Chapter 1: Darkness
The way I must enter
Leads through darkness
O moon above the mountains' rim,
Please shine a little further
On my path.
– Izumi Shikibu
Dusk shed its fading light in the western sky, washing the landscape gray and dim, but towards the east, the horizon was set aflame. Treetops glowed orange and smoke billowed away into the night, choking the heavens, much like the thick knot in Eijun's throat that kept him from shouting as he ran, and ran, and ran. He cut a swath through tall grass, chest heaving. The angry, dreadful burn of the fire up ahead seared his eyes, tears scalding as they welled and were dashed away by his hand. Every breath of air he drew tasted like burning wood and gunpowder. The whole valley stank of it.
He neared the tree line, dark spears of cedar standing against a backdrop of smoke and flame, obscuring the figures that stalked and writhed within. The crack and boom of gunshots had stopped, but the clashing sound of steel continued. Screams of rage and terror filled his ears.
Eijun clawed deep for his voice, dragging it free, but before his cry could tear from his throat a fleet shadow darted towards him, collided into him, and he was knocked to the ground in a tangle of limbs. An elbow jabbed his gut—which was an accident—and a hand clapped over his mouth—which was intentional.
"Quiet!" Wakana's grip was frantic, fingers squeezing tight over his cheekbones, and when Eijun made a muffled protest she cuffed him across the head. "No! You can't, I won't let you!"
He strained against her, but she wouldn't be much of a bodyguard if she couldn't handle a child two years her junior. Eijun struggled anyway; he could hear them, everyone in the village fighting and being cut down. The trees shook with the roars of those who abandoned their human appearances to use their full strength. But they were a small village, a dwindling race, forced into hiding only to be dragged back out whenever humankind wanted to borrow their power, and with every battle their numbers diminished more. Finally, the Sawamura clan had said enough was enough, and when the shogun's men came with their demands the oni refused to cooperate. They only wanted to be left alone.
Eijun made one last, desperate effort, and dislodged Wakana long enough to cry out, "Let me go!" Something rattled between them: a pair of swords, one long and one short. They were the family heirlooms, Daitsuren and Shotsuren. He grasped the hilt of the katana and slid it partway out of its scabbard before Wakana's closed fist buried in his gut, and Eijun crumpled over with a wheeze.
"It's too late," she said while catching him. Her voice trembled but she found the resolve to gather the swords and sling Eijun's arm across her shoulders. "There's nothing more we can do. If you go back you'll die. Grandfather escaped, and maybe some others did, too. But we have to leave here."
"It's not fair!" Eijun choked the words out through his sobs, twisting his head to look back even as his traitorous feet stumbled forward. He burned the fiery image into his memory, the sight of his home disappearing before his eyes, never to forget. He wouldn't forget the sting of his tears, or the bitterness of the words in his mouth, or the terrible, bleeding ache of his heart. "Why?! We just wanted to live in peace! Everyone—!"
"We'll live." Wakana's assurance was grim, her face half-hidden in the shadows cast by roaring flames. "We'll find a way to live, those of us that are still alive. Now, come on, Eijun. Let's go."
Five Years Later
Eijun's breath puffed white in front of his face as he ambled down the street. The busy crowds thinned to a trickle as the sky darkened overhead and he neared the outskirts of the city with a bag of charcoal slung over his shoulder. His purse was fifteen mon lighter—a good bargain in Edo. The seller remembered that Wakana had treated him for a cough just last month and was happy to repay the kindness with a discount.
They'd been living in secret among the humans, the three of them including Gramps, for years now. Eijun had been against it at first. He'd wanted nothing to do with the people who had razed his home to the ground, and for a while the three of them had hidden themselves in total isolation, but that soon became unbearable. The solitude had been too stark a reminder of all they'd lost. Even so, Eijun had thought it was better than being amongst the enemy. Gramps had all but dragged him kicking and screaming into civilization—into the shogunate's capital no less, hiding right under the government's nose—where they made a living out of Wakana's herbalist knowledge and Gramps' study of Western medicine.
It was a peaceful life. No one suspected what they were, and probably wouldn't believe the truth if they were told. Country folk were raised on stories about oni lurking in the mountains, in the secret valleys and wild forests, but city-dwellers were all a bunch of cynics. To them, oni were mere children's tales.
Eijun finally arrived in front of their house, the sign above the door reading "Sawamura Apothecary," and a lantern burned outside while Wakana bid farewell to a late customer who seemed to be lingering on the doorstep. Eijun recognized him as the oil seller's son—he couldn't have been born into a more fitting occupation—and the wheedling tone he took when inviting Wakana out for tea some time made Eijun's eyes roll hard in their sockets.
"I'm back!" he announced, shouldering past the would-be suitor without so much as a glance. The man made a disparaging comment under his breath, to which Wakana responded in a murmur. Soon after, the door slid shut, and she padded into the kitchen where Eijun was adding fresh charcoal to the stove.
"I hope a bakeneko drinks all of his lamp oil," she grumped, pushing back the sleeves of her kosode and tying them out of the way. "I have to finish cleaning the workroom since he caught me in the middle of closing up, will you be all right starting dinner?"
"Of course!" Eijun jerked as if pinched, lifting his head to mulishly point out, "I'm not a kid anymore, I've been living like this for years already!" He was used to cooking meals by himself, especially with Gramps away on business in Kyoto and Wakana working the shop alone. In Edo they were thought to be siblings, not young master and servant.
Wakana's lips twitched. "Old habits," she admitted, and came around to where Eijun squatted by the stove. "Though if you want to be treated like an adult, try not to set yourself on fire again."
"I was eleven when that happened." With the embarrassing memory fresh in his mind, Eijun let her gather his sleeves and tie them with a sash. The pat on his head, though, that was just unnecessary. She was only two years older, and he was taller than her now! They were probably equal in strength, but living in a city full of humans while posing as doctors didn't afford them much opportunity to train. It had been ages since he last wrapped his hands around the hilt of Daitsuren, the treasured blade tucked away with its paired kodachi in a hidden compartment upstairs.
It was an ordinary winter night like any other, and he had just put the rice on to cook when a sudden chill swept through him that had nothing to do with the weather. That was Eijun's only warning before the kitchen door clattered open, and a covered figure leapt towards him, naked blade in hand. Eijun threw himself to the side and rolled in the dirt. Their kitchen was tiny, he banged into the wall and scrambled to his feet, ducking another pass of the sword with reflexes he hadn't had to use in a while.
He needed a weapon, but the family swords were too far away, so Eijun grabbed a pair of tongs and parried the next swing with all his strength. The attacker tilted off-balance. Predatory instincts rising, Eijun grinned. He coiled and sprang at the intruder.
Out of the corner of his eye a second figure appeared in the open doorway, similarly clothed and armed, striking forward. Eijun turned in midair to fend off the new opponent and was pushed back. He crashed into a corner, breaking pottery and sending an iron pot rolling. His grip tightened on the tongs and a snarl worked up his throat, blood pounding in his ears, filling his head with a heady rush. There was a reason his ancestors had been called upon to do battle for the humans' sake.
The attacker raised his sword, the whites of his eyes showing above a black face mask, but he faltered when a small dagger struck his arm. Whirling, he was confronted with the sight of Wakana brandishing a handful of knives. They thunked in the wall one by one, missing the target by a hair, forcing him to the door where he uttered a curse and then fled into the night.
His partner started to turn. Eijun launched himself at the man but fell for the feint, and then he was falling sideways from Wakana's push. Steel sank into flesh and Eijun hit the ground, was back up in a flash, but Wakana simply reached forward and crushed the man's throat in claw-like grip. Grunting with the effort, she threw him from her, blade sliding free of her body with a flick of blood.
Eijun opened his mouth, then shut it right away when she pinned him with a look over her shoulder, eyes shining with her true nature. "You idiot. Always rushing into things. Now look, this kosode is ruined." She pinched the torn and stained fabric between her fingers, skin slick with blood, but the wound was already starting to close.
"You didn't have to get in the way, I would've been fine." Eijun clenched his hands into fists. Fifteen years old and he was still being protected like a child. He was supposed to be the next head of the Sawamura clan… though he supposed the clan didn't exist anymore anyway.
"As long as you're alive, the clan still exists, and I have a duty to fulfill." Wakana had been by his side for as long as he could remember, and sometimes it was like she could read his mind. She glanced down at herself, poking at the newly healed skin, frowning distractedly as she asked, "That man, is he dead?"
Eijun crouched by the body, bulging-eyed and unmoving. She'd broken his neck. "He's dead all right. What was all this about?"
"I wish I knew… I would've kept him alive to question, but…"
The man's face under the mask was unfamiliar. He didn't have anything on him that identified where he came from or who he worked for. Had it just been an attempted robbery? Their neighborhood was usually quiet. Eijun rocked back on his heels, worry nipping at his mind. "Say… it's been a while since we last heard from Gramps, you don't think…?"
"Eijun, the sword…"
"What about it?" It was a plain old thing, wet with blood and some sheen of oil. He reached over to pick it up.
"Wakana?" Eijun turned and saw her wobble on her feet, face pale and sweating. An icy grip squeezed his heart. "What's wrong?!"
Her features were set in a deep scowl despite the evident pain she was in. "The blade must have been coated in poison. Bring it here. Help me to the workroom." He scrambled to obey, clumsy with panic, but even as she leaned on him she scoffed. "Some guardian I would be if an ordinary poison could kill me. I'll be fine, wipe that look off your face."
"What if it's not ordinary? What if—what if it came from the foreigners, and there's no antidote in Japan—"
"Then it's a good thing we run an apothecary specializing in Western medicine."
"But Gramps isn't here!"
She gathered her strength and coordination to smack the back of his head. The force of the blow was oddly reassuring. "I haven't learned nothing from him, you know! Just do as I say. The situation is under control, but it will be a long night. Are you ready?"
The workroom was dark and cold, smelling of dried herbs. Tools and ingredients were neatly stored in dozens of cabinet drawers that were labeled for Eijun's benefit since he could never remember what went where. He helped Wakana sit down before lighting a candle on a nearby stand, and the flame cast flickering shadows on the wall. This wasn't the first time he'd assisted her in mixing an infusion. There was nothing to be nervous about. Everything would be fine. Eijun inhaled deeply, and then exhaled in a long, steadying stream. What was a little poison to an oni? They were the mightiest beings in the land.
"Just tell me what to do."
When the three of them first moved to Edo, Eijun had been sure that the venture would fail. He'd never be able to get along with the wretched humans, let alone rely on them. Four years later and here he was, leaving Wakana in the care of a silk merchant whose sickly youngest son was often treated by her or Gramps. The poison in her system had been successfully purged, but it had left her weakened afterwards and she would need time to fully recover. Out of the people they could ask for a favor, the Hashimoto family was among the kindest—and moreover, they ran a prosperous business that warranted the presence of hired guards. An attacker would think twice before storming the house.
"You're fortunate that the winter has been mild," Wakana told him, though she herself was draped in a padded hanten and there was a lit brazier nearby, making the room slightly too warm for Eijun's comfort. He was dressed for the road, and Daitsuren's sheathed length lay by his side. Wakana's hands were busy folding and tying together the corners of a travel pack stuffed full of medicine, a change of clothes, and extra strings of money. His travel permit and a letter of introduction addressed to a fellow doctor in Kyoto were tucked safe inside his kosode.
It had been months since they last heard from Gramps. Wakana was not recovered enough for the journey, but after the attack that night they'd started to fear the worst. Though reluctant to separate under the circumstances, they eventually decided Eijun would go alone to Kyoto to search for him.
"I'll definitely find him and bring him back!"
"It would be good if you returned quickly… but if not, I will follow as soon as I am able." She finished tying the pack and placed it in front of Eijun. "Be careful along the Tokaido. You've never been that far west."
"Neither have you," Eijun said.
"I will be safely guarded here. You're the one with a nose for trouble, and Kyoto is particularly dangerous these days." They both fell silent, pondering what that could mean for Gramps. He could take care of himself, sure, but he wasn't getting any younger. What if he'd been attacked, too? What if he'd been poisoned?
Eijun shook himself, flinging the unwanted thoughts from his head. He grabbed the pack and secured it firmly around his shoulders, then took his sword in one hand and a wide straw hat in the other. "Dangerous or not, I, Sawamura Eijun, will go to Kyoto and find him without fail!"
A smile bloomed on Wakana's lips, tentatively hopeful like early plum blossoms. If the weather stayed temperate, the trees could be flowering by the time he reached his destination. "All right," Wakana said. "Then I'll leave it to you."
It was Eijun's first time traveling so far by himself. His childhood had been spent in the valley of his home village, and after escaping the massacre with Gramps and Wakana they took the Nakasendo east through the mountains towards Edo. He could have used that route to get to Kyoto but the Tokaido was slightly faster. It followed the coast and there were rivers to ford, but otherwise it was much the same, dotted with post stations to accommodate travelers. Wakana had given him plenty of money to pay for inns and meals.
He passed the checkpoints without any problem and not once did he sense a malicious presence stalking after him. There were a few small incidents along the way—a drunken and belligerent customer refusing to pay for his drinks, a man caught transporting illegal goods across the ferry—but those had nothing to do with Eijun and overall it was an uneventful twelve-day trip. He did hear more frequent whispers of bandits the closer he got to Kyoto, but no robbers crossed his path and there was never any reason to unsheathe his sword.
At last he crossed the Sanjo Bridge when the sun was at its peak and the streets were bustling with activity. Eijun dug into the folds of his clothes and found the letter with the doctor's address, battered and worse for wear despite his efforts to keep it safe during the journey. It was still readable, probably. Takigawa was an acquaintance of Gramps' who also studied Western medicine, and he was the first person to ask about the old man's whereabouts.
He was the only person to ask, actually, and to Eijun's dismay he found that the doctor wasn't home, or anywhere in the city. Takigawa was away on his own business and wouldn't be back for an indeterminable length of time. Eijun was completely on his own.
Well, so be it. Eijun lifted his trudging steps until they became a purposeful march. There were plenty of people in Kyoto, surely someone would know Gramps. He'd ask around. He'd ask everyone. At some point in the afternoon it occurred to him to seek out other apothecaries in hopes of finding a connection, but shop after shop yielded no results.
What is he, a ghost?! There's no trace!
The sky darkened and lanterns were lit, and Eijun was no closer to finding Gramps than he'd been all the way back in Edo. It was like looking for a needle in a haystack. One oni among hundreds of thousands of humans. He thought he'd gotten used to humans in Edo, but he'd only gotten used to his neighborhood, his house, and his small family of three. Once, his family had been bigger. Eijun wasn't about to lose the few people he had left.
"Tomorrow's another day!" he declared, his shout echoing down empty alleyways. It had gotten late, so he'd better find lodgings. Where was he, anyway? He'd been wandering wherever his feet took him.
The scuff of sandals on packed dirt alerted him to someone standing behind him, followed by the clink of a sword and a wave of intent. Eijun spun and drew his weapon in the same motion. Three men blocked the side street, armed and measuring him with shrewd eyes that lingered on the finely worked blade in his hands. They were disheveled and bare-faced, robbers rather than assassins. Eijun could handle a few measly robbers.
He grinned at them and struck first. The man in front wasn't prepared for Eijun's speed, barely managing a weak block and stumbling back a few steps. There wasn't enough room for the other two to fan out and surround him, and he swatted their attacks away with ease, metal ringing in the night. His blows were relentless. They didn't have the chance to run.
Killing them would be easy. Who would miss a few humans? There were plenty more, too many, and it would serve them right for forcing the oni to the most remote pockets of land, demanding that they do the humans' bidding, murdering every man, woman, and child who got in their way. Wakana had killed that assassin without even blinking. Eijun could do that, too. He could and he would.
They were nearing the main street, and once out in the open the humans might be able to escape. Eijun growled—you're not getting away!—and he pushed his speed and strength to the limit of his disguise (maybe it was all right to use his true form, maybe if they'd all done that from the start they never would have been beaten). He knocked aside the robber's wavering blade and rammed into him with his shoulder, sending the man sprawling in the dirt where he scrambled, helpless, and Eijun raised Daitsuren high in the air.
Footsteps swiftly approached. Eijun paid them no mind, but then they were suddenly right in front of him with unnatural speed. He jerked in surprise, then cried out as pain sliced across his face. Blood dripped through his fingers as he pressed them to the cut. It wasn't deep. He'd have been in trouble if it had gone much further through his head. The broken cartilage in his nose fused back together and his skin sealed itself up until only the blood remained. He was fine but the healing stung and throbbed, and he fended off another attack while trying to clear his eyes.
The humans had doubled in number, but the newcomers all wore the same flashy, light-colored haori. They converged on Eijun and the robbers alike. Screams split the air as swords sank into flesh and Eijun couldn't differentiate one man's killing intent from the next. It was all a red-misted blur, and the one who fought him swung his sword with such strength that Eijun was forced back.
He gritted his teeth and let out a battle cry but it was no use: the opponent was unbelievably strong. Inhumanly strong. Confusion started to haze Eijun's thoughts. Something wasn't right.
His sword snuck past the man's defense and bit into his shoulder. Crimson stained the fabric of his haori, but when Eijun drew his blade away, to his disbelief, the wound healed in an instant.
"Wait—!" He blocked another swing. His stance weakened in shock and he stumbled. Looking up, he didn't see any kind of recognition in the man's eyes, even though Eijun's face had healed just as quickly. There was only the bright gleam of madness, swimming in irises that had flooded red.
Red? They're not supposed to be red.
The transformation didn't end there; as Eijun watched, the man's hair shone a familiar, silvery white, like an oni's in their true form.
"What are you?" But the only answer Eijun received was the edge of a sword catching the light of the moon. He belatedly moved to defend himself—too slow, this was going to hurt—and braced himself for the slash to come.
The blow never landed.
A gargled sound came from the man's throat as his weapon slipped from his fingers, clattering at his feet. Protruding from his chest was a length of bloody steel that withdrew with a wet slide, and the man's body folded in a twitching heap that soon went still in death. Above him stood a new figure wearing the same uniform, but this one's expression was blank as he calmly flicked his blade and slid it home in its scabbard. Then he turned away from Eijun as if his presence was invisible.
For some reason that pissed him off. But before he could let fly with his outrage, yet another man stepped around the other, taking in the scene. He met Eijun's eyes with a sharp little half-smile and caught the arm of his comrade.
"Furuya, you can't go rushing in and then leave things half-finished."
"I took care of the ones who went crazy. That one isn't important."
"Oi!" Eijun protested, and this time they both ignored him.
"He's a witness," the smiling man pointed out. "It would be bad for us if he spread word of what happened."
Furuya frowned. "But…" His gaze strayed to Eijun in consideration, then lowered to the dead man whose blood stained the ground black under the moonlight.
Eijun held his sword in front of himself warily, watching the two. Their clothes were spattered with the blood of their… comrades? They looked human, but so had those others before changing. "What are you guys?!"
"See? He'll only cause trouble. Better to kill him."
"He's a civilian. We should ask the vice commander first."
"Should we bother Tetsu-san with such a small thing I wonder…"
They seemed distracted enough. Eijun could make a run for it, but instead he adjusted his grip on Daitsuren and shifted his weight to charge forward. "Answer me, damnit!"
"Easy there!" The man laughed, drawing his blade to turn aside Eijun's swing as if it was nothing. "You know, this isn't helping your case if you want to live."
"Like I care!" He persisted with his attack, but the man parried him with minimal effort, which was infuriating. The grin on his face didn't help. It wasn't a bloodthirsty grin—indeed, for all his talk of killing he gave off very little murderous intent, although that didn't mean he wouldn't do it. Eijun snarled and bit by bit he pushed the man back with sheer force alone.
Not that the man had the decency to look pressured. Not even a tiny bit.
"Hmm. You're stronger than you look, I'll give you that."
Eijun didn't care about answers anymore. All he wanted was to wipe that smirk off the man's face.
"When it comes to kenjutsu, though, you're a complete amateur."
"You—!" Fury surged through Eijun's veins, pounding against the confines of his flesh. He shuddered, breath heaving, and gathered himself for another round. This time, for sure…! But all of a sudden the man stopped defending and went on the offense. Their swords clashed on contact, and as if that wasn't enough, Eijun sensed the flare of a battle aura from behind him.
Stupid. He'd forgotten about Furuya, and now they had him trapped in the alley. Wakana would never let him hear the end of this. She'd never let him out of her sight again, either.
If he had just a bit of room Eijun could leap to safety and escape along the rooftops. These two were human—probably—and wouldn't be able to catch him from there. But the smirking bastard wouldn't let up, he'd been holding back until now, and Eijun found himself cornered against the side of a building with the edge of a blade held to his throat. As long as the cut wasn't too deep he could theoretically survive that kind of wound, but he didn't look forward to chancing it. And if the blade only nicked him, and they saw him heal, what might happen afterwards?
He shrunk as far from the weapon as he could, glaring with all his might.
"Miyuki-senpai," Furuya said, objection soft in voice. He was only vocalizing his opinion, making no move to actually intervene if Miyuki decided to cut open Eijun's throat.
The two of them held still, cast in ice under the winter moon. Miyuki's frozen smile was amused, but the look in his eyes was dead serious. "Got anything to say for yourself?"
Eijun didn't want this man's face to be the last thing he saw in this world, but he couldn't bring himself to look away. Averting his gaze would mean losing. "If you're going to do it, just do it already!"
Miyuki's quiet laugh shivered in the air between them. "Eager to die, are you?"
"Of course not! Who would be?! But if you want me to beg for my life, I'm not gonna!"
"Is that so? I won't waste my time then." Eijun tensed, but instead of drawing a scarlet line across his neck the deadly blade lifted away and the space between them widened. Miyuki turned to Furuya. "Gather up the uniforms but leave the bodies. It's not like they're an uncommon sight around here. We'll head back with… ah." He paused as he was about to sheathe his sword and cocked his head at Eijun. "But I suppose you won't come quietly, will you?"
"Come where? What do you mean?" They hadn't noticed what he was… right? They couldn't have noticed. "And—wait, so you're letting me live?"
"That remains to be seen." Miyuki stepped close and Eijun flattened against the wall again, unsure of his intentions. There could be anything lurking behind his smile and its rows of teeth. "Do me a favor and go to sleep for a bit."
"Wh—ugh." The breath whooshed out of him as Miyuki drove the blunt hilt of his sword into Eijun's solar plexus. He doubled over, vision fading, and a follow-up knock to the head sent him all the way under.
When Eijun came to he was in a small room with his hands and feet bound. He'd been out long enough for the tatami to leave an imprint on his cheek as he lifted his head, finding the room dark and empty. It was probably still late at night. He tested the ropes but the fibers were woven thick and tight, and the knots didn't budge. If he really needed to he could break free, but now that the fury of battle had passed, fifteen years of stern warnings and cautionary tales made him hesitate to reach for his real power. There were so few of his kind remaining, and the fact that most humans didn't believe oni existed kept them hidden and safe. Eijun needed to take care not to give himself away.
As he pondered what to do about his predicament, the door slid open to let in two unfamiliar young men. They both wore daisho at their waists—come to think of it, so had the uniformed men. Samurai, then, probably working for some bigshot lord.
"Oh good, you're awake."
"'Good'?" Eijun struggled to sit up, eyes narrowed.
The one who spoke nodded, and it didn't seem like he was here to end Eijun's life, but… "Everyone's gathered and heard Miyuki and Furuya's side of the story. We'll hear you out, too, at least."
"'At least'," Eijun muttered to himself. So they could still decide to kill him in the end. Not that he'd go down without a fight. "Who's 'everyone'? Where am I?"
"You don't know?" The man looked surprised, then uncertain. "If you really got caught up in this by mistake, perhaps—"
"Nori," the second man warned, snorting through his nose. He gave Eijun a hard look and explained, "You're in Mibu village southwest of Kyoto. This house is the headquarters of the Shinsengumi."
Shinsengumi. Eijun's brow wrinkled as his ankles were untied and he was pulled up to his feet. The treatment was abrupt, but not overly rough. His hands remained bound and the men led him briskly down a hallway.
