Now. Now it is all going wrong. Chikara can't find his voice, his proper, strong one. "You want to go north?"
"I don't want you to go back to Akou with a demon," Kai says. "I don't want this on you."
"You're no demon," Chikara says. "You're a samurai, and I am not leaving you."
"I'm not a samurai!"
"The shogun declared you one!"
"The shogun thought I would die."
Chikara flinches. Kai breathes out hard.
"I didn't die," he whispers. "How am I supposed to have any honour now? I had the chance to be one of you, and I couldn't even do that."
It's that, then. The demon talk, he should have known that was behind it. Chikara thinks of north and parting ways, and he's scared and distant at the same time, hurt how much he's in the right and how Kai doesn't see it.
"Well, I didn't die either," he says. "But you don't see me sitting on the floor feeling sorry for myself."
Kai pauses, and his eyes widen. Like he's never had that thought before and it reached him somewhere.
It should. Because Chikara is right.
"Haven't you been alone enough?" he asks. Kai is still staring, and maybe holding his breath.
Chikara bends down and picks up the bundle of supplies he dropped, and slides open the door. "I've been alone enough," he says, and steps through. It's time to go.
Kai meets his eyes, but then turns to the cart horse to secure his own spare clothes behind the saddle.
They lead the horses outside. Chikara doesn't think about how he feels sick inside and unsteady.
They lead the horses outside, and when Chikara swings up into the saddle his stomach is like it won't go with him. He waits, Kai is still slower, but he looks strong enough for travel when he's on the horse.
Chikara steels himself and faces him. Gets ready.
"How long will we be until Akou?" Kai asks.
Relief washes through him, so much he lets it show somehow and his horse twitches nervously. They're going home.
"I didn't always come the straight route," he says, grateful somehow to have a question to focus on, a plan to think through. "I imagine it will be two or three weeks if we don't take detours and don't kill the horses."
Kai nods at him, and Chikara signals to the horse to get moving.
They set a slow pace on their way out of the village, a slow rhythm of the hooves on an early, misty morning. Chikara feels his pulse quieting.
"Have you thought about what you can even say about the fact that I'm back and breathing?" Kai asks.
Chikara has by now realised that this will be a matter of concern. "Well, two or three weeks," he repeats. "We've got some time to figure it out."
"We'd been out for days and his wife was going to have a baby," Chikara says, recalling the man's face and his doubt, and feeling so young in comparison. "I didn't know how to punish him, or whether I even should. He was careless on watch but maybe I shouldn't have taken him along, is what I thought. I wasn't even sure what my father would have done."
"I told him I'd let him make up for it with a week of additional watch duty, but it would only begin after the child was born and his wife was on her feet again," he says. "And it worked out well. We caught up with that band of thieves just a day later and we made it home without any of us hurt, including him." He admits he felt proud.
Kai is leaning against the wall, eyes lazy over his sake cup. It's when he closes them for a moment that Chikara startles, catching up with himself.
"I'm sorry," he says. "Do you want to go to bed?"
Kai opens his eyes. He shakes his head and sits up, reaching for the sake bottle. "I've been sleeping for a long time, I don't need to go to bed." He pours them both more drink.
Chikara goes quiet, conscious of how much he has been talking.
"I want to hear about everything that happened with you," Kai says, his voice suddenly different. "Thieves and the water spirits, the new Lord…"
It makes sense for someone who was… gone… for a while to want to hear about what happened. But Chikara finds himself smiling again. "I want to tell you everything that happened," he answers.
The winter air is beating around Chikara's face but he's flying along, wide awake, riding on a burst of happiness. He's in the lead, a muffled shout now and then behind him.
Eventually he slows his horse down, and soon Kai catches up with him, protesting huffs coming from the former cart horse. Kai's face is taut from the chill but he's laughing.
"Don't look so pleased with yourself," he says. "You have the better horse."
"As long as you have an excuse," Chikara says daringly, and they fall in next to each other, let the horses steam off at a more leisurely pace.
It's quiet for a bit, and Chikara feels chillier where he got sweaty, but the rush is running through his body. It's like every day they travel back he shakes off more of the miserable journey north.
"And apparently I don't die," Kai says after a moment. "I suppose that's an advantage." It doesn't sound as sharp as the demon talk, but also not fully free, not like Chikara feels.
"What are you thinking about?" he asks.
Kai gives him a sideways glance as if judging his mood and the likely answer. "It's still on my mind," he says. "Because I don't understand it."
"Maybe we'll never understand it?" Chikara says. "Maybe for once we were lucky with something magic did."
Kai mulls that over. This, Chikara doesn't mind, even if it's difficult. It's not like the demon talk, or parting ways. "What if I never die?" Kai asks after a while. "What if everyone always dies, and I just live?"
Everyone like the forty-five, and Lord Asano, and… everyone. But he understands how it would be on Kai's mind. "Then you will have to keep our memories," Chikara says. "Like I did yours."
They ride on. It's a clear day, cold but clean, fresh. Chikara can feel another question building a few moments before Kai speaks.
"If you thought I was dead, how did you find me?" he asks. "Why did you find me?"
"Someone had desecrated your grave," Chikara said. "Everyone thought they'd taken your bones for some witchcraft rite or curse. I was going to bring them back." He imagines for a moment how he'd be now even if he'd succeeded. Then brushes the thought aside.
The horses keep moving but he can tell Kai has gone deeper than thoughtful, still. "Chikara. You did all this for my bones?"
Chikara is surprised. "I did it for your honour," he says. "It wasn't right."
When he looks at Kai, Kai's face is as open as Chikara has ever seen it, a disbelief so plain, followed by hurt and something else, something sharp and grateful and stunned.
Chikara feels adrift. "Is everything all right?"
"Yes," Kai says, though his voice is rough. "Yes, everything is all right. I'm fine."
Kai stops right next to him. "What is the matter?"
Chikara points. "Past that line of trees, we'll be in Akou." Then lets that settle.
"I never came this way, I wouldn't have recognised it," Kai says after a moment. "Thank you." There's wonder in his voice, and maybe he's getting ready too.
"It'll be two more days until we reach the castle," Chikara says, just in case.
Next to him Kai nods. They both watch the line of trees, naked and gnarly this time of year, and don't move.
"Don't leave," Chikara says suddenly, his chest tight.
Chikara swallows hard. "Even if it it becomes difficult." There's Lady Mika and the new Lord, village gossip, a death sentence by the shogun that didn't take… "People will wag their tongues, and the Lady Mika is married. The shogun…" He doesn't even know which worries him most.
"I understand that," Kai says quietly.
"Don't leave," Chikara says, and finally straightens up and faces him.
Kai's eyes are watchful but soft, still with that surprise but it's no longer harsh, more like wonder.
"I won't," Kai says, and that's his word. Some great weight rolls of Chikara and he nods quickly, accepting it.
He hesitates but then holds out his hand. Kai grasps his arm in a promise, and that's without hesitation. Strong, and real. Chikara brought him back.
"Then let's go home," Chikara says, nudging his horse, and Kai is right beside him as they resume their path along the narrow dirt road, making their way into Akou.