He'd heard of the Shinsengumi once or twice along his journey, but not in a positive way. The group of men described as the Wolves of Mibu were said to be mere rabble, no better than bandits terrorizing the city, but the house they headquartered in was large and orderly, and when Eijun stepped into a wide, open room there were no fewer than a dozen men in attendance. Miyuki and Furuya were among them, and the former flashed a grin that made Eijun bristle.
A low, menacing growl drew his attention just before a bearded face loomed in front of his. "So you're the punk who picked a fight with our boys, huh?"
"I did not!" Eijun sputtered. Off to the side, Miyuki turned his laugh into a conspicuous cough and Furuya's head tilted quizzically. The space in the center of the room suddenly seemed to shrink under the pressure of several judgmental stares. Eijun's mind raced, replaying the events in his memory. "Well…! But! They were going to kill me, I had to defend myself!" Defiance surged in him as his gaze swept over those gathered in the room. A few appeared troubled, or at least considering, but most of the faces were far from kind. "Does the Shinsengumi just kill whomever they want on the street?!"
"Of course not," said a man wearing a stern expression. His arms were folded across his chest and when he spoke the bearded man backed down, just a bit. "We've been authorized by the Military Commissioner of Kyoto to patrol the city and protect its citizens. Naturally, we do not condone the senseless murder of innocents."
That certainly sounded official and reassuring, but what he said and what Eijun saw a few hours ago didn't match up. Before he could voice the observation Miyuki cut in.
"We do break up fights, though, using force if necessary. If some of the instigators die fighting us, well…" He shrugged and went on. "You're not local by the sound of it. Things were a bit chaotic, you might not have known what was going on."
"Of course I didn't! How was I supposed to know? One minute I was fighting off some robbers and the next—"
"So it was just a misunderstanding," Miyuki said, addressing one person in particular.
He was the oldest in the room—not anywhere near Gramps' age, but definitely hardened by more years than the others. This was the boss, then. He nodded fractionally at Miyuki's words, but the weight of his attention never lifted from Eijun. "Tell us what happened, boy. You have this one chance to explain."
One chance to talk his way out. Eijun had never been good at this sort of thing. When he did something wrong he simply took whatever punishment was his due—usually a lecture by Gramps or Wakana—but the Shinsengumi weren't going to let him off with a few harsh words and a berating smack. The faces around him were steel-edged and serious. Even Miyuki had cast off his air of nonchalant amusement to bore Eijun with a gaze that made him want to fidget.
He took a deep breath.
"I only arrived in Kyoto today. It had gotten late and I was looking for an inn when three men tried to rob me—what else was I supposed to do but fight them off?" He may have gotten overzealous about it, but, well, it's not like he'd been the one to kill them in the end. "I… I guess the fight may have caused some trouble for the townsfolk and I sincerely apologize for the disturbance!"
The boss' expression didn't change. "And then?"
Then the men in the Shinsengumi's haori had come, vicious, violent, and mad, with bone-white hair and crimson eyes, possessing the strength and speed to match an oni. How could Eijun explain what he didn't understand? "Then… the Shinsengumi came… and…"
This was the important part, wasn't it? This was what they were debating over, because Eijun had seen that. Should he deny everything? But Miyuki and Furuya had been there. They'd already explained what happened. Unless… they lied? No, they had no reason to lie, and Miyuki had wanted to kill Eijun in the first place to keep him silent. Was there anything he could say to convince them he wasn't a threat?
His heart was beating so loud in his chest it felt like it filled the room. "It's, uh, it's true that I attacked them. I'm sure that Miyuki bast—he already explained that part. I wasn't sure what was going on, so I just… I acted without thinking."
"I see. So it really was a misunderstanding?"
"…Yes." Eijun's voice sounded pathetically small. He clamped his lips over the questions that wanted to pour out. Even he could tell it was better to keep his mouth shut at this time.
"Hmph," snorted the bearded man, who stopped circling him like a beast stalking its prey. "Well, if you bow your head and properly apologize, then everything's fine, isn't it?"
Was it really? He had somehow convinced them?
A new voice spoke up, serpent-soft and just as deadly. "Could you clarify something first? When the Shinsengumi arrived on the scene, what exactly did you see?"
Unease rippled through the room. Eijun swallowed, his throat dry. "I didn't really…"
The speaker turned his smile on Miyuki. It wasn't a pleasant smile. "Have you anything to add?"
Miyuki answered the pointed comment in a deceptively mild tone, "It's as I told everyone, Ryou-san. When Furuya and I arrived things had gotten out of hand and we ended the fight as quickly as we could, saving this kid in the process."
"Saved me? You threatened to kill me!" The indignant words leapt, burning hot as coals, from Eijun's rash lips.
"Oh?" A frightening smile widened on the small man's face. "And why would that be?"
I've done it now. Eijun whipped an accusing glare at Miyuki, who only lifted a sardonic eyebrow back. "I don't know! Maybe not all of you Shinsengumi are as noble as you think! You're as cruel and hypocritical as the rest of—" your kind, he barely stopped himself from saying, biting his lip.
"It's my opinion," the man called Ryou said, "that killing him would be the safest route." There were nods of agreement around the room.
A youth that shared Ryou's looks, if not his cutting viewpoint, replied, "We're still not certain of what he saw, though."
"Ryou-san wouldn't suggest being drastic unless it was necessary." A shrewd pair of eyes landed on Eijun, pitying. "Sorry, kid. It's complicated."
"I'm not so sure," said the compassionate one who'd fetched Eijun from the room—Nori. "We can't just kill an innocent."
"How do we know if he's innocent or not?"
"Better safe than sorry—"
"I DIDN'T SEE ANYTHING." Eijun's bellow filled the room and then left it empty. The silence of the void was deafening. He took advantage of the opening to barrel on: "Even if I did, I don't care! Whatever the issue is, leave me out of it!" He was done with it all. Whatever had happened out there didn't concern him, nothing mattered more than finding his family and going home. "I only came here for Gramps—that's Sawamura Eitoku, age seventy-nine, he's a doctor and if you've seen him then tell me now. I'll be gone once I find him, I can promise you that!"
Eijun held his head high. Maybe he just blew his chances but no amount of excuses would have helped, better to charge forward and fight tooth and nail if it came down to that. He was prepared for whatever happened.
"Sawamura… you mean to say you're Sawamura-sensei's grandson?"
"That's right! I—" He choked on his words. Blinking, he stared anew at the Shinsengumi's leader who was regarding him with keener interest. Hope kindled in Eijun's chest. "Yes! You know where Gramps is? Please tell me!" His knees threatened to buckle and he'd throw himself down with his head to the floor if it would help.
The man sitting next to the boss spoke for the first time in a quiet, sedate voice. "Unfortunately, Sawamura-sensei has been missing for months. We've been searching for him as well, but so far we’ve found no trace." The gaze resting on Eijun became faintly appraising as he asked, "Do you have any leads you could share with us?"
Eijun opened his mouth, but he snapped it shut again with sudden, instinctive wariness, eying the men around him. "Why are you looking for Gramps?"
Miyuki chuckled. "No need to be suspicious! We won't kill him or arrest him—unless he's done something to deserve it, that is."
"Gramps would never!"
"Oh, really? Well, that would be for the best." A thin smile sat on his mouth, but it disappeared when his neighbor jabbed an elbow into Miyuki's side. Expression turning rueful, he said, "You can tell us what you know. It may be that you're more useful to us alive than dead."
That was hardly reassuring coming from him, but Eijun doubted he had any real choice in the matter. They weren't going to let him walk out without hearing what he knew. Not that he knew much to begin with. "I was told to contact Takigawa-sensei in Kyoto, but when I checked he wasn't home."
The air in the room shifted. Someone said, "Chris?" and the quiet man nodded once. He made a small movement with his hand, reaching across to touch the opposite arm which was tucked in a sling under the outer layer of his kosode.
"That would be my father. As far as I know he hasn't heard from Sawamura-sensei either." Eijun deflated; so much for that lead. All this trouble and he was still no closer to finding the old coot. Chris continued, and his next words bolstered Eijun's spirits. "I believe we should handle this situation with care. Rash decisions won't benefit anyone. Commander, I suggest allowing Sawamura-kun to stay here. We share the same goal of locating his grandfather and the search will be more effective with the input of someone familiar with the doctor."
Eijun looked to Chris as if he was his savior. Whether he was foreign or not didn't matter, whether he was being kind or merely practical didn't matter; people actually listened to his words and nodded their heads along with the proposal, including the boss.
"That appears to be the best approach. Very well. However, Sawamura must agree to our conditions." Eijun straightened his back, prepared to agree to just about anything. "First, you're not to leave the premises without permission from myself or Yuuki. You'll be provided a room here at the Yagi residence, but straying beyond this building is forbidden. Second, you won't ask questions about Shinsengumi business, or discuss Shinsengumi matters with outsiders. Failure to comply with either of these will not end well for you. Is that clear?"
He was effectively a prisoner then, but it was better than being dead. Moreover, he would have help—of sorts—to look for Gramps. The sooner Eijun found him, the sooner they could leave this mess behind and return home to Wakana.
Eijun's first impression of the Yagi residence was that it was huge. It housed the Shinsengumi's executive members—commander, vice commander, general advisor, and all ten captains—as well as the original family who allowed them the use of their property. The rank-and-file soldiers stayed in an empty house next door, but that was in the off-limits zone, so Eijun didn't often interact with the regular troops.
In a matter of days he explored all there was to explore in the Yagi residence and his new lodgings quickly lost their appeal. He wasn't going to find Gramps in a closet or a shed (at least, Eijun hoped not). The captains didn't bring back any news from their patrols, and by the time Eijun thought to ask if he could go out to search the city himself both Commander Kataoka and Vice-Commander Yuuki were away on business in Osaka. Nothing Eijun said could convince the captains to budge on the no-leaving-the-house rule without the required permission.
He thought he might go crazy with boredom those first few weeks and considered escaping. It wouldn't be hard. There was usually someone nearby to keep an eye on him but Eijun could leap the wall before they got close enough to do anything. In the end, though, his pride stamped a foot down on those thoughts. It wasn't the Sawamura way to go back on one's word, and besides, being hunted down by the Shinsengumi would only make finding Gramps harder. So he grabbed hold of his impatience with both hands and kept his impulse in check.
Or rather, he found a different impulse to give into.
It was the lingering memory of that night and what it was like to fight the Shinsengumi that gave Eijun the idea. Not that he enjoyed remembering how easily Miyuki bested him (and the one before, the not-human one, but Eijun wasn't supposed to ask about that or even let on that he knew about it, since everyone was acting like that part of the night hadn't happened), but if nothing else the indignant anger spurred him to grab his sword and locate Miyuki in the courtyard.
"Miyuki Kazuya, I challenge you to a rematch!"
"No thanks," Miyuki said without breaking from his kata. His sword made a graceful arc through the air, fast and precise, catching the light in eye-blink flashes that reminded Eijun of gleaming steel under a white moon. He shivered despite the sun shining brightly overhead.
"Why not?! Afraid of losing this time? That's understandable, but a real man doesn't run away!"
Miyuki completed the form and let his grip on the sword relax, blade pointing downward while he turned, wielding a smirk in place of a weapon. "More like I have no interest in fighting a half-trained brat."
Eijun's knuckles turned white around Daitsuren's hilt. "I'll have you know I wasn't using my full strength back then!"
"Doesn't matter. You could be ten times stronger and it wouldn't make any difference."
"Why you—" He shifted his stance to draw, but before he could even slide an inch of the blade free Miyuki's sword leveled in front of his face.
"Either your teacher did a very poor job, or you were too impatient to learn properly. You won't get anywhere charging in like that."
A piercing, metallic ring filled the courtyard. Eijun gripped his sword in both hands and dove for the opening he'd made in knocking Miyuki's blade away. How dare this human insult Eijun's teacher. He might only be half-trained, and the sword style might be lost forever to the bloodbath that had taken everyone's lives, and to the fire that had destroyed centuries of clan history, but Eijun was still here. The Sawamura clan's heir was still here.
Between an oni and a human, one-on-one, it was clear who should have the advantage. It should have been clear, but for all of Eijun's speed and strength, he never came close to landing a hit no matter how many times he tried. He chased Miyuki around the courtyard, ran at him only for Miyuki to pivot out of the way, and even when Eijun used his momentum to kick off from a pillar, Daitsuren raised high over his head, his downward swing cleaved nothing but air.
"Impressive," Miyuki commented, "but you're wasting too much movement, it's slowing you down. Not to mention you're wide open… right… here!"
The back of his blade slammed against Eijun's arm. He staggered off-balance, the ache of a bruise blooming and then fading under his clothes. Such a small thing wouldn't slow him down. He threw himself back into the fight.
"Take it easy." Miyuki parried another blow. "It's not as if I like beating people up, but… what did I just say about excess movement?" He struck the same spot on Eijun's arm again, making him scowl; the physical sting was short-lived but the injury to his pride left a lasting mark.
Eijun wasn't going to just sit here and take that. I'll show you! Several passes later Miyuki made to strike him a third time, but Eijun was on guard and swiftly blocked him.
"Hah!" he shouted in triumph, disengaging from their clash of blades to wipe sweat from his brow. He was warm with exertion, blood thrumming under his skin.
"Finally." Miyuki sighed, lowering his sword. "I don't envy whoever's going to teach you." He angled his sword into its scabbard and slid it home.
"Teach?" Eijun repeated. Who said anything about teaching?
He noted with an idle spark of satisfaction that Miyuki was out of breath. Not a whole lot, but it was evidence that Eijun had pressured him a little. The mighty 1st Division Captain wasn't infallible after all. "What, were you planning to sit around all day waiting for Kataoka-san and Tetsu-san to return? There's not much to do here except train."
That was true enough, and it had been ages since Eijun last practiced his kenjutsu. He was feeling undeniably good after getting a real workout. Daitsuren's weight was a comfortable fit in his hand after years of growing big enough to properly wield the family heirloom, and it would be a shame if the fine weapon was wasted on… well, it galled him to admit, but in truth he was exactly as Miyuki said: a half-trained amateur.
Eijun frowned as he held up the blade, sunlight gleaming on the bright pattern of the hamon. His gaze traveled down its length to the hand that grasped it, palm bare of a swordsman's calluses, and he glanced sideways to where Miyuki's hands were tucked under the fold of his arms. The Shinsengumi practiced daily. Every morning the regular troops could be heard going through their drills on the temple grounds nearby. Skill was something that was honed. His old master had told him that once. Eijun may have inherited the gifts of his bloodline, but his technique was sorely lacking. Miyuki had made that lesson abundantly clear.
"You understand now?" The smile that tilted upwards on Miyuki's face was a few degrees shy of a full-blown smirk. It was almost kind but could bare an edge at any moment, and Eijun bristled with uncertainty at the sight of it as he sheathed his sword with a click.
"I will concede that I have much to learn," he said stiffly. "Even from a tanuki bastard like you!"
"Haha! I don't want to teach you though, too much hassle."
"On the contrary," said a quiet voice, "I believe you are well-suited to the task."
"Chris." Miyuki greeted him with muted surprise while Eijun whirled to face the man who'd snuck up on them. How long had he been watching from the veranda? His expression was faintly thoughtful and unchanging as Miyuki protested, "Are you kidding? He'd be much better off learning from you."
"Yeah!" Eijun chimed in, enthusiastically agreeing with Miyuki for once. "Anyone but this guy! Uh, not that you're just anyone, Chris-san, that is, I mean…"
"I appreciate the thought, but in my present state I'm afraid there is little I could teach you." He touched his arm, still wrapped in its sling. It had to be a terrible injury to take so long to heal. That was the contradiction of humankind: they were fragile to this extent, and yet they'd been dominating the land for centuries. They spent eras carving out territories and warring over borders, but somehow, instead of exterminating each other, they'd flourished.
For a moment Miyuki looked about to argue, but then he sealed his mouth shut. A rare grimness tightened his expression before sloughing away and he loosened his shoulders in acceptance. "Well, if that's what our advisor suggests, then there's no helping it."
"No way!" Eijun's attention snapped between them with growing dread, but neither budged on the matter.
"Rest assured, Sawamura-kun. Despite appearances, Miyuki is a qualified instructor with an open mind. He'll teach you properly—though, lessons should be conducted on the temple grounds next door where the noise won't bother the residents here." He gave Miyuki a pointed look, who avoided the stare with an air of feigned innocence. Chris shook his head and let the matter slide. "By the way, Sawamura-kun, what style do you practice? You don't seem entirely self-taught." An ember of curiosity warmed Chris's otherwise detached tone, and Eijun was torn between puffing up with pride and deflating from despair. The truth was out of the question, but he couldn't refuse to answer, that would be rude.
He fumbled together a response. "I've been learning on my own since my master died. I think—actually I'm pretty sure the style died with him… unfortunately…"
Chris nodded in understanding, and Eijun was saved from accidentally revealing too much. "I see. That's a pity, and I apologize for bringing up any bad memories."
"Oh no, not at all!"
"I hope you will find this a good opportunity to expand your learning. From what I saw you possess great potential, and left-handed swordsmen are exceedingly rare."
Was that so? Eijun supposed they wouldn't be common, but it must be a bigger deal than he thought since Miyuki added, "You won't face prejudice for that among us. Whether you're a lefty, or were born a peasant, or are mixed race…" The look he sent Chris was friendlier than his usual grin. "It doesn't matter here."
"Indeed," Chris said, though the word weighed heavy with more than nostalgia and he dropped his gaze instead of sharing in Miyuki's rare openness. Closing off, Chris started to turn away. "I should be on my way. If you'll excuse me…"
A brief farewell later and Eijun was left alone with Miyuki in the courtyard again. The breeze on his skin felt downright chilly as his body cooled, reminding him that it wasn't quite spring yet. "I hope Chris-san's arm heals soon…"
"…Yeah." A pause followed, and Miyuki cleared his throat lightly. "Sorry about earlier."
"Huh? What are you talking about?"
"I made light of your learning under your former master. Can't say I didn't mean to offend, but that was out of line. Sorry."
It was a casually worded apology, edging on flippant, but he made no excuses and the bare-boned honesty wasn't wrapped up in a glinting smile. He wasn’t grudging or embarrassed, either.
Eijun would have liked to milk the moment for all it was worth, but the sincerity disarmed him. Somehow, when Miyuki dropped his taunting guard Eijun was the one who wound up defenseless, and he found that he was a little sorry, too. He'd thought Miyuki was too arrogant to apologize when he was at fault. Eijun's whole understanding of him started to tilt.
But a single glance righted the balance again. A knowing smirk plastered over Miyuki's features when he caught Eijun staring. "You were thinking that you'd misjudged me just now, right?"
The burn rising under Eijun's skin was fast becoming a familiar reaction to everything Miyuki said or did.
"Clearly I haven't!"
Eijun flicked his wrist, releasing the top from the coil of string wrapped around its tapering body. It spun and landed perfectly in the makeshift arena—a piece of canvas laid over a bucket to make a shallow concave surface—and at the same time as Eijun's top touched down another one joined in, the two toys clacking against each other in a brief, but furious battle, until one of them was knocked out of the ring.
"You lost again." Tamesaburo spoke with the smugness of a five-times-winning-streak champion. His top went around in wobbly victory circles until it lost momentum and rolled to a stop.
"I bet you're cheating," Eijun said, narrow-eyed and accusing. He retrieved his top from the ground and dusted it off. Its flat surface was engraved with the kanji for "fortune" but so far it was bringing him nothing but bad luck. He started to reach for Tamesaburo's top but the boy snatched it up before Eijun could inspect it and compare.
The twelve-year-old son of the Yagi family grinned with abundant, fresh-faced innocence. "How can that be? They're exactly the same. Wanna try again?"
Eijun was about to accept the challenge and demand they both pick new tops from the boy's collection, but a prickle of awareness between his shoulder blades made him dart a look over his shoulder. "Another time," he said, dropping everything to run and catch up to the squad of men leaving through the gate. They were in uniform, ready for a patrol, and Eijun rested a hand over the hilt of his sword as he drew up in front of Miyuki. "If you're going, take me with you!"
The commander and vice commander had consented to him leaving the compound when the men went on their routine patrols, so long as the captains agreed. Some of them invited Eijun along, others had to be asked. They hadn't been pleased about the arrangement at first, but as the months went by everyone grew accustomed to Eijun's presence and now they rarely denied his request. Although some of them were better company than others.
Miyuki hummed, appearing to think about it (as if he hadn't been pointedly staring at Eijun's back just a minute ago). "Are you sure? You kids looked like you were having fun and I didn't want to interrupt."
"Who are you calling a kid?! I'm sixteen already!"
"Yes, yes. All right, come along then. Whew, it's hot today. I'd rather stay in the shade myself, but duty calls."
Kyoto got as hot and humid as Edo in the summer, making for a sweaty, dusty walk through the city streets. It wasn't exactly a peaceful stroll, either. There were fights to break up and rebel sympathizers to investigate, and it wasn't unusual if steel had to be drawn to settle matters. Eijun stayed clear of the altercations. Shinsengumi business wasn't his business—he'd learned that lesson the hard way the first time he'd been out and gotten involved in a skirmish with some bad-tempered ronin. His sword was for personal defense, not to be wielded carelessly, and certainly not in the name of a group he wasn't really a part of. After half a year Eijun might have become more of guest and less of a prisoner, but he wasn't the Shinsengumi's comrade.
And that was as it should be. Once he found Gramps they were going home to Wakana in Edo. Eijun liked the Shinsengumi well enough, and he was thankful for their generosity (and terrible personality aside, Miyuki was making Eijun into a much better swordsman), but they were human when all was said and done. Since ancient times, human and oni weren't meant to live side by side. Eijun had his family and the Shinsengumi had their cause; they were destined to separate in the end. That was for the best.
…But for now, at least, they walked the same road under the same blazing hot sun. More than a few of the soldiers had taken ill from the heat, and the crowd would have been unbearable if not for the way people parted at the sight of the Shinsengumi in their distinctive uniforms. Wherever they went cheerful chatter turned into hushed murmurs, and many a sidelong glance followed them from under the brim of a hat or behind the flutter of a fan.
While Eijun tagged along he would approach random people to ask if they'd seen Gramps, but most of the time the answer was a negative, and the few times he found a lead it turned out to be someone else. There was no shortage of old men in Kyoto, and plenty of them were doctors, but precious few practiced Western medicine.
"Are you sure you haven't seen him? He's got hair like this…" Eijun gestured over his head but young store clerk only giggled and replied in the Kyoto dialect that was becoming familiar to his ears that no, she would have remembered someone like that, but she'd keep an eye out until the next time Eijun stopped by. He was in the middle of thanking her when a whistle made his head jerk around, and the source of the noise was Miyuki making a "hurry up" motion as the 1st Division continued on their way. "Sorry, gotta go!" he said to the girl, and added, "stay healthy!" since it looked like the heat was going to her face.
"Kids these days." Miyuki sighed airily once Eijun caught up.
"For the last time, I'm not a kid! And you, you're not even twenty yet, so you don't get to talk like that!"
"I'm not the one flirting during work."
"What are you—what are you talking about, I was not—!" It should have been too hot out for him to burn up on the inside, too, but his face felt like it was steaming. He'd only asked her a question. They'd exchanged a handful of polite words at the most, and besides he was—well, no, he probably wasn't engaged anymore.
Huh. This was the first time he'd thought about that. The match had been arranged long ago between the Sawamura clan and a powerful oni family in the west, but the way Eijun was now, no self-respecting clan would waste a pureblood female on him. If they even knew he was alive. He'd been familiar (not friendly, definitely not) with some of the members of the other clan as a child, but had never come face to face with his betrothed, so out of the many things he'd lost his fiancée was a minor one. He was free to flirt with girls if he wanted. Although he'd never felt much need to before, and didn't feel like doing so now.
"I have to find Gramps," Eijun decided. "There's no time to be messing around with girls!"
"How dedicated." It was hard to tell whether Miyuki was making fun of Eijun or not. "Still, it's the start of the Gion Festival. Wouldn't hurt to enjoy yourself a little."
Even though Eijun had just declared his intent to put family and duty above all else, he wavered at the mention of Kyoto's famous month-long festival. Maybe… just one of the parades would be fine to see… "Am I allowed to go? It's really okay?"
"I don't see why not. You know the rules, and I'm sure Kuramochi will take you."
"What about you?" Eijun asked before he could think better of it, and was promptly appalled at himself. Why did he care whether Miyuki was going to the festival or not?
"Me?" Miyuki blinked, then slowly grinned. Before he could make Eijun regret saying a word, one of the division members called out with an urgency that banished the grin from Miyuki's face. The light in his gaze sharpened, attention landing on what appeared to be a brewing confrontation. While he went to settle it with a hand on propped on the hilt of his sword, Eijun counted himself lucky and backed out of the potential fighting range.
The crowd moved with him, giving the group a wide berth in the street. Eijun turned away at the first hiss of steel but that didn't stem the answering rush of blood rising in him like a tide. He had no choice but to wait it out, ignoring the waves pushing for him to act. His help wasn't wanted or necessary and the fight was none of his business. He had a different purpose in coming here. Nothing else mattered, whether it was girls or festivals or the Shinsengumi.
He squeezed through the onlookers until he reached the opposite side of the street where pedestrians continued on their way. Most of them went with their heads down, hurrying past the sounds of the nearby skirmish. Eijun was picking out a likely person to snag and question when he happened to glance at a storefront, catching sight of a familiar head of cherry blossom hair.
"Harucchi!" he called without thinking, and approached the store. It sold charcoal and firewood, and probably didn't get a whole lot of business at this time of year, but despite the weather there were a number of customers gathered.
Haruichi was among them and he made the barest of motions, a mere twitch, but otherwise didn't respond to the shout. He wasn't in the Shinsengumi uniform, but that was normal. The Kominato brothers weren't captains, though they still reported directly to the vice commander, and it was better for them to not be associated with the infamous blue and white haori since their investigative work necessitated secrecy… which… gave Eijun the feeling that he'd done something very stupid, and very bad.
He stuttered some kind of excuse when the store owner greeted him and quickly turned away. Maybe nobody had noticed? He just had to leave and no one would be the wiser. But as soon as Eijun took a step one of the customers raised an alarm.
"Masu-san, that kid was with the Shinsengumi!"
There was no time for Eijun to try and deny it. The cry caught and all of a sudden the store was a whirlwind of activity; a few of the customers fled, one merely looked on in utter confusion, while the owner and the rest piled into the back room. Haruichi grimaced as he chased after them.
Noise erupted from within, clattering and surprised shouts, a clang of metal that made Eijun's eyes fly wide at the escalating situation that he'd inadvertently caused. His hand flew to his sword, but a grip twisting in his collar stopped him from rushing in.
"Geez," Miyuki said, hauling Eijun back and depositing him out of the way. "You sure have the worst luck. And I guess I do, too. Stay here and don't get into any trouble."
He gave Eijun's shoulder a pat that was partly a warning, and then the white-patterned trim of his sleeves billowed out as he leapt into the store, sword in hand. The chaos inside doubled and outside the onlookers had gathered so close that Eijun couldn't have slunk off if he wanted to.
Glum, he waited for the dust to settle. He'd be lucky if they let him off with just a lecture after this.
Back at headquarters Eijun's forehead met the polished wood floor with a dull thump as he flattened himself in full prostration. "I was careless!" He ignored the hand yanking on his shoulder and Kuramochi's hiss of, cut that out, you moron. Eijun refused to be moved until he'd said his piece. "In my ignorance I caused trouble for the Shinsengumi and for that I apologize. I shall reflect on my actions and will accept full responsibility for this mess!"
"Eijun-kun," Haruichi said in an undertone, sounding pained. "There's no need for this, really. You didn't know I was undercover."
"That's no excuse!"
"It's true that you disrupted the investigation." Eijun cautiously lifted his eyes to meet Chris' dispassionate gaze. There was no judgment there, but it wasn't a comforting look either. "However, you are not the only one who was careless. Miyuki was responsible for watching you."
"He was busy, there was another fight—"
"Sawamura." Miyuki said his name with sharp, singular rebuke. Eijun winced as if cut, then rallied, spine straightening, because here he was defending the ungrateful bastard, who went on to say, "Chris is correct, it was my job to keep an eye on you. That was the deal, remember?"
Eijun's burning indignation faltered. "But…!"
"Anyway, what's done is done. It's not all bad. We arrested the rebels and shut down their arms trafficking operation. I'd call that a fine day's work."
"Pardon me," said a voice from outside the door, which slid open to reveal the elder Kominato. His appearance was clean, clothes damp around the sleeves and collar from washing his hands and face. The only visible stains were from water. Eijun's nose wasn't fooled, though; he picked up the copper scent that lingered like a grisly cloud, blood and sweat and sour, curdling fear. Ryousuke stepped inside and shut the door behind him, instantly becoming the center of attention.
Yuuki was the one to ask: "Did he say anything?"
The pleased smile that sat on Ryousuke's lips deepened with his nod. "He said plenty. The most relevant part was that the rebels plan to set fire to the city when the wind is strong, and then in the midst of the panic they'll kidnap the emperor."
"Those Choshu bastards!" Isashiki shot to his feet, and a rumbling wave of anger rolled around the room.
The Shinsengumi wasted no time. They prepared to raid the known gathering places favored by the Choshu and put a stop to the plot, but their fighting force was limited. Many of their men were ill from the heat. Messages were dispatched to the military commissioner requesting reinforcements, but as the day lengthened into dusk, no reply came.
A tense, anxious atmosphere settled thick around headquarters. Weapons were sharpened, and Eijun passed more and more men wearing armor under their uniforms: chest guards made of bamboo or leather or even chainmail, padded leggings tied around the shins. It was like they were going to war.
Humans and their wars, was Eijun's initial, disparaging thought. His footsteps slowed, then came to a stop. There was going to be a lot of fighting tonight, not like the little scuffles that happened on patrol with just a couple of troublemakers against a whole division of the Shinsengumi. The reinforcements from Aizu still hadn't arrived. This time the Shinsengumi would be outnumbered, forces split between the two locations they'd narrowed down: the Shikoku Inn and the Ikeda Inn.
Eijun didn't much care about human affairs as a whole. He wasn't very fond of the shogunate but had no reason to sympathize with the rebels, either. And they wanted to set fire to Kyoto…
As the sun dyed everything in fading light, the image of his burning village flared in his memory. The acrid smoke of flame and gunpowder stung his eyes and nose, and he clapped both hands over his ears to block out the screams of the past. The harsh, wavering heat was seared in his mind, but it wasn't real. It wasn't happening, and it wasn't going to happen. The Shinsengumi would make sure of that.
Eijun slammed shut the floodgates of his memories. He refocused on the present, and when he lowered his hands he picked up the sound of voices filtering through the nearest door.
"Commander Kataoka said we're moving out, with or without reinforcements. Can't let the information go to waste, and hey, one of us is worth two or three Choshu ronin, right?" If Kuramochi had any misgivings there was no weight to them in his lighthearted tone.
"I'll make sure to leave you double the enemies then." At the sound of Ryousuke's voice Eijun nearly retreated on the spot—it would have been the wiser choice—but against his screaming instincts he stayed where he was. That his presence hadn't been noticed already was a miracle.
"Oi, oi… ah, whatever. I can take 'em. But I wonder… well, it's night already. We could use them for this mission."
"That would be 'inadvisable,' is how Chris-san put it. They still lose all reason once the blood starts flowing, unable to discern enemy from ally."
For a moment Eijun forgot to breathe, which saved him from being discovered. A new memory rose up, ice-cold rather than burning-hot, scenery washed in shadow and moonlight with blood in the air, and blood-red eyes coming at him in the dark. Eijun covered his mouth and forced down every single noise threatening to escape. He even tried to quiet the thunderous pound of his heart, but whether that was out of fear of being heard, or out of the forbidden desire to hear more, he couldn't say. He hadn't forgotten that night. He'd merely put it aside as less important than his main objective. But with answers right around the corner…
"Damn." Kuramochi sighed. "I hate to see them end up like this. It's not what they would have wanted."
"They had a choice."
"If you can call that a choice."
Movement rustled from inside the room and for a crippling instant Eijun was sure the door would open, revealing him to a pair of very annoyed, not-to-be-crossed men. There was no excuse he could make when he'd clearly been eavesdropping. Dread immobilized him, and he listened intently while his heart tried to shudder up his throat, but the sounds inside didn't come any nearer.
He couldn't risk even a breath of relief. Deciding that he'd pushed his luck enough for tonight, Eijun eased away from the door with silent, aching slowness. Not a single floorboard squeaked under the stealthy pad of his feet, and just when he thought he might be clear he rounded a corner to smack face-first into a barrel chest.
His nose bounced off a curved bamboo protector. Backing up a step, hand raised to his face, Eijun lifted his head to meet the stern, penetrating stare of Commander Kataoka. Only then did Eijun yelp and scurry out of the way.
"My apologies! I wasn't looking where I was going, I should have been more careful. Are you heading out now? Did the reinforcements arrive?"
"Time is of the essence," the commander said in answer to both questions. "Yuuki is heading for the Shikoku Inn. The rebels are likely meeting there, but as a precaution I will be taking the remaining men to the Ikeda."
So it was happening at last. Eijun nodded his head in understanding, breath coming short and fast. "I see. Good luck, sir. Um…" The words piled up and sat heavy on his tongue. They could have sat there forever, or at least until the moment passed and Eijun gulped them back down, but for better or worse he was granted another option.
With a mighty shove Eijun pushed the words out. "Sir! Please take me with you!" He bent at the waist in a rigid bow, arms stiff by his sides. His throat constricted tense and tight as he waited—not long, a handful of heartbeats—until the commander's deep voice rumbled out:
"It's Shinsengumi business. You will remain here."
The blood rushed to Eijun's head and he made no move to straighten. His request was ludicrous, and he could hardly believe he was making it, but he pressed on. "I know I have no right, and I'm not a member of the Shinsengumi, but I…! I can be of help! It may not be my business but you can't say I'm uninvolved. What the rebels are planning… I don't want that. I definitely don't want that. I can't stand by and do nothing, so please let me help!"
The hot, humid air stuck to Eijun's skin, and he gasped as if he'd been training for hours. There was no trace of a breeze today, but if it had been windy, would the rebels have struck? Kyoto would make a much larger inferno than his remote village had. The city was nothing special to him, and its citizens were complete strangers, but the thought of watching everything burn was unbearable. Never again.
"Very well." The commander's tone remained grave and unmovable. "Your determination is enough that you may lend us your sword. Bear in mind that you will be risking your life, and no one will be responsible for protecting you. If you are willing to fight, and agree to obey orders, then prepare to leave immediately."
This time the rush filled Eijun from head to toe with crackling energy. His resolve gained wings and soared.
"Thank you, sir!"
"There's no mistake." Ryousuke rejoined the group after his reconnaissance of the building and the looming shadows yielded a sliver of a smile on his face. "The rebels are inside. Lucky us."
"Damn," Kuramochi muttered, though not in response to the news per se. He reached into his sleeve and withdrew a short string of coins that he counted off and slapped into Miyuki's waiting hand. "I gave them too much credit. Who knew they'd be stupid enough to meet here tonight?"
"They always meet at the Ikeda." Miyuki's satisfaction curled at the corners of his mouth.
"But after the arrests we made? You'd think they'd play it safe after that."
"The commotion this afternoon spooked them, so now they're in a hurry to come up with a plan. No time to make arrangements somewhere else."
"You didn't know that for sure. You got lucky this time."
Miyuki tossed the strung coins in the air, letting them jingle. There was enough to buy an expensive meal. "Think whatever you want," he said pleasantly, and stowed his winnings away.
Eijun shifted from foot to foot, nerves buzzing and making him uncomfortable in his own skin. He was uncomfortable in the clothes, too. Over his kosode he was draped in the blue and white Shinsengumi haori to mark him as one of their own, a precaution rather than a formality so he wouldn't be accidentally cut down by an ally if—when the fighting started. A forehead protector was tied snug over his brow, and the cuffs of his hakama were gathered under cloth leggings. Daitsuren was a familiar reassurance hanging by his right hip.
"Are we going in now?" he asked.
Miyuki glanced up and down the street from where they were hiding in a cluster of alleys. Lanterns lit the main road and there were still many civilians going about their business with a festive air, but the crowd would thin out soon. "Not yet, there's no sign of the reinforcements from Aizu or the judiciary commissioner, and there could be two or three dozen rebels inside."
They'd be outnumbered two to one, maybe three to one. "What's taking them so long?!"
"Politics," Kuramochi said with a dismissive roll of his eyes.
"What does that—"
"Quiet." Miyuki shushed him, watching the shutters of the inn carefully. "If they notice us we'll lose what little advantage we have."
It was hours before anything changed, though. The moon had risen high in the sky and their time to act was steadily draining away. There were no additional troops, not even their own men from the Shikoku Inn who should have been alerted to the situation. The messenger may have been waylaid, and they couldn't spare another.
Commander Kataoka strode forward, pausing at the mouth of the alley for the others to fall in behind him. Eijun was surrounded by warriors, comrades, ten resolute men prepared to do battle regardless of the odds, and he would fight alongside them. He had his own reasons.
"Let's go." The commander led them in a charge that burst through the Ikeda's front doors. Wood paneling crashed out of their path. Surprised shouts and horrified gasps rose as the Shinsengumi filled the entryway, and Commander Kataoka's roar shook the building. "We are the Shinsengumi, acting on authority granted by the Aizu domain to restore order! By imperial decree you are to stand down! Those that resist will be shown no mercy!"
A cry of alarm went up to warn the rebels. Feet pounded along the second floor while the men downstairs drew their swords. The few unarmed employees scattered to the back, not daring to try and run past the Shinsengumi, who met the enemy with a crash of steel.
Blood spurted, and the wet sounds of impaled, carved flesh punctuated the scrape and clash of locked blades. Eijun pushed a man back, forced his weapon aside, and hacked into his unprotected torso. The pale, pristine fabric of his borrowed haori stained red. He spun and blocked an incoming attack, holding off the opponent, whose face twisted in shock and grim determination. The man disengaged from Eijun to try and gain some distance, retreating deeper into the room. Eijun leapt after him.
"Oi!" Kuramochi shouted above the din. "Don't go off on your—ah, damnit!"
But Eijun wasn't worried, he easily evaded the strike and dispatched the man. Perhaps being separated from the others was for the best, because when another came swinging at him he caught the downward blade with his bare hand by reflex. The edge sank deep, cracking through bone, but the pain was nothing more than a dull, dampened throb. Daitsuren flashed in the darkness, and the force behind the opponent's blow went slack.
He tossed the dead man's sword away with a clatter. His limp hand started to mend, and Eijun glanced down at the ravaged flesh melting smooth again. The white mountain stripes of his sleeve were soaked, but no one would raise an eyebrow over that when blood spatter was in such great supply. He'd have to take care to avoid injuries that made telltale rips in his clothes, though.
Footsteps ran up and down the stairs, colliding in a flurry of strikes, and Eijun looked up in time to jump out of the way of a body tumbling over the railing. Rebel, not Shinsengumi. He glimpsed light blue fabric fluttering up to the second floor.
"Pay attention, you idiot!" A sword thrust came so close Eijun felt the wind of it, piercing through a man trying to sneak up on him. It wasn't a killing strike though and Kuramochi snarled while the enemy staggered back. Wounded, he was finished in moments. Kuramochi slid his sword free and swung his feral gaze towards Eijun, assessing his state. "You okay?"
He resisted the urge to look at his hand and tried to subtly hide it behind his back. It felt healed, but the scrutiny in those eyes made him nervous. "I'm fine, really!"
"Hmph. Don't go running off on your own like that. Looks like those lessons with Miyuki are paying off, though."
Eijun hadn't noticed when he was fighting but it was true, his skill had improved. He could tell the Tennen Rishin Ryuu was slipping into his original style. Half a year ago he might have considered such a thing a corruption of his ancestral teachings, but in practice he couldn't deny that the learning was effective. Efficient. Blood dripped down his family's sacred blade. He'd just killed three people, and it had been as easy as he always imagined.
There was something different, though, something missing. His hands were steady and sticky as they wrapped around his sword's hilt, heart beating fast inside his chest. The inn was a haze of violence cut through with killing edges, and every breath Eijun took tasted metallic. His senses were in overdrive. He was in his element. He could almost grasp the uninhibited joy that lay just beyond his reach, the completeness of what he truly was, if only he chose to cast off the human shell restraining him.
He reached for his power, and then stopped. The battle continued to rage all around him, singing to him, he could devastate everyone in this building, friend or foe they were all human in the end anyway… but that wasn't right. That wasn't what Eijun came here to do. He wore the Shinsengumi uniform and that made him one of them, at least for tonight. Commander Kataoka had allowed him to participate and Eijun had agreed to follow orders. He wasn't fighting alone. Kuramochi was by his side, watching him, had come to help him when he didn't need to…
"Oi, Sawamura—what the?!"
They both threw themselves out of the way as a tall, broad-shouldered figure leapt down from the second floor, landing with a miniature quake that rattled the building's foundations. Eijun's nerves sparked white-hot before exploding in a frenzy. His concentration shattered and shook apart as the man straightened up, looking first to the side where Kuramochi flanked him, weapon raised, and then the man's rock-steady gaze shifted to land on Eijun, who stared back with wide-eyed, throat-squeezing realization.
Harada made no greeting beyond the look—it was enough, a silent acknowledgment of each other—and then he was turning to Kuramochi, who growled through his bared teeth. "The Choshu got some heavy muscle on their side, eh? Well, you know what they say about the bigger they are…"
He dashed in, but even Kuramochi's considerable speed was easily sidestepped by Harada. "You're mistaken," the man rumbled, hands empty of any weapon but only because he didn't need one. "We need not fight, put your sword down and you will be spared."
The words may as well have been oil poured on a fire for the way Kuramochi's fighting spirit blazed. He brandished his blade high. "Spare this."
Eijun made a sound in his throat and that was all he could do, because Harada caught the blade in the iron clamp of his fingers, stopping the edge millimeters from the unprotected skin of his palm. As expected of the strongest retainer of the Narumiya clan.
If Harada is here, then that means…!
A crash and a thud came from upstairs. Eijun started towards the noise, but skidded to a stop and whirled around in anguish. "Kuramochi-san!"
"Go!" Kuramochi yelled, abandoning his sword with a grimace and drawing his wakizashi. "I'll handle this guy!"
There was no way he could take on Harada alone, and neither did Eijun have any hope of convincing Harada to desist. He only took orders from one person.
Suddenly the blood-dark atmosphere of the battle lifted on a wave of elation as backup finally arrived in Shinsengumi blue. Furuya was at their forefront, taking in the scene with a glance and choosing the most powerful target. He released his sword in a lightning-fast draw that Harada swiftly blocked.
Eijun made up his mind and left them to it. He flew up the stairs, taking them two at a time. Bodies littered the second floor and all he had to do was follow the trail of wreckage to a single room where two occupants continued to fight.
Miyuki was grinning—of course he was—and when he stepped into the pool of moonlight under the window he was painted in a chiaroscuro of silver and shadow. Then he moved, flowing through the sweep of his blade, and metal rang against metal in a quick burst of thrusts, each one expertly blocked. He fell back, teeth still bared in that permanent challenge, but he was panting hard while his opponent breathed easy.
"I guess you're not too shabby," Mei said with drawling indulgence. "For your kind, anyway."
"Oh? Thank you for the compliment. I'd return it, but I don't know anyone who's as much of a brat as you."
Mei's good humor turned to ash and the ice of his eyes burned. "You lowlife, how dare you speak to me that way."
"My apologies, little lord."
"Wait!" Eijun cried out, but it happened too fast. Miyuki's sword slid harmlessly past Mei, and before he could withdraw Mei lifted a foot to slam into his chest. The strength of the blow knocked Miyuki into the wall where he collapsed, wheezing, and a wet cough hacked up his throat to splash red into his hand. Blood oozed through his fingers and dripped on the tatami. Yet even then, he struggled to get back on his feet. "Wait, stop!" Eijun threw himself between them.
"Sawamura, move." Miyuki's words were thick and pained as he regripped his sword, staggering upright. He braced himself against the wall.
"'Sawamura,'" Mei repeated to himself, gaze flicking from Eijun's face to his family sword in recognition. "So you're alive. What are you doing here?"
"I could ask you the same! What are you doing with the Choshu?"
"I'm not with them," Mei sneered. Six years had done nothing to temper his arrogance. "But that doesn't matter, I was just about to leave. Right after I kill this insolent cur who dared to challenge me."
"No!" Eijun started to lift his sword. He hesitated when puzzlement flashed across Mei's features, but the fury that settled in afterwards left Eijun with no other choice. "Mei, leave it alone! There's no need to fight!"
"You…" Eyes narrowed to slits, Mei aimed a heavy, furious strike at Eijun's blade that would have sent the weapon flying if it hadn't been held in oni hands. "What do you think you're doing, siding with them? Have you thrown away your pride?!"
"That's not it! I just couldn't stand by when people were going to set fire to the city!"
"Why do you care whether this stinking city burns?" Mei advanced, and the next clash of their blades was a prolonged, steel-grinding test of strength. As children they'd been close to equal. Defeating Mei had once been Eijun's goal, something he'd known was within his grasp and all he'd needed was just a few more years of training. Now, though, the difference was a wide chasm between them. Eijun had spent too many years neglecting his swordsmanship. It took everything he had to hold Mei off and that wasn't going to last long. His waraji slid over the tatami as he lost ground.
Then, right before his stance broke, the pressure forcing him back suddenly vanished.
Mei swung his sword to the side, parrying Miyuki with an enraged snarl. "You stay out of this!"
"Sorry," Miyuki said with violence in his grin. He drew his swordarm back, holding the blade parallel to the ground. "We have a rule: no one-on-one fights, and breaking Shinsengumi regulations is punishable by hara-kiri." He launched himself forward.
Eijun joined in. It wasn't honorable, but this wasn't an honorable situation. Between the two of them they put Mei on the defensive.
The blue in his eyes shone with a light that outclassed the moon and Eijun's insides clenched up. If Mei used his full power… but he didn't, he only focused on countering Miyuki, not caring if that left him open to Eijun and in that split-second Eijun hesitated to take the strike. His sword wasn't meant to be used on his own kind.
But in that instant Mei overpowered Miyuki, who slipped to one knee, and Mei raised his sword for the final blow with a triumphant smile.
"I'll do you a favor and cut you open myself!"
Eijun didn't hesitate again. He threw himself forward, not to attack, but to intercept the path of the sword. Daitsuren came up, but he couldn't block the swing completely. That was fine, though. Eijun could withstand the injury. Miyuki could not.
The cleave of steel through flesh never came. Mei halted his blade inches above Eijun where it trembled in a white-knuckled hand. His eyes, still furious, swam with disbelief that Eijun felt mirrored in himself.
He'd never planned on defending any humans.
It was just… the Shinsengumi treated him well when they didn't have to. Miyuki, for all his personality faults, trained him earnestly when he didn't have to. Eijun owed them a debt, but more than that, he didn't want to watch them die any more than he wanted to watch the city burn.
Doubt firmed into resolve. "Mei—"
"Shut up!" Mei whirled away, thrusting his sword into its scabbard. He spat his words venomously. "You're a disgrace. I don't even want to look at you anymore, so do whatever you want. Stay with this rabble for all I care. But don't ever appear before me again." With that dismissal Mei planted one foot on the sill of the window, momentarily blocking the moonlight. His shadow swallowed the room. Then in a flicker he was gone.
The room fell silent. Eijun's breath whooshed out of him as he sagged to the floor, sword thumping on the tatami. Downstairs was quiet. The fighting had ended in victory for the Shinsengumi.
"Haha…" His heart pounded loud in his chest, filling him with the sound of its beat, which anchored him to the present when he otherwise would have floated away on his relief. "We did it, Miyuki—ow!"
Fingers gripped his shoulder in a bruising hold, turning him with a shove that knocked Eijun into the wall. Miyuki was pretty strong for a human, but the awful suspicion he pierced Eijun with kept him immobile more than the arm pressing across his sternum did.
"Explain to me, what's your relation to that guy?"
Eijun's heart continued to beat wildly, but for a different reason now. Gone were the smirk and the ever-present laughter in Miyuki's tone. Not a glimmer of friendliness could be found in the depths of his hardened gaze, and Eijun had thought his mocking edge was sharp, but that was the blunted end compared to this, the deadly serious, knife-point threat in his question.
Pressure ached over and inside Eijun's chest. He opened his mouth, but every excuse in the world would ring hollow. "It's not what you think…!"
"Then tell me. Did I make a mistake? Were you sent here as a spy?"
"Where did you come from? Whose side are you on now?"
"I'm not on anyone's side! I told you, I only came to Kyoto to find Gramps!" He flexed under Miyuki's hold, pushing him off, and then Eijun was on his feet snatching up his sword in case he had to make a run for it. And things had been going so well… "I saved your life, you know! The least you could do is trust me!"
"Trust?" Miyuki laughed, but the sound was brittle and empty, bleached of his usual humor. "Looks like we're both liars, if only by omission. How could we trust each other?"
"I… the truth is…" Eijun clamped his mouth shut and shook his head. What was he thinking? The truth had too high a price to pay, and this wasn't worth it. His eyes dropped a spot on the tatami where someone had left a dent in the woven rushes, and nearby was a dark, wet stain—Miyuki's blood. Eijun stared at it and swallowed, but said nothing. It wasn't worth it.
The stillness stretched between them, becoming an impasse, until finally Miyuki said, "Fine. We'll leave it at that."
Eijun's eyes flew towards him. "What? Just… leave it…?"
Miyuki turned towards the door, slightly hunched as he walked. "Why not? The Shinsengumi has its secrets, you can keep yours. Fair?"
"Uh… yes! Does that mean you won't tell anyone?" Somehow Eijun didn't think the others would come to a unanimous agreement over this, and he wouldn't put it past Ryousuke to kill him in his sleep like the scary assassin he was.
"I won't. You have my word." A brief, nearly inaudible sigh hitched Miyuki's shoulders. He still clutched his sword in his hand, and lifted it with the slow, strained movement of someone nursing an injury to sink the blade into the scabbard. His voice went cold. "I won't concern myself with you anymore."
A lump rose in Eijun's throat but the words crumbled in his mouth. What kind of protest could he possibly make? And why would he want to? He'd never intended to get closely involved with the Shinsengumi, or with Miyuki in particular—hadn't wanted anything to do with the cunning bastard in the first place. Miyuki had tried to kill Eijun the first time they met… or perhaps not, now that Eijun knew what Miyuki's killing intent really felt like.
Well, it didn't matter anymore. Eijun sheathed his own sword at his hip. "I understand—Miyuki? Oi!"
He rushed forward to catch Miyuki as he dropped unconscious, his pale face a stark contrast to the blood smeared around his mouth and chin. After receiving an injury severe enough to make him cough blood Miyuki had still fought Mei off with all his strength, and then he'd confronted Eijun with enough force to stun him speechless. No wonder the man couldn't keep going. It was amazing he'd lasted this long.
"You idiot, you're only human!" Eijun laid him flat on the floor and looked him over for any other wounds, but there were none that were serious. All that fighting, all the bodies Eijun had passed in the hall, and it had taken one of the strongest oni in the country to land a good hit on Miyuki. "You tough bastard," Eijun said in grudging admiration as footsteps started to climb the stairs, familiar voices calling out. He sat by Miyuki's side and waited for help to arrive.
Chapter 2: Foretelling
In the cicada's cry
No sign can foretell
How soon it must die.
– Matsuo Basho
The grind of mortar and pestle was a homey sound to Eijun's ears, as was the gentle boil of water where an infusion brewed. He recognized it as one of the types that had to steep for hours, though the conditions it was supposed to treat escaped him. Memorization of different herbs, their combinations, and the ailments they cured had never been one of his strong points, no matter how much Gramps and Wakana had tried to make him study. Eijun just wasn't meant to be a pharmacist, but as long as someone told him what to do he could be of assistance.
Today, though, he was a customer.
"Almost done," Haruno said with a cheerful smile as she set her pestle aside. The finely ground powder was measured and mixed in a bowl with other ingredients—cinnamon bark, licorice root, and cloves, among others—which probably smelled better than they tasted. There was enough for several doses, each individually wrapped in a packet of paper. "Here you are. Is that all you'll be needing today?"
Eijun counted out the money he'd been entrusted with to pay for the medicine. "Yeah, thanks!"
"We're happy to assist." The Yoshikawa Apothecary was one of the rare shops that didn't begrudge servicing the Shinsengumi. Thanks to their patrols, many of the local gangsters had been forced to shut down their operations and no longer troubled the honest merchants, but few of them were grateful for the help. They thought they were trading in one kind of trouble for another.
Medicine tucked into his sleeve, Eijun stepped out of the shop into the bright morning sunlight. Haruichi waited for him nearby.
"Ready to head back?"
"Yes, mission accomplished!"
They made their way through the streets of Kyoto. After several months Eijun had become familiar enough with the city's layout to find his own way around, but he still wasn't allowed out of the compound without a chaperone. It was less like being supervised, though, and more like having a companion for his errands, so he didn't mind it too much.
All around, the townsfolk bustled with activity, and since Eijun wasn't with one of the patrols no one paid him and Haruichi any attention. Peddlers sold their wares, a storyteller entertained a small crowd gathered in front of his stall, and porters ran to and fro. There were quite a lot of porters today. When Eijun took a closer look, more than one store was clearing everything out.
"What's going on?"
"People have decided it would be wise to move if they have the means." Haruichi pointed out the occasional vacated building as they passed. There weren't a lot; it wasn't an easy or cheap thing to move one's entire livelihood, but in a major city like Kyoto the empty spots stood out. Lowering his voice, Haruichi explained, "Word is that the rebels are acting suspicious again. There's talk of war."
"Wa—" Eijun clapped a hand over his own mouth before the word could shout itself free.
Haruichi nodded grimly. "And as I'm sure you've noticed, public sentiment is not exactly on the shogunate's side."
Things had gotten a little better for the Shinsengumi since the Ikeda Incident last month—a surge of new recruits, bonus payments rewarded from the Aizu, and a slight improvement in local attitude towards them—but by and large the popular opinion remained on the side of the rebels. Imperialist and anti-foreign attitudes rallied under the slogan of "sonno joi," revere the emperor and expel the barbarians, while decrying the shogunate as weak for submitting to the foreigners' demands.
And, as usual, the human way was to engage in bloody battle over every little thing.
The oni had once been like that, a very long time ago. A thirst for blood was still embedded deep in their nature. But mindless fighting had only brought them to the brink of their own destruction, and so they'd learned to suppress it, becoming a much more peaceful people overall. If only they could avoid being dragged into human wars…
Maybe that was impossible. Heaven knew they'd tried. Eijun had tried, but he couldn't really say he was uninvolved anymore.
"Eijun-kun? Is something wrong?" Some paces ahead, Haruichi paused and turned around. They both stood still as the stream of townsfolk parted around them and flowed on.
"No… everything's fine." Eijun shook his head, set his shoulders, and let his feet carry him back to headquarters.
"Thanks." Miyuki accepted the medicine and cup of hot sake to wash it down with. The word was a mere acknowledgement and implied dismissal. There was no trace of warmth in his tone, but neither was he particularly cold. Eijun didn't have a good reason to be offended, but the aloof politeness stung anyway.
"Is something the matter?" Nothing disturbed Miyuki's impassive expression, no curve of a smirk, not even the quirk of an eyebrow. Ever since the Ikeda Incident he'd become inaccessible to Eijun, shutting him out with a wall of disinterest. Part of Eijun felt guilty, but another part felt wronged, and as a result he was torn between blurting apologies and grabbing Miyuki by the collar to shake him furiously.
"Oi, whatever's going on with you two, give it a rest." Kuramochi shot them both a sharp look but didn't pry further. He wasn't the type to stick his nose into other people's business. With one last glare Eijun turned away from Miyuki to give Kuramochi his dose of the medicine. He hadn't come out of his fight with Harada unscathed—though the fact that he'd come out of it at all was to be commended—and the blow he'd taken had been devastating enough to crack his forehead protector in two. "Ugh." He grimaced after swallowing the medicine and draining his cup. "Give me a refill, the taste is just…"
"No refills," Ryousuke said before Eijun could get up and trot back to the kitchen for more sake. When Kuramochi turned a wounded look on him, Ryousuke merely smiled. "Focus on getting well before you get drunk. Afterwards you can have as much sake as you want."
"Che," Kuramochi grumbled, glancing away from the other man's closed eyes. "I think I'm well enough already…"
Eijun placed a third portion of the medicine in front of Chris, who glanced down at it and pushed the packet away, shaking his head. "In my case, my wound has already healed…" as much as it ever will, said the empty silence that followed. He could move his arm again but there was almost no strength left in it, and a katana required two hands to be properly wielded. No one—at least none of the captains—said anything aloud, but as far as Chris' career as a swordsman was concerned…
Eijun's mouth firmed into its most stubborn position and he slid the medicine forward again. "Even so, please try it!" Humans healed much more slowly than oni did, but they did heal on their own, so maybe more time was needed. It was too soon to give up.
"Sawamura-kun, I appreciate the offer, but there's no need to waste this on me. It would be better to save it for someone else. Given the situation in the city, our patrols are more dangerous than ever."
"Yes, but I made sure to buy plenty!"
"All right, Sawamura, back off a little." Miyuki's interjection was so unexpected Eijun's mouth immediately snapped shut and his head whipped around. Instead of returning his gaze, though, Miyuki was looking to Chris. "It couldn't hurt to take it since it's already been prepared, and Sawamura's grandfather is a doctor after all."
"As is my father." Chris rolled his shoulders ever so slightly with a sigh. "Very well. Thank you for the consideration, Sawamura-kun."
Eijun beamed with the jointly won victory and Miyuki even smiled a little, though the smile wasn't directed at Eijun. Still, it had been a cooperative effort. Right then and there Eijun decided that this was a bridge he would rebuild, one brick at a time if that was what it took. If nothing else Eijun was confident in his tenacity. Let's see how long you think you can ignore me, Miyuki Kazuya!
Miyuki did glance at him then, as if sensing the intense thoughts being projected his way, but before Eijun could latch onto the opportunity footsteps approached and the door opened to admit Commander Kataoka. Everyone in the room straightened their backs.
"We've received orders from the Aizu domain," he announced. "Battle with the Choshu is imminent and the Shinsengumi will be fighting on the front."
The news was met with a cheer so powerful Eijun felt his own blood stir. For the Shinsengumi this was another chance to distinguish themselves, to prove that their victory at the Ikeda hadn't been a fluke. They had momentum on their side.
"Yuuki, I leave the arrangement of the troops to you."
The commander took his leave, but the furor in his wake showed no sign of dying down.
"I'll definitely pay those bastards back for the Ikeda!" Kuramochi grinned fiercely, slamming a fist into his open palm. The scar on his forehead was as visible as ever, and so it would remain. He claimed that such battle trophies added character.
Ryousuke raised a hand and brought it down in a merciless chop. "You aren't paying anyone back until you've been cleared to return to duty. Isn't that right, Tetsu?"
Yuuki nodded. "It's unfortunate, but as you aren't fully recovered I must ask that you remain here."
"What? I can fight! And besides, if I'm still so injured why am I being hit?!"
"Shall I do it again?" The hand went up and Kuramochi covered his head.
"No, that's all right, Ryou-san. Never mind."
A good-natured laugh went around the room, but towards the end of it Shirasu wondered aloud, "We still don't know who those two powerful warriors were. There can't be many men capable of besting you and Miyuki in a fight."
Not many human men, anyway. Eijun busied himself gathering the empty sake cups on his tray.
Kuramochi frowned thoughtfully. "The one I faced said he wasn't with the Choshu. I don't see why he'd lie about that since he was fighting us anyway."
"The innkeeper wasn't letting just anyone in that night," Haruichi added. "So another party is involved, either as allies to the Choshu…"
"Or perhaps they snuck in," Ryousuke finished the thought. "The rebels we arrested denied all knowledge of the two men we described, so it would fit. Did you notice anything during your fight, Miyuki?"
The tray wobbled in Eijun's hands but he managed to recover before the cups slid and clattered. It was a very small slip and he didn't think anyone noticed. Everyone was looking to Miyuki now, waiting for his reply. He paid no mind to Eijun's nervous glance.
"No," he lied smoothly. "Just that the opponent was strong and he also claimed to not be with the Choshu. Rather arrogantly, in fact. I think it's safe to assume they're not allied with the rebels, though they're certainly not on our side either."
Kuramochi snorted. "Yeah, we're not lucky enough for the enemy of our enemy to be our friend."
"I don't want an untrustworthy friend like that in the first place."
Eijun's shoulders stiffened. Miyuki didn't so much as blink in his direction but the barb flew true, lodging under his ribs where his newly found resolve was skewered and now lay bleeding. Wounded, but alive. Giving up would be easier, but Eijun refused to grant Miyuki the satisfaction.
He glared long and hard. Even if Miyuki didn't look at him directly he would get the message. Eijun gripped his tray, whipped around, and shut the door loudly behind him when he exited, not caring what the others might think. Miyuki could make whatever excuses he wanted. He'd be stuck here with the rest of the injured while Eijun was perfectly healthy and could join the men in battle. His sword would be a welcome asset again. Surely he could carve out some trust with it and prove his intentions through action in place of telling the truth. All he needed was the commander's permission.
Commander Kataoka did not give Eijun permission to join them on the field. He received only a curt, "No. Not this time," when he asked, and then he was left behind in the compound while the rest of the Shinsengumi marched out in full battle gear under the banner that proclaimed "sincerity" for their cause and those they served. They were a small army of blue and white, from all walks of life, united in ambition and loyalty.
He stood at the gate for a while, watching their backs until the last man was gone from his sight. The air was thick with the buzz of cicadas, the sound of summer, but the oppressive heat had broken to give the people of Kyoto a brief respite and many of the soldiers had recovered from their illness. The Shinsengumi that went to do battle was close to full strength, but the absence of two captains, not to mention Chris, was no small thing. Eijun's addition to the fighting force should have been accepted readily.
He'd helped at the Ikeda Inn, hadn't he? Kuramochi had told everyone he'd fought well. The Shinsengumi weren't so protective they would feel the need to keep him out of danger, and he was plenty willing to fight with his life on the line just as any self-respecting warrior would. There was no reason for his offer to fight alongside them to be rejected.
…Unless they didn't trust him, and the only reason they might think that would be if they had proof, or Miyuki's word that Eijun was withholding important information. Not that his acquaintance with Mei had anything to do with the Shinsengumi and the rebels, but Eijun could see why it would look suspicious.
Damnit, Mei, what were you doing at the inn that night?
Eijun gave his head a vigorous shake, dislodging the thought. He had more than enough worries already. No use adding to them. It wasn't as if he could hunt Mei down and demand answers, and even if Eijun somehow found him there'd be another fight, one that wouldn't end well for either of them or the rest of their kind. Better to focus on a more immediate problem. A very nearby problem. There were only a few places around headquarters Miyuki was likely to be and Eijun found him soon in the courtyard.
He wasn't training like usual. His swords were sheathed and set aside so he could sit comfortably on the edge of the veranda, leaning back on his hands to look up at the sky. The expression on his face was troubled rather than peaceful. Eijun followed the line of his gaze as if an answer could be found at the end of it, but all he saw were wispy clouds floating across a field of azure so breathlessly vast Eijun felt as though he could fall into its depths. His face tipped upwards towards the sun, seeking its warmth on his skin, and his eyes squinted full of its blinding brightness.
For a moment he forgot he was in the middle of a crowded human village and could imagine he was back home—not home in Edo but his ancestral home in the mountains, with the rich scent of earth in his nose and the rustle of tall trees nearby, breeze stirring through fields of wild grass and lavender. The peach trees would be heavy with ripe fruit, something to snack on while he sat by a stream with his feet dipped in the cool water. There might be crayfish to catch. The voices and laughter of his friends would carry over the background drone of cicadas. Eventually, he could expect Wakana to come fetch him for afternoon lessons, but books and scrolls were nothing for Eijun to hurry over. If he was going to be holding a sword, though, rather than a brush, that was a different story.
His hand dropped to rest over Daitsuren's hilt. The curtain of his lids opened and he was back in the Shinsengumi's courtyard where lately he'd been practicing on his own. Miyuki was still recovering from his injury, and he might not agree to teach Eijun anymore if he asked…
Wait a minute, I didn't come here to ask about training!
Eijun's head whipped around just in time to catch Miyuki trying to sneak away unnoticed.
The man paused. He didn't turn around right away, but when he did he had a bland expression fixed in place. Eijun never thought he'd miss the smirk but being made fun of was preferable to being dismissed.
"Need something, Sawamura?"
"You—!" Remembering himself just in time, Eijun took a quick look around to make sure they were alone before cornering Miyuki on the veranda and whispering at him furiously. "You didn't tell anyone about what happened, did you?! When I asked the commander to take me along he said no! Why would he say that?"
Eijun had pushed right into Miyuki's space, close enough to catch a flicker of something cross Miyuki's features, too elusive to name, before the ripple of it smoothed over and his eyebrows drew up. He stared down at Eijun from the inch or two difference in their height and said, quite bluntly, "The Shinsengumi aren't obligated to take you anywhere. That was never the agreement. Your requests are granted at our convenience, remember."
"I know that! But why not this time? What's different?"
Miyuki looked at him for a long moment until the corners of his mouth tightened and twisted in wry understanding. "Ah. You're asking about trust again. That's funny—you don't even realize."
On second thought, being mocked might be worse after all. Eijun gritted his teeth. "Then make it clear to me!"
The sardonic humor flattened into point-blank honesty. "I didn't say anything to the commander or the others. I promised I wouldn't. Before you go demanding trust from someone, why don't you show a little of it yourself?"
"That's…!" Not fair, he wanted to say, or: you started it. But regardless of how Eijun might protest, it was still true, and the sting kept his mouth shut.
Miyuki's gaze lingered even after he saw that Eijun understood, holding him still and silent once the annoyance faded, leaving him chastened. He was suddenly reminded of another time when the two of them had stood here in this very spot, when the season had been colder but Eijun's opinion of Miyuki had just started to warm. He was an irritating trickster to be sure, and a headache to deal with, but he wasn't a bad guy and there were times he'd been on Eijun's side. Miyuki might have been on Eijun's side from the start.
Another barely there glimpse of emotion came and went on Miyuki's face, and then he was turning away without a word, making a swift retreat. Urgency seized Eijun and he blurted out the first thing that sprang to his lips.
"I'm sorry!" His hands squeezed into fists and his eyes were anchored to Miyuki's back. He'd stopped, shoulders tense, as if a line was drawn taut between them. Eijun continued, "I shouldn't have accused you. You're right, it's not my place to question the commander. I just… I wish…" He grasped for the correct thing to say but articulation wasn't one of his strengths. There was just the desire to reach out and take back whatever they'd had before, some kind of friendship, maybe, nothing that was close but it was something. A measure of respect. A form of acknowledgement at the very least. But he couldn't reclaim what Miyuki wasn't willing to give. Eijun swallowed and asked, "Can't things go back to how they were before?"
"…It would be wiser not to." Miyuki kept his back to Eijun, but after a few heartbeats a deep breath loosened out of him. "We'll see. I'm… sorry, too. For what it's worth, I don't think you're an enemy. But other than that, don't expect too much."
Eijun's expectations were already blown wide with the relief that he hadn't completely lost Miyuki's regard. He could work with that. It was enough. "Understood! I won't disappoint you!"
The quiet huff that came from Miyuki could have been a laugh. "Getting carried away as usual. Go practice with Kuramochi or something. You both have too much energy."
"I will! Are you… uh… how's your health? Please rest and recover quickly!"
"Oh, I'll be fine." Miyuki half-turned with a hand over his chest. The fractured ribs were healing without complication. "This is nothing, I'll be back in fighting shape in no time. I guess that makes me lucky." His voice dropped and his mood turned somber, but the change didn't seem to have anything to do with Eijun.
It wasn't until later when he was searching the house for Kuramochi that Eijun passed by Chris's room and remembered: not everyone was so lucky.
The seasons turned, summer cooling into autumn, and then winter came howling in to strip the trees of their red-gold cloaks and breathe frost on the ground. Following the rebels' attack on the imperial palace the Shinsengumi were busier ever, their patrols extending beyond Kyoto to Osaka now, and the compound was running out of space for everyone. They expected another batch of recruits when Kuramochi returned from his trip to Edo.
Eijun huddled by the warmth of the stove in the kitchen, skimming over the letter in his hands one more time. It was a brief message in Wakana's neat, practiced script, saying that she would be joining him in Kyoto soon. He'd been here for almost a year already. Wakana thought it was time to look elsewhere for Gramps, but they had no other clues to go on. The Shinsengumi were still interested in finding him, too.
He tucked the letter back inside his sleeve and returned to his task of preparing tea for everyone. When his tray was laden with several steaming cups he took them to the captains who were all gathered together for a meeting to discuss the need for a bigger headquarters.
"What about Nishi Honganji Temple?" The suggestion came from their new military advisor, Ochiai Hiromitsu, as he stroked the tuft of his beard. His arrival had been met with mixed reactions which were reflected in the faces of the captains as they now frowned amongst themselves. Ochiai was an imperialist, and no one was quite sure what to make of his presence.
"A temple, huh…" Isashiki's lip curled as if he wanted to say more, but couldn't.
"It would certainly be large enough," Yuuki said.
Ochiai nodded. "The space is more than adequate, yes. But furthermore, the Choshu have been known to use the temple, so our claiming of the grounds would reduce the number of their hiding spots. We should take advantage of this opportunity."
An air of reluctant agreement settled over everyone. The logic was difficult to argue with until Chris spoke up in dissatisfaction, "That may be so, but the monks will not be inclined to agree to our request. Are we to use threats and force against them?"
"The monks have been aiding the rebels," Ochiai said bluntly. "Of course, I am not suggesting something as uncouth as resorting to violence to solve the problem…" More than one pair of eyes in the room narrowed at the veiled, but common criticism of the Shinsengumi and their bloody methods. "…But since the Choshu have been declared enemies of the court, the monks will have no choice but to concede to our demands. You need not worry so much, Takigawa, though I understand how a man in your situation may be anxious."
A room this packed with men was bound to be warm, even in the dead of winter, but the temperature dropped several degrees in the wake of that last statement. Just as well that Eijun had finished serving everyone's tea; there was nothing to spill when he slammed the tray on the floor for emphasis, half-rising from his kneel.
"What's there to be anxious about?! You're new here so you may not understand yet but that's no excuse! Chris-san is invaluable to the Shinsengumi, just you wait and—"
"That's enough outta you!" A hand grasped the back of Eijun's kosode and yanked. He tumbled onto his back, looking up to meet Isashiki's baleful glare. Before Eijun could pop up again Haruichi was there to hold him down with a hand covering his mouth.
"Please forgive his outburst," said Yuuki. "It's our fault for indulging him."
"Hmm, well, it's no matter." Ochiai's lenience was at odds with the charged air. "I apologize if I misspoke. It is good news indeed to hear there's still hope for recovery. I wish you the best, Takigawa."
Chris said nothing in response. He couldn't. Unable to protest that recovery was impossible, or accept the empty sentiment with grace, he merely gave the barest of nods.
Eijun's feet shuffled dejectedly along the veranda, and when he sighed his breath misted out. The breakfast he'd found sitting untouched outside Chris' room had long since gone cold. He never ate at regular mealtimes anymore, and when he did eat it was always alone. These days he rarely left his room.
At least he's still eating, though. Eijun glanced down at the rice and miso soup he carried back to the kitchen. Even if he warmed the soup over the stove Chris probably wouldn't want it anytime soon and it would just go cold again. Maybe if Eijun made a few riceballs he could leave them with Chris until he got hungry.
And maybe, when Wakana came to Kyoto, she would know what to do. There were medicines that only the oni knew how to make. Eijun didn't dare ask about them in a letter that could be read by anyone, but if there was a way to heal Chris' arm then Wakana would know it. Or Gramps, if they could find him. When they found him.
"Chris didn't eat again this morning, huh?"
Eijun jerked and spun around, upsetting the contents of his tray with a clack of lacquerware. The rice was fine, but some of the soup splashed over the rim of its bowl, and the cup of tea toppled off the tray completely. Eijun made a move to try and catch it but missed, and the cup cracked in two when it hit the floor.
"Ah! Look what you made me do!"
"You're the one who should pay more attention," Miyuki scolded, bending to pick up the pieces that had split into roughly equal halves. Eijun would have to get a cloth from the kitchen to mop up the spilled tea. "Though," Miyuki continued, "I can't blame you for being worried."
The broken cup was placed on the tray. It was ordinary ceramic, nothing fancy or expensive, more likely to be disposed of than repaired. But at least it could be repaired. "I'll fix this," Eijun muttered to himself. He didn't have the money to pay a kintsugi craftsman, but if it was just fastening the pieces together he'd done that for their broken dishes back in Edo. The result wasn't pretty but it worked.
"You don't have to bother." Miyuki's tone was neutral and knowing.
"I will anyway!"
"Then suit yourself." He tucked his hands inside his sleeves and turned to face outside, but didn't walk away. The sky was gray with clouds. "Think it might snow soon?"
"Maybe…" Eijun hoped not, Wakana could be on the road right now. She said she was fully recovered and oni didn't fall ill easily, but she insisted on traveling alone, rejecting his idea to meet up with Kuramochi while he was in Edo. Eijun got the impression that she disapproved of him staying with the Shinsengumi. He hadn't figured out yet what he was going to do when she arrived; it wasn't like the Shinsengumi were running an inn and a year ago they wouldn't have let him leave. They might trust him enough now, though. It would work out somehow.
He glanced at where Miyuki was still standing. It didn't look like he'd been training, nor was he just passing through. The room he shared with a few of the other captains was in another part of the house. Down here were the rooms for the commander, vice commander, and advisors…
Of course. Eijun looked away as understanding dawned. He'd only been with the Shinsengumi for a year. Miyuki and the others had been together much longer than that. I wonder how they met? Everyone talks about the Seidou dojo but some of them are from different schools. Chris-san in particular knows a lot of different sword styles…
Miyuki had turned his face so not even his profile could be seen, and a beat passed before he said, "It's cold, so you should go back inside. Don't go wandering around if you can help it. Especially after it gets dark."
"…Huh?" Eijun stared at Miyuki, baffled. "The cold doesn't bother me much, so I'll be fine. Anyway, you should worry about your own health first!"
"Yes, yes. Just be careful, all right?"
"Why? Could it be—?!" His eyes widened and he darted a look around, lowering his voice to a hushed whisper. "The rebels are at it again?"
Miyuki snorted. "That would be the last thing we need. Well, you never know. Try to stay out of trouble, and if you happen to hear or see anything… get one of us right away. Okay?"
It was a strange warning, but when Miyuki finally looked Eijun in the eye the rest of his questions slipped away. He couldn't do anything but agree. "Sure. Of course."
Night fell, and a blustery wind rattled the doors and shutters of the house. Eijun laid wide awake in his futon as the embers of the brazier dwindled in the darkness, and the room grew colder by slow, creeping degrees. It was the noise that bothered him the most, masking any other sound that could be coming from outside. No way to tell if that creak was from a footstep or if it was just the house weathering the onslaught of wind.
His roommates were undisturbed, Masuko snoring away at a constant, low rumble that Eijun had grown used to over the past several months, while Furuya and Haruichi slept quieter. The room was on the small side (if Kuramochi were here it would be even more packed) so Eijun took care not to step on anyone when he got up and made his way to the door.
A brief walk would assuage his worries, and getting a taste of the cold winter at night would make him happy to crawl back into bed. He just needed to convince himself there was nothing wrong first. Miyuki had to have been messing with him. As if the rebels would try and assault Shinsengumi headquarters...
But they went so far as to launch an attack on the imperial palace!
Eijun stopped in the middle of the corridor and shivered as an icy draft blew in from outside. During the Hamaguri Rebellion—the battle Eijun hadn't been allowed to take part in—the Choshu had set fire to the houses of a few officials, and the wind that day had been strong, spreading the flames. Why wouldn't the Shinsengumi's enemies try the same trick again?
He'd go outside to check the perimeter of the compound. Just in case. He was probably overreacting, no one else was this concerned, and Eijun was losing sleep for nothing… and yet, more than Miyuki's warning, a deeper instinct that recognized the taste of trouble in the air wouldn't let Eijun have any peace of mind. Better safe than sorry.
The moon was nearly full tonight, but its glow was dampened by the clouds whisking across the sky and shadow after shadow chased each other across the slumbering village. Eijun wrapped his arms tightly around himself, clad in nothing but his sleepwear. Good thing oni didn't catch colds as easily as humans did.
He was nearing the gate when he noticed the pale bob of a light ahead of him. A shadowy figure accompanied it. Someone was there, carrying a lantern, but leaving the compound rather than entering it. Eijun followed, and luckily the wind muffled the scuff of his feet hurrying along the ground.
The broad figure of a man walked along the street for a little ways—not far at all—and turned into the residence that belonged to the Maekawa family. They'd moved out, unable to tolerate the Shinsengumi's presence. Perhaps if the Shinsengumi relocated to a new headquarters the original owners would return… or perhaps not, considering the tension running through Kyoto these days.
Eijun wasn't as familiar with the Maekawa grounds as he was with the Yagi residence and crept more carefully after his target, tailing the man to a side building that soon lit up from within. Lingering at the door, Eijun started to peek inside.
"Sawamura-kun." Chris had his back turned and he sounded entirely unsurprised. He stood in the flickering light of a lamp that haloed around him. "What are you…? Never mind. You might as well come in."
The door slid shut behind Eijun where it was buffeted by the wind. Despite the noise and the cold, the atmosphere within the tiny storage room thickened until it was nearly stifling, and Eijun's cheeks burned as he offered his excuse. "I couldn't sleep. When I went outside I saw you leaving and I… I acted without thinking. I'm sorry."
"No harm done. Of all people, though, I didn't expect you to be the one to catch me." Chris moved aside, and on the table before him were an assortment of foreign, yet familiar instruments: flasks and tubes in various shapes and sizes, a portable burner of Western design, and tongs to handle the heated glass. Gramps worked with much of the same equipment.
Eijun's gaze followed the lift and pause of Chris' hand, fingers curled around a small object. They tightened briefly before loosening again, and when Chris extended his hand he revealed a vial of ruby red liquid that seemed to glow in the dimness of the room. Eijun's immediate instinct, for reasons unknown, was to flinch away from it.
"What is that?"
"It's called ochimizu. Originally it came from the West, but this version was developed by Sawamura-sensei. Since his disappearance I've worked to further refine the formula."
"Then it's a medicine?" Eijun's gaze snapped away from the ominous vial to land with burning hope on Chris' face. "Can it cure you?"
The smile that hung on the corners of Chris' mouth was sardonic, not the kind of expression that suited him. It was a Miyuki expression, a mask to hide whatever he really thought. "It can," Chris said. "The ochimizu is a drug with miraculous properties. It will dramatically increase a man's physical abilities and allow him to heal from most wounds in an instant. Such a thing sounds too good to be true, doesn't it? Indeed, there are certain undesirable side effects. I'm sure you've seen what they are."
The eerie red of the ochimizu was a sight Eijun remembered. A year ago on a cold winter night, similar to this one, in the back alleys of a strange, new city, the battle-crazed eyes of the Shinsengumi warrior who attacked him had been dyed the same glowing hue.
Chris nodded when realization showed on Eijun's face. "The cost of the ochimizu's great benefits is madness, which worsens at the sight of blood. In that respect, it's more of a curse than a gift. But the shogunate ordered us to make the drug usable, so Sawamura-sensei conducted the experiments on our men. The results—"
"No!" Eijun burst out. "Gramps wouldn't do that! Work for the shogunate? That's impossible!" Living among the humans was one thing. Healing them under the guise of an ordinary doctor was one thing. But taking orders from the government that had burned their home and killed everyone, and creating such a vile drug? Experimenting on people? That couldn't be. That couldn't be. Eijun was dreaming, this had to be a nightmare.
"The circumstances of Sawamura-sensei's involvement are not known to me, so there is nothing I can offer by way of explanation. He was here only a few times for business and there's no mistaking the fact that our orders came from the government."
"He's just a doctor! He heals people!" But even as Eijun said that a sick feeling welled in his gut. An insidious thought emerged: Gramps did get carried away sometimes with the wonders of Western science… He shook his head and covered his ears as if that would help. "No, I don't believe it! That stuff isn't medicine and you—you're not going to take it, are you?" A whole new kind of horror washed over him as he looked at the vial cradled in Chris' palm. Eijun reached out but Chris' fingers closed around it and drew the ochimizu away before Eijun could stop him. "You can't!"
"I told you, I've been working to mitigate the side effects, and now it should be diluted enough to allow the subject to retain their senses. Even if it's not…" Chris held the ochimizu in a grip that no longer hesitated. "Even if it's not, the ochimizu is my only chance."
"Don't say that, it's not like you're gonna die! You might as well be poisoning yourself with this stuff! What would the Shinsengumi do without you?!"
"What indeed?" Chris' tone went flat and emotionless. "It's apparent to all that the Shinsengumi has no need of me like this. Nor do I have any need for pity."
Eijun was on a slippery slope and he scrabbled to find his footing. "Everyone cares about you! They're worried about you! They won't turn you away—"
"I know. I know that very well. But sentiment alone…" Chris shook his head. "That is not how I want to live my life. I'd rather take this chance, however small, with my own hands. Please understand that much."
Eijun should have been fast enough to stop him. There was only a small distance between them and he possessed the strength to forcibly wrest the vial from that hand, no matter how firm it was, but in the face of Chris' resolution Eijun faltered. It was just for a moment. He had the abilities of an oni but they failed against one man's pride.
The red liquid disappeared in a single swallow, and for a frozen second nothing happened. Eijun's breath caught in his throat, his heartbeat stuttered, and candlelight gleamed off the empty glass held to Chris' mouth.
Then the vial fell and Chris doubled over, the fragile crack of glass followed by his heaving gasps. His hand found the edge of the table and he braced himself on it. Eijun went to his side to help, eyes widening as Chris transformed just as that other man had, starting with the wash of silvery white across his hair. Chris clutched at Eijun's arm with a strength that he hadn't possessed since his injury—no, the crush of the grip went beyond that. Eijun's flesh and muscle would be more than bruised. This wasn't the strength of a human anymore.
"Chris-san! Chris-san!" The bones in Eijun's arm would break easily. They'd be pulverized into tiny pieces, and that would heal but it wouldn't be pretty—and more importantly, Chris wasn't responding to him at all. "Damnit, I don't wanna hurt you but…!"
He moved. So did Chris. Their reflexes were about equal and Chris knocked Eijun's hand away. He stared into a pair of crimson eyes that didn't recognize him and his breathless moment of despair cost Eijun dearly as Chris clamped a hand around his throat. Squeezing pressure choked the air from his lungs.
Eijun still had one hand free. He balled it into a fist. Sorry, he thought, focusing through his squint on where to aim.
Before he could let fly the door rattled open and a sword clinked free of its scabbard. Eijun couldn't see who was there but somehow he wasn't surprised when he heard Miyuki's voice. "Chris… so you took it after all. Come on, let the kid go. He's a disobedient brat but I'll discipline him later."
The only sound Eijun could make was a gurgle, but then the grip around his throat loosened and he gratefully sucked in a ragged breath. While he hunched over and coughed, Chris backed away from him.
"Miyuki…? Sawamura-kun, I—ngh." Chris dropped to one knee and panted heavily. "I'm sorry. It seems I failed. Miyuki, if you could please…"
"Yeah," Miyuki said softly, stepping closer. "I understand."
"Good." Chris closed his eyes, and something like relief settled over his features.
Miyuki raised his sword, and that was when Eijun understood what was happening.
"You can't!" The shout was raw and agonizing as it tore through his sore throat and battered emotions. "Miyuki, you bastard, how can you even think of—"
"Shut up, Sawamura." A glance was enough to cut him with rebuke, and the words that came after poured salt on the wound. "This is Shinsengumi business and you know the rules. It's not your place to interfere. Now that you've gotten involved you might be killed next, you know."
It was as if nothing had changed since a year ago. Eijun remained an outsider whose opinion mattered little and his life wasn't guaranteed. This was the Shinsengumi he was dealing with; they were merciless killers who cut down their foes in the streets of Kyoto. They didn't even spare their own soldiers and sentenced all those who broke the regulations to death by hara-kiri. Eijun had known about their severe brand of justice from the start. He'd seen with his own eyes what became of those who went mad from the ochimizu.
"Wait!" Eijun tried again, but it was too little and too late. Miyuki's back was to him. There was the wet sound of steel opening flesh, and a splash of blood that dripped and spread across the floor, so dark a red in the candlelight it was almost black. "No way…" Eijun's legs threatened to buckle. He stumbled forward one step, then another, and then Miyuki's arm blocked his way.
"Don't get close," he said, staring down at the body.
A red-hot line of anger shot through Eijun's core, forging his strength as he seized the front of Miyuki's clothes. "You—!"
"Sawamura, calm down and stay back. If he attacks you again we'll both be in trouble."
At first the words didn't make any sense. They echoed like noise inside his head until finally Eijun grasped the tail of their meaning. "Wh-what did you just say…? Chris-san is—!"
His gaze swung downwards, recoiling at the sight of the long, deep wound cutting through flesh and muscle, but as Eijun watched he caught the small movement of Chris' chest as he breathed, and it wasn't the final breath of a dying man. Looking closer through the tear of blood-soaked fabric, the damage that should have been fatal was slowly starting to heal.
"The ones who drink this stuff are awfully hard to kill." Miyuki spoke as if commenting on the weather. He shook off Eijun's now-slack hold and kept his sword out and ready, but made no move to finish the job. "Make yourself useful and go fetch the commander and Tetsu-san. Be discreet. It's fine if you run into the other captains or the Kominatos, but no matter what you can't let Ochiai find out. Got it?"
"Yes!" Eijun's response was automatic, but he didn't leave right away. "Will… will Chris-san be all right?"
"Who knows? But I'd say he has a fighting chance, and Chris isn't the type to give up easily. This has to stay a secret, remember. Or else…"
"I know already! You keep threatening to kill me but you haven't yet. You must trust me a little bit, right?"
"Don't get cocky," Miyuki said, but it wasn't a denial. "Hurry up and go."
The long night finally came to an end, and in the morning the skies dawned clear and bright as if renewed. Eijun hadn't gotten a wink of sleep. After he'd been dismissed by the commander and ordered to remain in his room the swirling maelstrom of his thoughts hadn't let him rest. He greeted the new day with a turbulent heart, but forgot his weariness when the door slid open to admit Miyuki, who looked as tired as Eijun felt.
"Chris is alive and his arm has fully healed," Miyuki announced without preamble. "Moreover, his sanity is intact. So in that sense he'll be fine. But there will be some… changes."
"At least he's alive and well!" Eijun nearly collapsed in relief. To think that a human could recover from such an injury, it was nothing short of a miracle. As for the miracle-working drug, however…
"Don't celebrate too much," Miyuki warned. "We don't have a way to explain why Chris can suddenly use his arm again, not to mention the other side effects. His appearance is back to normal but like the other guys who drank the ochimizu he doesn't tolerate the sun well. Chris suggested—and we all agreed, since there's no other choice—to say that he died."
"Died?" Eijun repeated with a chill of foreboding.
"Suicide," Miyuki clarified with a terribly grim smile. "That's the official story. I served as his second and everything. It's not far from the truth."
It had nearly been the truth. Eijun couldn't begin to guess what had gone through Miyuki's mind at that moment when he bared his blade against his comrade, whether he'd intended to strike to kill and then changed his mind at the last second. Eijun knew better than to ask. But he was certain, if necessary, Miyuki would have gone through with it. Better death than madness.
"I suppose you have questions now that you've learned the big secret. Ah, and don't worry, we're all far too busy to debate killing you. I think we're going to move to Nishi Honganji after all. This place is too small to keep Chris hidden for long, and Ochiai is already suspicious about what happened last night. I don't have much time, but if you have anything you want to ask, go ahead."
Eijun hardly knew where to begin. Most of what he wanted to know Miyuki wouldn't have the answers for. He needed to find Gramps more than ever. "I can't believe Gramps would make such a thing. There's a limit to curiosity! That old geezer, he wouldn't just… he must have been forced somehow…" As soon as Eijun mumbled the idea aloud, he recalled the attack that had started everything. It was the one and only time they'd been threatened since going into hiding. They never did find out who sent the assassins. What if…?
"Sawamura? If you think any harder your head might explode."
"It was because of us," Eijun realized as the pieces started to align. The timing of the attack and when the Shinsengumi said Gramps disappeared were awfully close. "There's no way he'd do the government's bidding unless he was being threatened. If he didn't make the drug and test it, Wakana and I would be killed. That's why we were attacked." Luckily the shogunate's men either didn't know about their true nature, or had underestimated two young oni very badly.
"You—are you telling me the government wanted you dead?" Eijun was briefly treated to an utterly gobsmacked expression on Miyuki's face, but before he could enjoy it Miyuki squeezed his eyes shut and pinched the bridge of his nose. "You really know how to burden me. Think before you speak, idiot."
"What? What did I say?"
"Nothing. You said nothing. I didn't hear anything about how the shogunate tried to have you killed and all that would imply. Did you forget who the Shinsengumi answers to?"
The blood drained from Eijun's face and he belatedly covered his mouth. Miyuki glanced at him and snorted.
"Relax. I'll keep your secret—again. At this rate you're going to be indebted to me for the rest of this life and the next." He rubbed the back of his neck and rolled his head, working the kinks out. "I'd better get out of here before I hear any more dangerous secrets. Stay out of trouble for both our sakes, all right?"
Eijun grasped onto the trailing end of Miyuki's sleeve before he could step out. "Um… Miyuki, I…" He ducked his head, glad that Miyuki wasn't turning around. Standing face to face would be too embarrassing. "That is… thank you. I trust you. I probably—no, I definitely trust you more than anyone else who isn't family. That's a huge honor, I'll have you know!" He kept staring at the bit of fabric clutched between his thumb and forefinger. The material was soft and worn, dyed a darker, muted blue compared to the signature color of the Shinsengumi. His breath trembling, Eijun plunged on ahead. "You might think I'm still an outsider, and that's fine, it's true after all. But! But at the very least, I don't think of you that way. All of you, I mean! I'm very grateful to the Shinsengumi and I just want you to know that, thank you, that's all, please be on your way!"
He shoved at Miyuki's back and shut the door with a slam before burying his face in his hands. It had seemed like a good thing to say ten seconds ago. Now his ears were burning, and if he heard laughter on the other side of the door Eijun might have to dig a hole in the yard to crawl into.
"Yes?" His voice was a little higher pitched than it should be.
Miyuki fell silent on the other side of the door, but his footsteps didn't retreat. What expression was he making as he stood there? He was surprised, maybe. Or confused. Perhaps thoughtful. Hopefully not amused, although that was the most likely option. Eijun regretted everything.
When Miyuki finally spoke all he said was, "Make sure you rest up after last night. No training today, but if you want to come on patrol you know when they head out. It's the 3rd and the 6th on duty today, so talk to either Furuya or Nori."
"Yes…" Eijun sank to the floor, heart pounding, half disappointed and half relieved when he heard Miyuki walk away.
Chapter 3: Life
My life, -
How much more of it remains?
The night is brief.
– Masaoka Shiki
The season grew warm with the first sweep of summer, and today Eijun was accompanying the 8th division on their morning patrol. As usual, the crowd parted quickly for Kuramochi and his men, though some people glared and muttered after their passing.
"I see the attitude here hasn't changed." Kuramochi's gaze flicked left and right, scanning for trouble. No one dared to meet his eyes.
"Was it different in Edo?" Eijun hadn't even heard of the Shinsengumi before coming to Kyoto, but a lot had changed since then. He might've changed, too. Wakana seemed to think so. She was staying elsewhere in the city and conducting her own search, wanting nothing to do with the humans Eijun had taken up with.
"Eh, not that different, I guess. Everyone's unhappy with how the shogunate has been handling the country's affairs. But Kyoto is more of a hotbed of rebel activity, so it's more obvious here. By the way, Sawamura… you've been holding back on us, haven't you."
Eijun nearly tripped over his own feet. "Huh? What do you mean? What makes you think that?"
"Hyaha! Relax, I'm not about to interrogate you. I don't have Ryou-san's talent for that kind of thing."
"That's not reassuring!"
Kuramochi hooked an arm around Eijun's neck, and mere human or no, he had a damn tight headlock. "I'm just saying, while I was in Edo I stopped by your house like you requested. Didn't look like anyone had been there for a year. But while I was asking around, I happened to hear something you neglected to mention. Something about your sister."
"What about Wakana?" Now Eijun was just confused. Wakana was fine, he'd seen her two weeks ago. Nishi Honganji was large enough and Wakana was skilled enough to sneak in without being seen. Still, she didn't come by often. The Shinsengumi were skilled too, and with Eijun's luck, Miyuki would be the one to find them meeting in secret. He'd covered for Eijun too many times already.
"What about her? What about her? That's what I want to know!" Kuramochi's knuckles ground into Eijun's scalp, making him yelp and attempt to twist away, face turning red in the crook of a constricting arm. "You said she was older, but you didn't say it was only by a few years! The neighbors said she's cute and single. What else didn't you mention, huh? Tell me everything. What kind of things does she like?"
"Oh, for—are you serious? Forget it! There's no way she'd go for you!"
"You brat, take this!"
"I thought this wasn't an interrogation!" The most frustrating part was that Eijun was telling the truth; Wakana hadn't shown the slightest bit of interest in any of her suitors back in Edo. There'd been more than a few. Intermarrying with humans was frowned upon, but it happened, especially when one took into account the rarity of female oni. Purebloods like Eijun were the exception rather than the rule. Wakana had little love for humans in general though, even if she did interact with them regularly for the sake of blending in.
"What have we here?" Eijun's scrunched eyes flew open at the sound of that voice, and there stood Miyuki regarding them with a smile curving his lips. "You two sure seem to have a lot of free time in the middle of work."
Kuramochi jabbed a finger at Eijun's face. "Do you know what this guy's been hiding from us?"
Miyuki's smile froze.
"IT'S NOTHING." Blood rushed up Eijun's neck all the way to the tips of his ears. He wrenched himself free of Kuramochi's hold and turned to Miyuki with wide eyes and frantic gestures. "He's pestering me about Wakana, that's all! It's not a big secret or anything!"
"Oh, your sister?" The stiffness thawed from Miyuki's expression. He lifted his eyebrows, and something told Eijun he couldn't relax just yet. "That means she must be cute."
Eijun groaned. "Not you, too!"
Miyuki laughed, light and easy until a cough snagged in his throat. It was the first of many. He covered his mouth, waving off a fellow soldier's offer to get him a drink. "I'm fine," Miyuki said once the bout subsided, catching his breath. "I just breathed in some dust because Sawamura is too easy to tease."
"Don't blame that on me!"
"Anyway…" Miyuki cleared his throat, the mirth in his eyes turning steely as they focused on something over Eijun's shoulder. "Looks like we have work to do."
He and Kuramochi followed the sound of raised voices coming from a cluster of people off to the side of the road. As the knot of onlookers loosened, Eijun was able to take in the scene.
A debased figure sprawled on the ground, hand outstretched and trapped under someone's foot where three sneering men stood over their victim. They wore daisho at their waists and were demanding compensation for an insult, spouting rhetoric about what they were owed for their patriotism, and one of them already held a string of money in his hand that clearly didn't belong to him. This kind of bullying was a common sight nowadays.
Miyuki and Kuramochi soon commanded the men's attention, and while they were distracted Eijun went to the side of the figure—a boy—on the ground.
"You okay? Those types think they have the right to do whatever they want, causing nothing but trouble! But don't worry! We'll get your money back. How's your hand? It looks like it hurts."
The boy was Eijun's age or a bit younger. He curled around his injury before Eijun could get a better look at it and pushed himself upright without any help—or rather, he ignored the help that Eijun offered.
"Don't be like that, you might have broken bones! I may not seem like it but I come from a family of doctors. Let me check just in case—"
"I said I'm fine!" A single gray-green eye glared through a fall of pale hair. Lip curling, the boy swatted away Eijun's extended hand. "Why don't you mind your own business? I don't need your tepid kindness."
Eijun was used to a certain kind of reception due to his association with the Shinsengumi. It couldn't be helped; their reputation was a fearsome one. But the boy didn't glare like that because he was nervous, and his scathing words were far from cold. Pressure hit Eijun like a wall—it didn't carry the copper keenness of bloodlust, but it was close to that, a heavy-handed challenge that roused an answering surge of anger under Eijun's skin. His eyes narrowed. "That's no way to treat someone who's genuinely trying to help! You unmannered brat, whoever raised you should be ashamed!"
The pressure sharpened and if looks could kill Eijun would be bleeding out on the street. His hand twitched towards his sword on reflex when the boy stepped forward—he was unarmed, but that didn't seem to matter. The intense aura around him could have been a weapon by itself.
"All right, that's enough." Miyuki inserted himself between them, one hand resting meaningfully on his sword hilt while the other tossed a string of coins that the boy caught. "I believe that's yours. Our job here is done, so we can all be on our way now."
The boy's menacing glare shifted to Miyuki, but he made for a more composed target and merely waited until the tension drained away, until finally, with a scowl, the boy turned on his heel without saying another word. His pale hair disappeared into the crowd.
Eijun gaped after him. "The nerve of that brat! I've never met anyone so rude!"
"You've lived a blessed life." Kuramochi's hand chopped down on the back of Eijun's head. "Don't go getting into fights with civilians. You wanna create more work for us or what?"
Covering his head to fend off further abuse, Eijun muttered, "He started it. I was only being nice."
"Yeah, yeah. It's over now, so forget about it. Let's go finish our rounds. See you back at headquarters, Miyuki."
"Hm? Ah, yes." Miyuki blinked, gathering his attention from where it had wandered and his gaze came to rest on Eijun for an unreadable pause. "Stay out of trouble, Sawamura."
"I don't go looking for trouble, you know!"
"You're made of trouble," Kuramochi said, and dragged him away.
Eijun was in the middle of drawing water from the well when footsteps came up behind him. The tread was heavy and purposeful so it had to be a soldier rather than one of the monks, who avoided their unwanted guests as much as possible, and the Shinsengumi's presence kept most visitors away from the temple.
"There you are," said a deep voice that was followed by a snort of air.
"Miyauchi-san?" Damp rope passed through Eijun's hands as he dragged the bucket up over the rim of the well, but before he could set it down a thickly muscled arm hooked around his waist, lifting him like a sack of rice. "Wait, what?!" The bucket tumbled from his grasp, splashing in the reservoir of water down below.
"Everyone's been told to gather in the Founder's Hall."
"Okay, but why am I being carried?!"
"It's good training."
As if Miyauchi needed more strength training when he could beat an oni in an arm-wrestling match. Everyone must have thought Eijun was joking when he said such a defeat brought shame upon the Sawamura family. Though, it wasn't as if Miyauchi was the sole exception. The Shinsengumi was full of monsters. Isashiki and Furuya were powerhouses of strength, to say nothing of the vice commander, and against skill like Miyuki's or speed like Kuramochi's, Eijun continued to lose sword matches more often than he won them.
Miyauchi carried him all the way to the large hall that could accommodate the entire Shinsengumi force, and the place was packed with men. Packed with rowdy, sweaty, half-naked men.
"Take a good look, sensei!" Isashiki slapped a palm against his bare chest. As expected, his torso was well-defined. "I'm in peak condition! The epitome of health!"
"Wait your turn like the rest of us." Ryousuke punctuated the remark with a sharp elbow jab. He and his brother shared a slim, sinewy frame, and Haruichi called Eijun over with a raised hand.
"Eijun-kun! Takigawa-sensei is here to give everyone a physical examination."
"Almost everyone." The sour comment came from Kuramochi, newly arrived and out of breath. "I looked everywhere but that bastard is nowhere to be found."
"Miyuki?" There was only one person Kuramochi complained about in that aggrieved tone.
"Who else? He's worse than a cat." Kuramochi shrugged out of the sleeves of his kosode and juban, letting the fabric hang from the obi at his waist. Wiry muscle corded his arms and his chest was compact.
Eijun started to strip down as well, but a belated realization made him stiffen and whirl around, grabbing Haruichi by the shoulders. "Did you say Takigawa-sensei?!"
"Yes, Chris' father. He's a doctor—"
"—of Western medicine! He knows Gramps!"
But Eijun was already pushing through the sweltering throng of bodies. There was a semblance of a line the closer he got to the front, and protests went up as he butted in. A hand clapped on his shoulder which he jerked away from, intent on his mission, but then he collided into the man standing in front of him. They both toppled over. And so did the next person in line. And the next. They all went down in a tangle of limbs and cursing and unfortunate mishaps with loose clothing.
When Eijun raised his head the line was demolished. He had a clear view of where Nori sat for his examination, staring over his shoulder at the mess with wide eyes. There was also a blond, robust foreigner sitting nearby, who went red in the face. "What on earth just happened?!"
Eijun considered slinking unnoticed into the crowd, but those who hadn't been caught up in the avalanche were now backing away from the area. He found himself on the receiving end of many a disgruntled glare. "I… uh…"
"You!" Takigawa's complexion darkened further, from scarlet to purple. He pointed an accusing finger at Eijun and motioned to the exit. "Wait your turn! Go sit outside!"
"Yes! I'm sorry!"
There were quite a lot of examinations to go through, and Eijun sat on the steps outside to wait as he'd been told, stewing silently in his embarrassment. He'd apologize properly once the doctor wasn't busy, then explain who he was and ask about Gramps. Even after establishing their business in Edo, it had been rare for them to engage with humans more than necessary, but when Gramps left for Kyoto he'd told Eijun and Wakana to contact Takigawa if any need arose. Surely, he would know something…
One by one the soldiers exited the hall to return to their duties, and the sun had crept a ways across the sky by the time Eijun was called.
"You there, the crazy boy. Come with me."
Eijun shot to his feet and bowed at the waist. "About before, I'm deeply sorry for causing a disturbance! Please accept my apology!"
"Never mind that. Hurry up and come along."
"Yes, sir!" He popped back up. "Actually, I'm not one of the soldiers, I'm just staying here as a guest and I don't need…" Eijun trailed off in confusion as Takigawa walked past him down the steps instead of going back inside the hall. Pausing to slip a pair of zori onto his feet, the man sent an irritated look over his shoulder, mustache twitching.
"Didn't you hear me? Come along!"
"Yes, uh… but where…?"
Eijun clamped his mouth shut and followed. Takigawa led him to the rear of the temple grounds where the Shinsengumi had set up their headquarters, and at this time of the day there were few people around. Most of the men were on duty or training. The place wasn't completely deserted though, and they entered the commander's room where its sole occupant greeted them with a nod.
"I see you found him."
Takigawa lowered into a cross-legged position on the tatami with a grunt. "I could hardly miss him when he interrupted my work the way he did."
Was it Eijun's imagination, or did the commander crack a smile for just an instant? In a blink the humor was gone, and the usual gravitas settled on his face to give his features a solemn severity. "How did the examinations go?"
"Hmph. About a third of your men are injured or sick with a whole range of ailments. Listing them all would be tedious. Don't look so surprised, the living conditions here are appalling! At the very least you should keep the place clean! And while you're at it, set up an infirmary where people can rest and recover in peace."
The commander lowered his head. "Of course, you're right. I'll see to it that we maintain a proper living environment and that our men receive the care they need."
"Good. Better to stay healthy and human if you ask me."
Eh? Eijun looked between the two men with renewed interest, catching Takigawa's eye.
"So you're Sawamura-sensei's grandson. You came all the way from Edo and even found out about that wretched 'treatment' he made. What a mess this has become…"
Eijun's spirits started to sink. "Gramps really made the ochimizu? Do you know what happened to him?"
"He made it all right." Takigawa scowled, large hands curling into fists. "I knew nothing good could come from such an endeavor, but it was the shogun's orders. The government wanted an invincible army—what rubbish! Those who take the ochimizu may be bestowed with strength, speed, and healing, but they lose their humanity, their reason… even my Yuu has become one of those cursed rasetsu, as they're called…" He shook his head, grief plain on his features as if his son had truly died.
"But at least Chris-san is still alive! And he hasn't lost his reason."
"Don't sugarcoat the matter, boy. You've seen what the rasetsu are like. Would you wish that on anyone you cared about? And there's still too much we don't know about the damn concoction, who knows what else it does to a man." Takigawa heaved a sigh and rubbed a hand over his brow. "For what it's worth, Sawamura-sensei was troubled the last time I saw him. I suspect his conscience wouldn't allow him to continue and he fled."
"Perhaps," said the commander, his arms crossed. "But that leaves the Shinsengumi in a predicament. Our orders still stand to continue with the experiments."
"Foolishness! The experiments are inhumane. Yes, I know how it works—those who would otherwise die from their injuries, or those who would be forced to commit hara-kiri for breaking regulations are given the 'choice' to drink the ochimizu instead—but you know as well as I do that some things are worse than death!"
"Is death what you would have wished for your own son?"
"I…!" A fist pounded on top of the tatami. Takigawa's gaze lowered, teeth gritted in frustration. "I only wished for him to not suffer any longer… if only he could have waited for me to find another way…"
"Nonetheless, he made the choice to drink the ochimizu, and that is a decision we should respect. It was also Chris' choice to continue Sawamura-sensei's research on his own."
"And what if Sawamura-sensei is found? Will you force him to continue this abominable work?"
Eijun flew to his feet in protest. "No way! Once I find Gramps we're going home! He doesn't owe you anything!"
"Settle down, Sawamura. Our orders were to conduct the experiments, but your grandfather's involvement was not a requirement. I've no intention of forcing him into anything… although I have a few concerns." The commander's hard gaze pressed on Eijun like a physical weight until he was once again seated quietly, waiting and listening. "Assuming that Takigawa-sensei is correct and Sawamura-sensei fled, the fact remains that he hasn't been found, nor had he tried to contact you in over a year. He may have been killed for disobeying the shogun's orders."
Eijun's hands clenched in the fabric of his hakama. A wily oni like Gramps, with his years of experience, wouldn't die so easily. He hadn't survived the massacre just to be killed by the shogunate anyway. "That's not possible. I won't believe it!"
"Of course that's only one possible scenario, but you should be prepared for the worst. In the meantime, we'll continue to search for him. And," the commander said, glancing at Takigawa, "we will continue the research as well, with utmost discretion."
Takigawa scoffed and averted his gaze. "No need to impress your point on me. I get it. You may be stubborn fools, the lot of you, but I've no intention of blurting government secrets. Best to keep this ugly business under wraps."
"Yes," the commander agreed. "If we're lucky, it will stay that way."
Eijun sat back on his heels and drew an arm across his sweaty brow, then lifted his hands above his head in a stretch to work out the kinks in his back. The veranda that wrapped around the building was finally clean. He draped his damp rag over the rim of a bucket of water and flopped over on the newly wiped floor. It was the perfect time for a break.
Every man who wasn't out on patrol had been roped into cleaning duty, making good on the commander's promise to improve their living conditions. Close inspection had revealed mold growing in a number of places, inside closets and under a few futons, ruining several tatami mats. New mats were bought and the old ones were all wiped down. Doors were removed from their sliding frames to be dusted, and to allow the sun and air to circulate throughout the rooms inside. Every single futon was aired out. Laundry was washed. Floors and walkways were swept, then wiped to a polish. Even the dishes were all due for a thorough cleaning.
It was hot day for such grueling labor, but the season was only going to get hotter. Eijun entertained the idea of getting up to toss the dirty contents of his bucket, and refill it with fresh water to cool down with, but the well was too far away and he couldn't be bothered to make the walk just yet. In five minutes, maybe.
At some point his eyes drifted closed, but they flew open in response to a scolding voice: "Look at you, slacking off while everyone else slaves away in this heat."
Eijun bolted upright, arms flailing. "My apologies! I—wait a minute. Miyuki Kazuya!"
Miyuki grinned as he eased into a seated position with his back to a post "Have a nice nap?"
"You're supposed to be resting!"
"As you can see, I'm not exactly exerting myself. And anyway, I'm not that sick. Once you all stop stirring up the dust I'll be fine."
"You have a more delicate constitution than I thought…" Eijun frowned and scrutinized the man before him. Miyuki didn't look terribly ill, it was true, but his persistent cough had caused the commander and vice commander to worry. After Takigawa's stern reprimand, they were taking no chances. The sick were removed from active duty in order to focus on getting well.
"Oh?" Miyuki arched an eyebrow. "We'll see how delicate I am next time we train together."
Eijun's spine stiffened, his instincts sniffing out the razor-sharp thread of genuine menace buried in Miyuki's deceptively light tone. It was rare for him to get serious over such an offhand remark. What had Eijun stepped into now? "Fine! As long as you're well again, I won't hold back!"
Several heartbeats passed and Miyuki's gaze lidded. The air around him relaxed. "Fair enough."
Quiet fell over the secluded rear of the building, and from the eastern side of the temple compound one of the monks struck the great bronze bell to mark the time. It was early in the afternoon, the hottest and laziest part of the day. There was still cleaning to be done. Eijun should return to work soon. As soon as the bell's resonance faded, though, the peaceful interlude was broken by a series of ragged coughs that Miyuki muffled into his cupped hand.
"This is—nothing—" He waved off Eijun's concern and hunched over. Once the coughing eased and he drew his hand away from his mouth, fingers curling to hide his palm from Eijun's eyes, but there was no mistaking the sour note of blood in the air.
The heat of the day evaporated off Eijun's skin, leaving him cold. "Miyuki… you…"
"It's not that serious." Irritation furrowed his brow and he gave up on being discreet, pulling a small hand cloth from his left sleeve to wipe his palm on. "Don't go worrying people with this, you hear? Takigawa-sensei has the commander and Tetsu-san jumping at shadows."
Neither of the two men were the type to jump at anything, though. Eijun pressed forward, ignoring Miyuki's attempts to swat him away, and put a hand to his forehead to check for fever. "Coughing up blood isn't something you just brush off! Has Takigawa-sensei examined you yet?"
"I'll see him next time he's here! If I haven't gotten better by then. Leave me alone, the last thing I need is you fussing over me."
"You look a little flushed…"
Miyuki went redder and he shoved Eijun hard. Whatever was wrong hadn't weakened him much. "That's because it's hot and you're crowding me! I'm serious, give it a rest, and don't bother anyone by telling them about this. You owe me a favor or two anyway."
That was the one thing Eijun couldn't argue against. He bit his lip, hands forming fists in his lap and he declared with his back straight, "I don't like it."
"Too bad." Miyuki looked away and ran his fingers through his hair. It was more disheveled than usual today, curling in the humidity, tied loosely to keep off his neck. Other than that, his appearance was no different than normal. He was fully dressed and even had his swords resting by his side.
"I don't like it," Eijun repeated, reluctance dragging at his every word. "But I won't tell anyone as long as you see Takigawa-sensei later. Can you promise that you will?"
"…Fine. I promise." A hand thrust forward under Miyuki's nose, pinky extended, and he lifted his eyes to meet Eijun's in faint disbelief. Eijun was completely serious. With a wry twist of his mouth, as if to say have it your way, Miyuki obliged and hooked their little fingers together. He could be a flippant, noncommittal, evasive trickster, but when he gave his word he always kept it.
Satisfied, Eijun let his hand drop. He got to his feet and retrieved his bucket before stepping into his zori. "Wait here for a minute. I'll get you something to drink."
"Oi, I'm not an invalid."
"Don't argue! Just accept my kindness!"
"Ah, geez." Miyuki's quiet mutter trailed after Eijun on the warm summer breeze. "I knew it would be like this…"
"Well! I admit the place is much cleaner now, so I'll commend your efforts." Takigawa stood in the center of the large hall that they'd dusted and swept, including the highest rafters and the hanging gilt lanterns, all the way down to every square inch of the floor. He surveyed their work and gave a satisfied nod. "Yes, good job. However…" He flung his arm out, finger pointing to where Furuya reclined in a daze of heatstroke while Haruichi placed a damp cloth on his forehead. "Overworking yourselves will only defeat the purpose!"
Kuramochi clicked his tongue. "That moron. I told him to take it easy."
"There's no cure for stubbornness," Ryousuke said, smiling. "But it's nice to live in clean quarters again, so the results are fine."
"I guess this means we'll be cleaning regularly. Oi, Sawamura! Work hard!"
"Why only me?!"
"'Cause you have the most energy to spare out of all of us." Kuramochi grinned and moved to sling an arm around Eijun's neck, but after getting caught in headlock after headlock he'd finally developed the reflex to duck away from the hold.
"Hah! You won't catch me again so easily—oof!" Kuramochi tackled him around the waist and they went rolling along the floor. Eijun scrabbled but it was no use, he couldn't even get the leverage to flip them both over, and in mere seconds he was trapped in a contortion that had him slapping his palm on the floor. "All right, all right already! I give!"
"What, so soon?"
Isashiki crouched down by Eijun's head and growled. "Where's your fighting spirit? Admitting defeat like this would be shameful!"
Short of sacrificing an arm or a leg, there weren't many options available to him. In a real fight a broken bone or two could heal right away, but that wasn't something he could reveal here… although maybe he could show off just a little. Eijun put more strength into his struggling, and Kuramochi didn't have the weight or sheer muscle to keep him totally pinned.
"Hold still, you…!"
"As if I'm gonna do that!" Eijun only needed a little bit of leeway. The moment Kuramochi was slightly dislodged Eijun rocked up, joints straining, and cracked their heads together. The grip on him immediately loosened. He freed himself and threw his arms into the air. "I did it!"
"Eijun-kun…" Haruichi knelt on the floor beside them, bending over Kuramochi with a worried frown. "I think you overdid it."
"Oww…" Kuramochi laid a hand over his bruised forehead. "That was like getting punched at the Ikeda all over again."
The blood drained from Eijun's face. Maybe he'd gone too far. "A-are you okay?"
"He'll be fine," said Ryousuke, not sharing his brother's concern. He wore a faintly amused expression. "That didn't even knock him out."
"Not a bit of sympathy from Ryou-san, as expected. Damn, Sawamura, I knew you were thick-headed, but… damn."
"Are you really okay? Takigawa-sensei should check on you just in case. Where is he?" Eijun's head swung left and right, but the doctor was nowhere in sight. "I'll go find him!"
He hurried out of the hall. There was no one outside on the veranda and the walkway that led towards the Amida Buddha's Hall was also empty. A figure leaned on the railing that circled the temple's immense, 400-year-old ginkgo tree, but the man under the leafy shade was tall, lean, and shaven.
"Tanba-san!" Eijun jammed his feet into his zori and almost tripped down the steps, righting himself before he face-planted on the ground. "Have you seen Takigawa-sensei?"
"He and Miyuki went that way." Tanba nodded to the side of the temple that connected to the hall for memorial services.
Eijun stopped short. Miyuki? So he kept his promise. Although the need to keep it and see the doctor was nothing to be happy about. Like I thought, there's something wrong after all…
He crept along the side of the building with his insides tied up in a tense, tight knot of worry, and his heart pounded so loud in his ears he almost missed the first few words exchanged when Miyuki and Takigawa came into view. The small garden behind the hall was empty aside from them.
Takigawa was unusually subdued, his blunt, foreign manner softening around the news he delivered. "Fever, loss of appetite, and a persistent cough that sometimes produces blood… I'm afraid it's consumption."
The denial that wanted to leap from Eijun's mouth was weighed down by the icy lump that formed in his throat and dropped to the pit of his stomach. He covered his mouth to muffle the sudden, sharp intake of his breath.
"That famous disease, huh? Well, that explains it." Miyuki let out a mild sigh and he spoke in a light tone. His face was turned away from Eijun but no doubt the expression he wore revealed little.
"You're not surprised?"
"I know my own body, so I had a feeling. It's… unpleasant to actually hear the truth, though. I guess this is what I get for making that promise." His laugh had an unfamiliar quality to it, pitched in a way Eijun hadn't heard before, not dry or annoyed or even self-deprecating. The sound of it was like being doused in cold water.
"It's a shame for a young warrior such as yourself," said Takigawa, somber with regret, "but the sooner you can leave the city and recuperate somewhere quiet, with plenty of fresh air, the better it will be for your health."
"Ah—no, I can't do that. I'm staying here." Miyuki crossed his arms and turned away from Takigawa, gaze aimed at a low point of the sky over the southern wall. His profile wasn't worried, but it wasn't peaceful, either. "Living quietly in the countryside would be a waste, don't you think? I mean, the disease is going to kill me one way or another, I might as well spend my time being useful."
"As a doctor, I cannot possibly advise—"
"But you can understand, can't you? I, like your son, don't wish to simply wait for my life to end."
Takigawa was struck silent. His jaw clenched and his face paled. When he spoke again it was with stony resignation. "Have it your way. But if you insist on staying, you must agree to heed my advice as your doctor. Pushing yourself unnecessarily will only trouble everyone around you!"
"I understand." Miyuki's smile was at half-strength at best, like something rooted in the shade where the sun couldn't reach. "I'll be relying on you, Takigawa-sensei."
The doctor soon took his leave, but Eijun stayed where he was. His feet refused to move. The icy shock had melted, sloughing off and taking his disbelief with it in a muddy torrent, until only the ugly truth remained. He sank to the ground and buried his face in his drawn-up knees, but the reality was still there.
Consumption, of all things. Oni didn't suffer from such diseases, so Eijun had never heard of the wasting sickness until coming to live among humans with their frail health and weak bodies. There was no cure. How long did Miyuki have? Years, if he took care of himself? Months? …Weeks?
Eijun's fingers tightened in his hakama. The cloth under his face was damp. He made as little sound as possible, but somehow wasn't surprised when Miyuki called out to him.
"Sawamura, you may as well come here."
Sniffling, he wiped his face on his sleeve before showing himself. Miyuki sat on a bench and beckoned for Eijun to come closer. When he was seated he stared down at his lap, and from the corner of his eye Miyuki's legs shifted, stretching out as he leaned back on his hands.
"You're overreacting, as usual. Come on, I don't look that sick, do I?"
Eijun couldn't bring himself to lift his face and check. His eyes were watering again and he blinked fiercely to prevent the tears from dripping out. They burned at the corners and he squeezed his eyes shut, pressing the heels of his hands to the sockets. "Miyuki, you idiot…"
"That's not a very nice thing to say."
"Stupid, stupid, stupid tanuki."
"Yes, yes." A hand came to rest on top of Eijun's head, patting lightly. "Go ahead and get it out of your system. I expect you to act normal around everyone else… but that may be a tall order, knowing you. Promise me you won't tell anyone, at least."
"What?" Eijun scrubbed at his face and finally peered out at Miyuki, who looked into the distance. "You can't keep this a secret!"
"That's not for you to decide." His words were clipped, but then his mouth twisted. "Although I suppose I can't stop you. I am asking you, though. I want to go on like normal for a while longer. Can't I have that much?"
"Putting it like that isn't fair!"
Miyuki chuckled, the rotten trickster, but his amusement was thin. "Life has never been fair. I've long since accepted the fact. But I admit, this time fate is especially cruel."
"How can you just… so easily…" Eijun's eyes prickled again, but it wasn't like Miyuki was looking at him anyway. The summer skyline was pale blue. It was Shinsengumi blue, edged with white clouds, blurring into a watery, sun-glinting mess. "…I won't tell anyone," he said, ducking his head to let the tears fall. They splashed hot on the backs of his hands. "I won't tell, so please, take care of yourself."
Miyuki's reply was soft, but inarguable. "Yeah. I will. But only so I can wield my sword for as long as possible. I won't be good for much after that."
"That's not true!"
"Didn't you learn anything from what happened with Chris?" Knuckles rapped on the back of Eijun's head in admonishment, but the touch turned gentle afterwards, ruffling through his hair once before retreating. "…Thanks, though."
Eijun swallowed the rest of his words. They lost their heat and left him cold inside, shivering as a breeze stirred over his hunched form. The small gap between him and Miyuki seemed to widen even though neither of them moved for quite a while.
Chapter 4: Interlude: Recollection
Out in the marsh reeds
A bird cries out in sorrow,
As though it had recalled
Something better forgotten.
– Ki no Tsurayuki
Kazuya lost both his parents to the sword, albeit in different ways. His father was a samurai without a master, and he sold his services as a bodyguard to various merchants or travelers, sometimes leaving home for weeks at a time on a job. It was during such a trip, when Kazuya was nine years old, that his mother died. She'd been walking home from the market when a robber picked her out of the crowd to steal her money, her belongings, and her life.
The next time Kazuya saw his mother she was dressed in funeral white, her kosode crossed right over left, and after a long, lonely night of vigil, a handful of acquaintances made a procession to take her coffin to the cremation grounds.
His father had not returned in time to attend, but his name was engraved on the family monument alongside his wife's. Red ink marked the name of the living, to be removed when both their ashes laid at rest beneath the grave. Whether that would be in the near or distant future, only time would tell, but Kazuya saw so little of his father it almost didn't matter.
He clutched his mother's memorial tablet close to his chest. Beside him, a woman turned and offered her hand. "Let's go," said Takashima Rei. Her skin was white against the sleeve of her mourning black. She'd lost a friend, and the funeral service had been arranged and paid for largely by her. Her family would look after Kazuya until his father returned.
At first he only stared blankly at her extended hand, loath to release his grip on the tablet. Then warm fingers folded around his. Squeezing gently, Takashima led him away from the grave by one hand—one hand anchored to the living and the other holding onto the dead. It would be a while before Kazuya stopped smelling funeral incense with every breath he took.
His father came back, only to say goodbye again. He spent more time talking with the Takashima family head than with Kazuya, who harbored so few expectations that it was no great surprise when his father bent down to place an awkward hand on Kazuya's shoulder, and told him that he would remain here in the Takashima's care.
"It's for the best," his father said with a preoccupied gaze. There were exhausted shadows on his face where grief had furrowed so deeply the leftovers scars wouldn't disappear anytime soon. He was thinking about work. He was thinking about anything except the loss that had opened a hole inside his chest.
Kazuya understood that perfectly well. He nodded his head. He promised to be obedient with a cheeky smile. The Takashima family owned a dojo and he'd learn kenjutsu here, it was a good opportunity for him, much better than being raised by his busy father alone.
There was no reason for him to burn his eyes on the sunset that swallowed up the sight of his father's back, but he did until the light on the horizon had gone out and the road was empty. Only when Kazuya was certain there was nothing to look for did he turn around, smile slipping, and went inside.
Kazuya disliked the feel of the bokuto in his hands at first, heavy and unwieldy in his grip. The Tennen Rishin Ryuu taught at Seidou was intended for use in actual combat, so they eschewed using shinai, teaching instead with solid wooden swords. Though the blunt blade of a bokuto couldn't cut, a hard enough swing could break bones. It was a lethal weapon that shared the form, if not the material, of that which had killed Kazuya's mother.
But a sword, in the end, was only a tool. It wasn't something to be feared or resented.
Lessons were grueling and unsympathetic, but Kazuya didn't mind the work. He preferred the sweat and the aching bruises when he failed to block a blow, rather than the uncomfortable, pitying looks cast his way by the adults and senpai. Poor abandoned child, so young, so unfortunate. How good of the dojo to take him in. What would have become of him, otherwise?
Kazuya was but a child who had nothing: no family who wanted to claim him, no home outside of Seidou. The empty words others offered to him were of little comfort. They only reminded him of what he lacked.
Eventually, the reminders became more explicit. He rebuffed others' pity, and then he rebuffed their scorn. As he learned how to hold a sword and swing it properly, without wasting any energy, he also learned how to keep adults and peers alike at arm's length. He learned how to attack and defend and target weaknesses with a blade, or with a word. He learned that bruises received outside of practice didn't hurt any more or less than the ones received during.
Kazuya learned how to use a sword as a matter of course. He didn't particularly care about the school or its tenets or why he wielded his blade, until someone asked him.
"Miyuki, are you free?"
He had a ready excuse: as a live-in student who was basically freeloading, Kazuya was often put to task doing chores around the house. There was always something he could be doing to avoid unwanted company, but the person asking this time was Assistant Instructor Yuuki, who'd never been pitying or spiteful. For the sake of politeness, Kazuya replied, "Do you need something, Yuuki-san?"
"Yes." He extended his hand, index and middle fingers close together to mime placing a game tile. "I'm looking for a shogi partner."
Maybe Kazuya would need that excuse after all. "Ah, I'm sorry, I don't know how to play."
"That's fine, I don't mind teaching you."
"Thank you, but since I have to weed the yard today, the timing is a bit…"
"Then I'll help." Yuuki strode forward, pushing his sleeves back even though he didn't have anything to tie them with. His arms were toned with muscle built from rigorous practice. From early in the morning to late at night, he was known to practice hundreds of basic kata in addition to the more complex ones. He stepped down from the veranda and walked past Kazuya into the courtyard—as if it was perfectly normal for the dojo's next master after Kataoka to get down on his knees in the dirt and pull up the summer weeds by hand.
Left with no other choice, Kazuya joined him, and quickly discovered that Yuuki required supervision when he pulled up a whole painted fern along with the stiltgrass. It was enough to make Kazuya snort on a laugh, and despite the gap in their ages and positions, he didn't spare hapless Yuuki the cutting side of his tongue. The job was slow, but not without entertainment.
Kazuya kept his arms covered, though that meant his sleeves dragged in the dirt and leaves. He had a sash to tie them back, but even if Yuuki refrained from commenting, the bruises that mottled his arms were too colorful to miss. Fresh purple ones from this morning laid over fading patches of green and yellow. The soreness was a constant but bearable annoyance.
Yuuki wasn't a talkative sort so Kazuya expected conversation to be mainly one-sided, and it came as a surprise when the assistant instructor said, "You've been a student at Seidou for a while now. How do you feel about kenjutsu?"
What kind of question is that? Kazuya focused on digging a clump of weed out of the soil and gave a safe, neutral reply. "I appreciate the opportunity. The master and the Takashima family have been very generous."
"I see." Yuuki's tone was opaque, and Kazuya itched under his collar with the sense he was being scrutinized, but he didn't look up. "Well, there are many reasons why one learns the sword, and you are free to decide your own path. I do hope it's something that you find value in, though."
Kazuya tossed the weed into a basket with the others to be disposed of later. Value, huh. He stood up and moved to another section of the yard, shifting through grass and ornamental plants to remove whatever didn't belong, no matter how stubbornly it put down roots. If the plant couldn't be pulled, it was cut down. Weeds didn't have much value, after all.
On the day of Kazuya's first practice match, his hands wrapped around the hilt of his sword—the same sword he had swung every day since his arrival at Seidou—and its weight no longer felt unbalanced in the certainty of his grip. The bokuto was still heavy, but that came from his resolve as he faced off against his opponent. It didn't matter who he was paired with, Kazuya was the smallest and youngest of all the students, not to mention the least experienced, and none of them would go easy on him. As far as they were concerned, the match was a convenient excuse to beat him up in public. Maybe he would finally admit defeat and bow his head in humiliation. He was just a child who didn't have a home or know his place, who didn't show his senpai proper respect. He needed to learn his lesson.
Such were the thoughts on the older student's face. Kazuya met his haughty gaze with unbowed determination, and he allowed a brief smile to curl his mouth when irritation snagged and twisted the other boy's expression. It may have been petty and mean, but he enjoyed frustrating them with his sheer resilience. He didn't have many other advantages to exploit.
In Kazuya's mind, this match was his first and only chance to prove himself. There was nothing about the set-up that was special in itself, but it was a marker of sorts, a clear and definitive moment given meaning only because Kazuya had decided it would be so.
(And because he still hadn't thought of a proper answer to Yuuki's question, still didn't know what value there was in any of this, in his being here, a mere child whose impudence and cleverness got him into trouble more often than they could get him out.)
Perhaps surprisingly, he didn't care about getting revenge on the students who bullied him—or rather, revenge wasn't his top priority. He wasn't concerned with mastering Tennen Rishin Ryuu, either, but right now it was a method and the sword in his hands was a tool. He could wield it however he wanted, and didn't Yuuki say that Kazuya could choose his own path?
In that case, he'd use it to win. If there was one thing Kazuya was certain of, it was that he didn't want to lose.
He really was at a disadvantage, though, moving to block his opponent's first heavy strike. The older boy wasn't holding back. The look on his face—no, don't watch his face, watch his weapon. He came straight at Kazuya, no feints, no strategy, just like the other times the students cornered him into "extra practice." At least this time Kazuya didn't fall over from a single strike. Plus, he'd been on the receiving end of these blows for months, and if he couldn't read the attack pattern by now he deserved to lose.
Easier said than done. He brought his sword up, over and over, to fend off the rain of blows. Kazuya's strength and stamina were limited, and he couldn't count on being faster. Reading the opponent was useless if he couldn't make an attack.
His heart hammered violent and urgent inside his chest. He had to attack. Even one hit was fine. Just one. What did winning mean, anyway? What value did it have?
(What value did he have?)
Their swords clacked together, and Kazuya pushed with all his might. He wasn't very strong, but he was desperate, he needed this, he had to do it, and he swung wildly the first chance he got.
His swing didn't connect.
Kazuya looked up and there was triumph shining on the other student's face. His sword descended, a declaration of failure and rejection, and also a reminder: you're only here because the adults pity you.
Pain cracked open as the tip of the dull blade caught on the crown of Kazuya's head. He stumbled and sprawled, gasping for breath, with blood dripping hot down his face. The splatter was dark on the dojo floor, but bright red when it smeared his fingers. His vision started to blur. Dimly, he was aware of being propped up.
An authoritative voice called off the match and Kazuya's heart lurched, his body following suit. He pushed away from the arms holding him. His hand still gripped his sword—good—and he wiped a sleeve across his face as he steadied himself on his own two feet.
"I can still fight," he said. The dizziness was abating. As for the pain, he was used to that, it wouldn't distract him. If this was a real fight—no, it was a real fight, it was the most important fight of Kazuya's young life. He turned to Assistant Instructor Yuuki with blood and sweat sticking to his skin, sword in hand. "It's no problem, I can still fight. Please let me."
Kazuya didn't bow his head when he made the request. It was just as everyone said: he was a brat who didn't know his place. But that was fine. If he had no place to belong, he'd make one. He may have come to Seidou with nothing, but he'd taken up a sword and learned how to use it. There was a reason why he was learning kenjutsu, and why he had to win. Being an abandoned child with no other merits was fine. Being scorned was fine. But not even being able to fight, that alone was unacceptable.
Yuuki's assessing gaze reflected the image of a small boy with a bloodied face, chin held high, wearing a smile that threatened to show teeth. Cornered animals were more likely to bite, and Kazuya would go straight for the throat.
The assistant instructor inclined his head a fraction. "Very well. The match will continue."
They took their places again, and when the signal was given the older student charged forward once more, in the exact same pattern. Careless thinking on his part, and his form was sloppy. He was enjoying himself. He wouldn't be for much longer.
Kazuya parried the opponent's blade and it glanced away instead of overpowering him. The other boy lost his balance just a little. It was just enough. In the opening he created, Kazuya darted in. His sword made a satisfying, meaty whack as it connected, and the boy's breath whooshed out of him, eyes flung wide and showing white all around the irises.
A thrill of victory trembled through Kazuya's frame. He bared his teeth in excitement, undaunted by the sight of the boy staggering upright. It had been a good, clean hit, proving that Kazuya could do this. He grasped the technique, not just in his head but memorized in his body as well. The movements had come naturally, and they could still be improved. He wanted to try it again.
Before they could resume according to the rules, the other boy leapt towards him, red with outrage and rendered clumsy in his movements. Either he couldn't hear or he ignored the bark of reprimand from the instructor. For once Kazuya was glad for his small size, having plenty of room to dodge the wide swing aimed in his general direction, which left the opponent vulnerable to a counter of quick, precise blows.
Kazuya lashed with the blunt sword edge, knowing intimately well what it was like to have a body barred with bruises—but that ache was only skin-and-muscle deep. There was worse pain to suffer, like being hollowed out with loss until there was nothing inside but a deep, dark pit. An abandoned, wounded heart was easily tossed into that darkness. He'd stared down into it more than once.
Hands pulled Kazuya back, but the interference was unnecessary. He'd already stopped and lowered his weapon as soon as his opponent had dropped his sword. There was no point in fighting someone who was unwilling to go on.
The boy crumpled on the floor as if incapacitated, but that was an exaggeration. It wasn't like his arms or legs were broken, and he hadn't been hit on the head. Kazuya's own head throbbed, and the pounding increased as the commotion got louder. He resigned himself to being scolded.
He lifted his face with a lack of repentance that wasn't going to do him any favors, but Yuuki's expression was as calm as ever and he offered a cloth for Kazuya to clean up with. Kazuya found himself wondering what it would take to make this man angry—but quickly decided he wasn't so curious as to put himself on the receiving end of that anger. "Thank you," he said, pressing the cloth to his injury. Most of the bleeding had already stopped, but now that the fight was over a light-headed sensation fuzzed his awareness.
Yuuki steered him away from the others—he didn't even make any excuses, he just took Kazuya and went, and nobody questioned him. As expected of the exemplary assistant instructor. Before the match, Kazuya might have insisted he was fine. Now, though, he let himself be led outside where it was quieter.
The sun filled the courtyard and Kazuya leaned against the side of the well, eyes closed and listening to the slosh of water being drawn. He wasn't the type to fidget but his hands kept curling around air, recalling the grain of the wood against his palms, the impact of a hit jarring through him, the shift of his weight from one stance to the next. While washing his face he reviewed in his mind the moves he'd made or could have made differently. There was a multitude of ways the fight could have gone.
Water dripped from Kazuya's nose and chin. Refreshed, he tipped his face up to the sky, blinking droplets from his lashes. The field of blue stretching out before him came into sharp clarity and he breathed in the clean air. "Thank you for letting me finish the fight. About what you asked me before… I think I know now, about the path I want to walk. I'll get stronger." Strong enough not to lose anything again, or be left behind. Strong enough that no one would pity him. Then someday, he could stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the likes of Yuuki. Kazuya grinned with the joy of having a goal. "Kenjutsu is interesting, so please continue to teach me."
"Of course," Yuuki said, returning Kazuya's grin. "And congratulations on your win. I look forward to the others that will follow."
Chapter 5: Brilliance
Holding back the night
With its increasing brilliance
The summer moon.
"I'm telling you," said Isashiki, waving his cup around for emphasis. Luckily it was empty, but a serving girl waited nearby to refill it as soon as his hand stilled. "I watched that stupid notice board all night—all damn night, guarding a piece of wood! And on top of that, nothing happened! What a waste of time, I thought. Then, whaddya know, this bastard here…" He jabbed a finger at Kuramochi. "When it was his turn to stand guard, he got all the action! And the glory!"
"Not to mention the reward money." Ryousuke's pointed little smile peeked out from behind his cup. He sipped his sake with more moderation than the others, but they'd all been going at it for a while, and for a man his size he sure could hold his drink.
Kuramochi made a sour face at the teasing and tossed back another swallow. "Yeah, yeah, complain all you want. I'm the idiot who decided to spend the money on you ungrateful assholes."
"It was very nice of you to invite everyone out," Haruichi offered, cheeks glowing as pink as his hair. Despite appearances, he wasn't as drunk as he looked, which was one more thing the brothers had in common.
Eijun, to his initial dismay, found that his oni constitution was failing him, but the expensive food and good sake did much for elevating his mood. "That's right! On this happy occasion we should be thankful for Kuramochi-san's generosity! May tales of his kindness be told throughout the land—kanpai!"
"D'you have to be so embarrassing?" Kuramochi's flush deepened, as did his scowl, but for all his grumbling and gruffness it was typical of him to spend the reward on others rather than just himself. Quite a lot of people had come, and the free meal was only part of the reason.
Even Miyuki had tagged along, though the red-light district of Shimabara wasn't one of his usual haunts. If he was going to spend his free time anywhere it was usually on the training grounds, either alone or instructing, but when he'd heard Kuramochi was paying for a meal at the famous Sumiya, that was Miyuki's cue to cheerfully add to the bill.
He seemed to be enjoying himself, sitting with Yuuki on the other side of the room. The girl serving them blushed and laughed delicately behind her hand at something they said. Miyuki had barely touched his food all night but he'd been drinking enough for color to rise to his face, casting an illusion of good health. He was having a good night; the persistent cough was absent, and from an outsider's perspective he might not look sick at all. Sooner or later, though, the symptoms would creep up on him again, as certain as an incoming tide. Everyone knew he had a chronic illness by now, but he continued to keep the truth a secret, and if anyone had guessed what it was they weren't talking about it in the open.
On nights like this Eijun could understand why Miyuki wanted to pretend things were normal. No reason to spoil everyone's festive mood. Too bad Eijun couldn't indulge in the same ignorant bliss, but maybe if he kept drinking he could fog out the knowledge that stained his mind. It appeared to be working for Miyuki.
Miyuki wasn't a sad drunk, or a loud one. He smiled a lot, and not the mocking kind of smile Eijun was used to. These smiles were softer and unguarded. He looked different somehow, bathed in the golden glow of the lantern light.
He's pretty. The thought drifted unexpectedly into Eijun's head like hazy smoke, lingering and spreading outward. No, he's—handsome? But something about his face is pretty. Not in the same way as a girl, and there was one right next to him for comparison. She was pretty, too, and dainty, and just… girlish. She probably smelled nice. Miyuki usually smelled like clove from the oil he used for cleaning his swords, or like sweat if he'd just finished training (which he insisted on doing regularly unless he was having a bad day). He was tall and broad-shouldered, had a nice, sharp jawline, and a wicked mouth that drew attention to the flashes of his white teeth, or the curve of an insinuating smirk. His overall face was pretty, but usually it was his mouth and what came out of it that left the biggest impression.
Seeing Miyuki without his edges turned outward was the same as catching him unarmed. For once, he didn't appear to mind. Being weaponless—moreover, being peaceful—gentled the shape of his mouth into something friendly and approachable, and his eyes became more expressive. Contentment warmed them, and it was no wonder the girl kept sneaking glances at him from under the demure sweep of her lashes. Miyuki was malleable under the influence of the sake, and tactile in a way that was looser and less reserved than when he was sober.
Laughing, he swayed in place, his shoulder bumping Yuuki, who steadied Miyuki and moved to take away his cup, scolding, "If Rei was here she wouldn't let you have any more."
"But she's not, so return my drink, Tetsu-san."
He looks happy. Somehow, the thought depressed Eijun more than anything. He rubbed a hand over his face and reached for his cup only to find it was empty, and the serving girl had gone to fetch another carafe.
"It's too bad some of the rebels got away," Isashiki said. He'd produced a toothpick from somewhere and was chewing on the end. "I bet the reward would've been even higher for catching all of 'em at once. Maybe they'll try again?" He didn't sound very hopeful though, and Ryousuke was shaking his head.
"Not after the arrests, and all they were doing was throwing the notice board into the river. They'll simply find other, petty ways to undermine the Tokugawa's authority."
Isashiki sighed through his nose. "Ah, well. At least we're off signpost duty. That shit was boring."
Ryousuke's perpetual smile took on a sweetly menacing cast. "Oh yes, that single, uneventful shift must have been sheer torture. It's not like some of us spend weeks staking out Choshu hideouts with little to show for it. What an agonizing time you've had."
Before Isashiki could cram his foot any further in his mouth Kuramochi stated, "Whatever, it's in the past. No use dwelling on what already happened."
"On the contrary," said Ryousuke, merciless, "there's a matter I've been curious about. According to the reports, no more than eight rebels showed up, so your division should have been more than enough to subdue them. How, then, did some of them manage to get away?"
Out of those within earshot, some wisely found somewhere else to be, while others pretended to not be listening. "Gee," Kuramochi muttered, "an interrogation from Ryou-san, now that's an honor."
"Better you than me," Isashiki said with the solemn nod of someone parting with a doomed comrade.
"Now you say that." Anyone else in his shoes would have had good reason to be terrified, but Kuramochi only looked annoyed (generally annoyed, not specifically annoyed with Ryousuke, Kuramochi wasn't stupid). His lips twisted and he aimed his glare at a spot on the floor. "If I knew for certain what the hell happened I'd be happy to tell you, trust me. All I can confirm is that someone interfered. I didn't get a good look myself, but..."
Ryousuke tilted his head a fraction. "Only one person?"
"Just the one. The guys who fought him were overwhelmed, babbling about ghosts and demons. Their reports were a mess, but they all agreed the enemy was alone, pale-haired, and inhumanly strong." His voice lowered near the end of the description, and he fell silent to let the sobering implication sink in.
Isashiki worried at the toothpick caught between his teeth. "Oi, you don't suppose that was one of…"
Ryousuke cut him off with a knife-point glance, though his tone remained deceptively mild. "They were all accounted for that night. Besides, the rebels were aided, not slaughtered."
"Well, damn. Maybe it was a real ghost then."
Or a real something. Eijun was suddenly more sober than he wanted to be. It couldn't have been Mei, he was too flashy for such a quick in-and-out rescue mission, and Harada wouldn't be caught dead using his true form like that, but if those two were connected to the rebels then there could be other oni involved as well.
Eijun shot to his feet without warning. When everyone turned to stare at him he stammered out, "I—I'm going to step outside for a bit! I need to clear my head."
The pleasant warmth of the sake was gone, drained through the pit that had yawned open in his stomach. He left the noisy cheer of the room behind and wandered the second-floor halls, trying to remember where the stairs were, loose thoughts tumbling about in his head. There were oni helping the rebels, and the shogunate was conducting experiments to create rasetsu with help from Gramps. Once I find him we're going home. We're going home. Human conflicts have nothing to do with us.
Eijun's shoulders slumped. He could keep telling himself that, but it had ceased to be true long ago. The shogunate may have blackmailed Gramps and sent the assassins, but Eijun was the one who'd come to Kyoto and stayed.
"Ahh, damnit!" He scrubbed his hands through his hair, mentally berating his own stubbornness for landing him in this mess. But fine. Fine. He'd made his choice and he would stick by it.
"Sir, are you all right?"
"M'fine," he replied dully to the voice, which was familiar, but the tone was not and he belatedly straightened up, confused. "Who—" He choked on air, eyes flying wide.
Lustrous silk in shades of russet and ochre draped a slender figure, whose long hair was waxed and coiffed and crowned with a cluster of chrysanthemums. More tiny flowers dangled alongside a face painted stark white, touched with hints of red, brows and eyes lined black with charcoal. The clothes and hair were all wrong, but that face—under the heavy makeup—could only belong to one person.
"Waka—" Her eyes glittered in warning as a server hurried past, and Eijun waited until the hallway was empty before he continued in a strained hush. "What are you doing here?!"
"Working," she said in a low murmur, keeping an eye out for approaching shadows. "I told you I'd found a job, weren't you listening?"
"I thought you meant as a doctor!"
"It's much easier to gather information this way."
Information. Right. Eijun eyed her elaborate getup, which seemed like an awful lot of work for a disguise but he was no expert. Maybe this was normal. He did recall a time when he thought he saw a girl who resembled Haruichi at a teashop across the street, but ever since the incident leading up to the Ikeda raid he avoided all chance encounters with Kominato lookalikes unless he was certain they weren't on a job. "I guess I should pretend not to know you."
Wakana flicked a fan open in front of her face and lowered her gaze. "Greetings, honored guest. My name is Rikiha. I am a new apprentice, so please excuse my inexperience." She spoke in the elegant, formal Kyoto dialect, and with her face hidden like that Eijun wouldn't have recognized her.
He started to grin, and the expression stuck to his face when he returned to the room with Wakana politely in tow. More than one jaw dropped as the maiko made her entrance, all flowing silk and courtly manners. It was funny—and just a little weird. She'd knocked him flat in the dirt countless times during training, and he'd seen her break a man's neck with one hand, but there was nothing of the tough, deadly bodyguard in her now. Her modest smile never slipped and the merriment in her eyes never dimmed. Either she was that good at pretending, or—Eijun dared to hope—she was warming up to the Shinsengumi as they made idiots of themselves in front of her.
"She's cute. How'd you convince her to indulge this rabble? You don't look it but you're a charmer, aren't you?" A languid arm draped itself across Eijun's shoulders, and he stiffened under the combination of Miyuki's weight suddenly leaning on him and the unexpected nearness of Miyuki's voice by his ear.
"No, I—I ran into her in the hall, that's all!"
"Not literally, I hope."
"Of course not!"
"Look at that," Miyuki snickered, sending ripples of amusement through the close contact of their bodies. "Kuramochi hasn't said a word. Do you think he forgot how to talk?"
Miyuki smelled how Eijun knew he would, like musky human male with a faded hint of clove and a fresh whiff of sake. Sometimes there was temple incense sticking to him, but not tonight. No sickly trace of blood either. He was warm through the layers of his clothes, but hopefully that was from the alcohol and not a fever. When Eijun peered up at Miyuki's face he found himself being stared at and his own cheeks flushed. "Wh-what?"
Another laugh traveled through him, but Eijun only caught the initial tremors before Miyuki pulled away with a wry half-smile. "You too, huh?"
"What about me?"
Miyuki shook his head and didn't deign to answer. "I'm going to call it a night. You have fun and enjoy the pleasant company while you can. I'll see you tomorrow."
"Wait!" Eijun whirled and lifted a hand to grab onto Miyuki's trailing sleeve. Fabric slid through his fingers and he froze as if guilty, but guilty of what he had no idea. "Um… are you… feeling all right?"
"I'm fine," Miyuki said, his features and voice schooled placid. He glanced down at Eijun's hand and then away. "You don't need to worry about me. Goodnight, Sawamura."
"Goodnight," Eijun echoed, with the impression he was talking to a closed door.
The white, watchful eye of the moon tracked Eijun's progress through the shadows of the temple as he crept past dark and silent halls of worship. Everyone was asleep save for whichever monk was stuck with bell duty tonight, plus the men who stood guard at the gates. Eijun made sure to avoid those and headed westward through the gardens where not a soul lingered at this hour.
Spring was budding on the trees, a few of them already blossoming, and in the next day or two the city would be awash with flowers. It would be Eijun's second spring in Kyoto. A great deal had happened in two years: this past winter a new emperor succeeded the throne, and the current shogun, too, had only been in office for a handful of months. The Satsuma domain, once allied with the Aizu, had switched sides and joined the Choshu rebels. They were receiving help from the Tosa domain as well. Human history marched on, and while the oni were never mentioned in the public annals they were always, in secret, dragged along in the humans' wake.
Eijun's mouth tightened as he crossed the bridge over a pond, and grass whispered under his feet when he veered from the paved path. There was only one gate on this side, and fewer guards. He reached a stone wall, placing a hand on its cold, grainy surface, and peered up through a spray of branches. The wall was about two times the height of a grown man.
Bending his legs, he pushed off the ground, and tree branches raked his clothes as he skimmed through them. His hands caught on the tiles lining the top of the wall. With a scuff of his waraji against stone he pulled himself over, dropping to the street on the other side.
Nice and easy, he thought to himself, sparing a moment to grin at the smooth escape. Granted, the Shinsengumi had long since ceased to monitor him, and as long as he returned well before dawn no one would be the wiser.
He found Wakana at the meeting place, though she hid her presence so well it took him a few minutes to pinpoint her exact location. "You could have let me know where you were," he complained, joining her in the shadowed ledge of the wall under the Shijo Bridge.
"You need the practice," Wakana told him with a reproachful sniff. She'd traded the swinging sleeves and colorful layers of a maiko for darker, more practical clothes that allowed for easy movement, and the kodachi Shotsuren was tucked in her obi (though she refused to use the heirloom in battle unless absolutely necessary, and even getting her to wear it had taken some convincing). "If you insist on coming with me, you'll have to be as quiet and observant as possible."
"I'll have you know I snuck out of Shinsengumi headquarters without a single person noticing!"
"They're human. I could sneak past them in broad daylight."
"I bet you couldn't—"
"Shush. We're wasting time. Follow me—quietly—or go back." Without another word, she slipped up the side of the wall and darted across the bridge on silent footsteps. Eijun tracked her in glimpses under the moonlight and by the faint stirring of air in her wake.
She led him through the alleys of the city, mostly sticking to the cover of darkness in winding corridors, but hopping walls and flitting across rooftops when needed. Her pace was swift but controlled, and Eijun fell into the rhythm of following her. He wasn't completely soundless, but he did well enough that he received no rebuke along the way.
There was no use trying to memorize the path they took—Eijun wouldn't have been able to remember such a complicated route if his life depended on it—but his general sense of direction wasn't bad. They went southeast of the Kamo River until Wakana stopped at the top of a hill. The street below was lined with shops and restaurants, all of them dark and empty at a glance.
"There," she said softly, pointing out a teahouse guarded by the twisting shape of a bare-limbed cherry tree. Though faint, the windows of the second floor betrayed a flickering glow of candlelight. "The men who escaped at the Sanjo Bridge met here. They haven't been back, but others from Tosa have come and gone. Before you get too excited, the Shinsengumi already know that this is a meeting place for the rebels, but they made a wrongful arrest here once and have been treading carefully ever since."
"I get it. So we're only watching." He wasn't here to help the Shinsengumi in the first place. Eijun might be involved with the humans and their conflict, and he'd fight on his friends' side if it came down to that, but this was strictly oni business. "Can we get closer?"
"Not too close. If there really is an oni working with them…"
"That's what we're trying to find out! I'm going."
Wakana clicked her tongue but followed Eijun onto the top of a wall, and from there it was a short leap to the first-floor overhang that wrapped around the building. The protruding tiles would make for an excellent perch right beside the tantalizingly lit window, and if Eijun crouched there and concentrated he might be able to hear the low voices speaking inside.
He was halfway there when his foot slipped on a loose tile. The rattle and scrape made his whole body cringe and come to a standstill, straining to hear past the alarm drumming in his chest. He clutched a hand over his heart as if to muffle it. Wakana said nothing behind him but her unspoken censure made sweat trickle down the back of Eijun's neck.
The seconds stretched into taut minutes, thinning and thinning along with the last breath of air Eijun had inhaled, until his lungs couldn't take it anymore. When no interruption came he loosed his breath in a quiet, deflating stream. That could have been bad. More alert than ever, he started forward again, placing one foot carefully in front of the other. When he reached his destination at last, he sidled as close to the window as he dared.
The light inside wavered, and then it spilled out as the shoji screen slid open. A short blade flashed and missed Eijun's neck as he leapt out of the way, landing in the courtyard below. He glared upwards as a dark silhouette started to come after him and Eijun's hand went for his weapon, but before he could draw it the enemy was intercepted by Wakana. Metal rang—she'd drawn one of her knives—and the two of them exchanged blows at a speed that proved the opponent was either an extraordinary human, or not human at all.
The teahouse erupted in activity, but no others came out to attack. They were escaping instead. No matter; the human rebels weren't Eijun's concern. He couldn't get a good look at the attacker from where he was so he circled into the street, eyes locked on the figures above. The light through the window gleamed on pale hair, not the pure white of an oni but recognizable nonetheless.
A roaring sound filled Eijun's ears as memory struck him. "You!"
The rude boy he'd met before didn't even spare him a glance. Grunting, his short sword skimmed down the steel of Wakana's knife, and she disengaged before she lost her fingers and weapon in one slice.
Eijun gathered himself to jump up and help her, but the boy snatched the opportunity to retreat.
"Oh no you don't!"
They gave chase: Wakana from the rooftops and Eijun from the ground. He had the disadvantage, lagging behind when he lost his line of sight, especially when he had to dive into the narrow lanes between buildings. He caught the flicker of a shadow overhead, the thump of feet, and then the clash of blades meeting which added speed to his legs. This was no good, he needed to be on higher ground.
Kicking off from a wall, he flew up the side of a building, but just as he reached the top the boy came hurtling at him with a grunt of surprise. He must have doubled back. Was Wakana herding him or—no time to think about it, Eijun hadn't quite gotten his footing yet and the boy wasn't slowing down at all. He charged right in.
Eijun only had Daitsuren halfway out of its scabbard when they collided, but half was enough to deflect the boy's sword, and then the momentum sent them both over the edge of the roof. Eijun finished drawing his blade in midair and the tip of it cut a line across the boy's collarbone—not deep enough to incapacitate him, but a scatter of blood jeweled the air as they fell. Eijun somehow got his feet underneath him right before he hit the ground. The impact jarred up through his bent legs, and he barely had time to recover before meeting another head-on attack.
It was a heavy strike that belied the boy's thin frame as he forced Eijun back with a grinding of steel. His feet skidded over packed dirt. The single uncovered eye that glared at him over the cross of their blades was burning incandescent in the night, and the metallic sheen banished all doubt of what the boy was, but it also raised new questions.
"What's wrong with you?! Can't you tell we're both—"
"Shut up. You're the one who hasn't realized yet."
The seething tone rolled over Eijun and brought his own blood to a boil. "Realized what?!" He pushed back with all his might, arms shaking with the force running through them. The two weapons were locked at an impasse. Something would have to give—something was going to break at this rate, and the boy's cheap straight blade didn't compare to a masterpiece like Daitsuren. Eijun pressed for his victory. "The only thing to realize is that a brat like you is a hundred years too early to defeat me! You're picking a fight with Sawamura Eijun!"
The boy let out a soft snort. "As if that makes you so great. So what? I know who you are. You're just…" He stopped resisting, and Daitsuren slashed deep and bloody before Eijun could adjust his strength. His lips pulled back in a grimace; he hadn't meant to do that. Still, that kind of wound wouldn't kill an oni. Stumbling against the wall of the building, the boy propped himself up, breathing wetly. He never took his accusing gaze off Eijun. "…You're just someone who ran away while the village burned."
The words stabbed him so precisely his heart shuddered in his chest, and the rush of blood through his veins went cold and still and silent. Eijun froze in the grip of a dreadful realization. "Eh…? Then you're …"
"A survivor. Not that you went back to look."
"I wanted to! I wanted to, but…" But wanting wasn't doing. He should have gone. No matter what Wakana and Gramps had said, he should have gone back at least once. The proud blade in his hands lowered, suddenly as heavy as it'd been when he first picked it up as a child. "You… what's your name?"
"Don't get the wrong idea. We're not allies." Spitting out a mouthful of blood, the boy pressed a hand to the slowly healing wound under his clothes. "We don't have a shared home anymore, all because the clan head ignored everyone else's counsel and defied the shogunate."
Eijun's head snapped up, his indignation renewed. Giving into the fury was much, much easier than picking at the guilt and dismay knotting up his gut. "Nobody could have known it would end up like that! It's not like we were a threat! Wanting to be left in peace wasn't unreasonable!"
"Thinking that way was naïve, and don't pretend like you haven't realized it by now. You yourself have sided with the Shinsengumi. In this day and age, cooperation is the only way to survive. Your grandfather knows that, too."
"Gramps…?" In an instant, all other thoughts were blown out of Eijun's head. He grasped onto the hint dangled before him. "Do you know where he is?!"
"I'm not an idiot who would tell that to an enemy." The boy flung his arm out, and a concealed dagger arrowed straight towards Eijun's face. He knocked it away with a reflexive parry of his blade, and by pure luck the dagger glanced off a second one hidden behind the first, diverting its trajectory so it buried in Eijun's shoulder rather than his head.
He gripped the handle to yank it free, but even with some of the momentum killed the blade had sunk deep. In the second it took to pry the knife out, the boy made his escape, vanishing around the corner. Cursing, Eijun ran after him again.
There was no sign of the boy down the alley. Wakana soon returned to Eijun's side looking worse for wear, eyes narrowing at the wound closing under his torn sleeve. "Are you all right?"
"I should be asking you that!"
"I'm fine now. He won't surprise me again now that I know he's Okumura's boy."
"Well, I didn't recognize him at all! We can't let him get away, he knows something about Gramps."
Wakana nodded. "Call immediately if you find him." She bounded up to the rooftops again.
He couldn't have gotten far. "Okumura," Eijun muttered under his breath, finally able to put a name to that insolent face, though neither face nor name rang a bell. But if Wakana recognized him, it must be true that he had belonged to the village.
Pressure tightened in Eijun's chest. He should be happy someone else survived. He would have been happy, but Okumura's anger and blame were slaps to the face. Eijun raged at the insult, but while he snarled and thrashed a shackle of guilt had locked around his wrist, restraining him with the thought: if there were other survivors, did they feel the same way?
Had the village not been as harmonious as Eijun remembered?
The memories were several years old, and when he turned his thoughts back as far as they could go he recalled his family, his friends, his teachers, and the other villagers looking happy—or annoyed if he was getting underfoot. There had been a night just a few days before the massacre when his mother had ushered him to bed early. At the time Eijun had thought it was punishment for something he had said or done—being disrespectful, being negligent with his studies, accidentally knocking over lines of clean laundry because he'd been using the end of the drying rack as a practice target—but usually those mishaps warranted a hearty scolding and then the matter was forgotten. That time, though, he'd thought he was being excluded from something. Some of the villagers had arrived at their home as it was getting late. They must have been there to discuss what to do about the shogunate's request.
They must not have agreed, if Okumura's words were true. Wakana wouldn't know; she'd been with Eijun all night, making sure he stayed in his room. He'd have to ask Gramps. The pile of things Eijun had to ask Gramps kept on growing.
Some clan heir I am. I don't know anything.
A nearby sound jolted Eijun back into the present. He stared down a narrow side street, buried deep in the shadows while the moon was hidden behind a veil of clouds. Footsteps tread quietly over the ground, accompanied by the whisper of cloth and the occasional clack of paired scabbards bumping together. There were multiple swordsmen, so it couldn't be Okumura… unless he had joined up with his rebel companions.
Eijun's foot shifted, about to take a cautious step closer, when the approaching feet suddenly dashed towards him. His immediate response was to turn and run, but a twitch was as far as he got before being seized by the stubborn thought: I'm not running away ever again!
Reason came belatedly: This is an entirely different situation from that!
By then it was too late and the swordsmen were rounding the corner. Eijun brought Daitsuren up as a flurry of swords were unsheathed. The tension-wrung pause that followed allowed the moon to bare its face, and light drifted down to glint on bristling steel. Out of the shadows the men came, dressed in light blue, bearing the white mountain pattern on their sleeves. Utterly unmistakable, that uniform.
Relief made Eijun lower his weapon in an instant. He started to smile, and then his underused sense of caution caught up.
"Sawamura?" That was Chris standing in the front, single-handedly destroying whatever small chance Eijun had to escape with anonymity intact.
He deflated and sheathed his sword, shuffling forward a few steps, eyes unable to lift from the dreary sight of dusty ground. Would it be better to get on his knees right away, or should he try to remain dignified under the weight of Chris' disapproving gaze? Swallowing, Eijun summoned words to his dry mouth. "Good evening, Chris-san."
The sound of swords returning to their scabbards was a good sign at least. The toneless way Chris spoke, however, was not. "What are you doing outside the temple grounds at this time of night?"
It would be convenient if some rebels could attack right this moment. Or if Eijun could suddenly develop Miyuki's talent for twisting the truth into a believable half-lie. Did Wakana know any medicines that caused memory loss? He chewed on his lip while useless thoughts passed in and out of his head. "I was just—out for a walk."
The clumsy excuse tripped on its way out of his mouth and hearing it made him wince. He should have tried to say he was sleepwalking, or possessed by a ghost, or anything less stupid.
"Sawamura," Chris began, and then paused. More than one pair of feet scuffed over the ground, shifting restlessly, and Chris' voice was urgent when he continued, "You're injured. How bad is it?"
Eijun's hand flew to his shoulder while his heart flew halfway up his throat. He clutched his torn sleeve, squeezing over the already healed wound. "It's fine! I'll be fine, I'll take care of it right away, you don't have to worry about a thing! I'll just go back to the temple now and—Chris-san?"
Chris was standing stiff and tense. The others with him were either shrinking back or stretching their faces out, noses lifted in the air to catch the faint scent of something.
Oh, Eijun realized at the same time Chris ground out, "Go. Wash the blood off and wait for me at the temple."
"But—are you going to be all right?"
White started to creep into Chris' hair, but more alarming than the rasetsu transformation was when he raised his voice. "Hurry and go!"
Eijun spun around and went. He heard a clash behind him, and when he glanced back one of the other rasetsu—white-haired and red-eyed, driven mad by the mere smell of blood—was being held off from pursing him.
Chris said his new formula was an improvement over the old one, but it wasn't perfect by any means. Even if the men survived the initial transformation and kept their sanity intact there was still a strong likelihood of going berserk. In most of those cases the uncontrollable rasetsu had to be killed. They would have died anyway, either from wounds received in battle or as punishment for breaking Shinsengumi regulations—but that was different. Dying in battle or committing honorable suicide was different. This way, they were nothing but mad dogs that needed to be put down.
Humans, Eijun thought, but instead of a scornful edge all he felt was a deep, sorrowful ache. Gramps never should have made the ochimizu, no matter what the reason.
"I'm sure you know already," said Ryousuke, his demeanor pleasant despite being woken up in the middle of the night, "that the only reason you aren't being killed on the spot is because, to be blunt, a spy wouldn't be this stupid."
Protests wound in the back of Eijun's throat, forming a lump too big to swallow. He sat before an array of faces that were cranky at best, and downright murderous at worst, each one demanding an explanation. There was very little he could say in his defense. He'd left the temple grounds without permission, had gotten into a fight, and now the captains were awake to deal with the mess he'd created. The only silver lining was that the rasetsu from before had managed to calm down, so at least Eijun didn't have a consequential death added to his list of transgressions.
His lips parted and he drew breath. Speaking carelessly would only get him into more trouble, but the longer this went on, the more his restraint frayed. Before any of his reckless words could unspool a hand smacked none too gently across his mouth. "Ow!" Eijun said instead, muffled behind the callused slab of Kuramochi's palm.
"He's an idiot all right." The hand left his mouth to swat the back of his head. "What the hell were you thinking, huh? Getting everyone worked up at this hour…"
Eijun tasted blood where his teeth had cut the inside of his mouth, though the sting only lasted for a second. Kuramochi's rough treatment was nothing new. He was angry, but that might not be a bad thing. Compared to the first time Eijun had been brought before everyone like this, back when he'd been new to the Kyoto, anger and insults were better than ruthless, impersonal debate over the risks and benefits of killing him.
He rubbed the abused back of his head and lowered his gaze to his folded knees. "I'm truly sorry. I wasn't thinking. I intended to come right back, I swear!"
Ryousuke's breezy tone wielded a cutting edge. "It's hard to believe that when you've already broken your word. And you still haven't explained why you went out in the first place."
"Isn't it obvious?" All eyes turned to Miyuki—who really should have stayed in bed, his health wasn't the worst it had been but he was far from his best condition. He sat slouched and cross-legged, trying to pass his cough off as a clearing of his throat. Afterwards he tucked his hands inside his sleeves and offered everyone a small smirk. "Chris-san, didn't you run into him by the Gion district?"
"South of Gion, yes."
"W-wait—" Eijun had an inkling of what Miyuki was suggesting, and the moment everyone caught on the room erupted in noise.
"You!" Kuramochi hooked an arm under Eijun's chin, pulling him into a headlock that had him kicking at the floor. "You snuck out to see a girl?"
Others chimed in: "How long have you known her?"
"What's her name?"
"Where does she work?"
"Goodness," said Haruichi, looking around in amazement at the transformed atmosphere. "You'd think this was worse than being a spy."
"Damn right it is!" Isashiki snarled, fist rising in the air to threaten. "Now that I think about it, you were pretty friendly with that maiko at the Sumiya, weren't you? Was it her you went to see?"
"Nnh!" The pressure squeezing around Eijun's neck provided a good excuse for not answering. He would have denied it immediately, but then again, it was true in a sense. He'd met Wakana tonight, though it hadn't been at a teahouse and she hadn't been playing the part of a maiko.
Ryousuke crossed his arms and lifted a skeptical brow. "I wasn't aware you had the funds to meet any of Gion's entertainers."
Kuramochi ground his knuckles against the top of Eijun's head, cackling with evil mirth. "Fess up! Is it a secret love affair? You gonna pay off her debt and sweep her off her feet?"
"No!" This was Wakana they were talking about, his loyal and lifelong friend, and even if she wasn't his real sister by blood it basically amounted to the same thing. Eijun's meager protests disappeared under an avalanche of more questions. Did she have friends? Could he introduce them? The strangled noise Eijun made sounded like it came from a dying animal.
Meanwhile, Miyuki sat in the corner, watching everything unfold with a crooked smile that was halfway between rueful and amused. When Eijun caught his eye and glared—this is all your fault!—amusement won out and he laughed quietly to himself, the smug bastard.
In the end Eijun received only light punishment for his misadventure, and everyone was happy to unload their cleaning duties onto him, but they needn't have bothered because the endless teasing about his nonexistent love affair was a far worse sentence than extra chores. The fact that the love affair wasn't even real made his fate more depressing. If he was going to be punished for something, he should at least deserve it.
When morning finally dawned after the long, eventful night, Eijun dragged himself out of bed to get an early start on his work. He dressed quietly and tiptoed out of the room full of still-snoring bodies, but didn't finish waking up until he splashed water on his face at the well.
He paused with his hands cupped and dripping. Floating in his palms was a delicate pink petal, and the sight of it made Eijun aware of the floral aroma that sweetened the air. His eyes drifted closed while he inhaled the lovely, fresh scent of flowers that had just bloomed. As was always the case with cherry blossoms, they carried a tinge of wistfulness, too.
There was a wild tree in the mountains not far from Eijun's old home, but unlike his village the tree was probably still there. It was old and robust despite having been struck by lightning a long time ago, making a hollow in the trunk that was big enough for a child to hide inside. Sleeping there resulted in strange dreams. Everyone had tried it at least once and it was something of a rite of passage. Eijun couldn't remember his dream at all. He should ask Wakana about it, he would have told her and she remembered everything.
"All right," he said to himself, splashing his face one more time and blinking his eyes open afterwards. Water dripped from his lashes, glittering in the sunlight until he wiped them off. He flicked the wet petal from his fingers. "Time to get to work!"
The early start meant Eijun could do his chores in peace, pausing only to sneak into the kitchen for a quick bite of breakfast. If he completed his duties in the morning, additional chores included, he would have time to train in the afternoon and go on the evening patrol. Though, it might be more worthwhile to stay at the temple to see if Wakana came by with news. He certainly wasn't going to be meeting her outside again anytime soon.
By the time the temple bell struck for the hour of the snake everyone was awake and on duty. Eijun was halfway through his workload and crossing the walkway between the two main halls when he stiffened at the sight of Ochiai. The man may have been a skilled military advisor—that was the only reason Eijun could think of for why he was kept around—but he hadn't endeared himself to anyone with his calculating and underhanded methods.
So it was strange to see Furuya trailing behind him, the captain's face a blank mask, and he passed by Eijun without a word.
"Oi!" Eijun called out, hackles rising. It was always annoying when Furuya ignored him, but something else wasn't right about this. "What about a greeting?"
"You didn't greet me either," Furuya said. He paused and turned just enough to speak over his shoulder.
Ochiai stopped as well to cast an indifferent look over the exchange and Eijun's gaze twitched between the two of them. This was one of those moments where an inner voice told him to exercise his underused tact (most of the time the voice sounded like Wakana, and occasionally it sounded like Chris or Miyuki), but the only thing he could think of to say was, "It's weird seeing you two together."
Furuya didn't respond, but this particular silence had the air of a concession rather than a cool snub. Before Eijun could feel reassured, though, Furuya glanced towards Ochiai and the misgivings came rushing back.
Stroking his beard, Ochiai spoke in an indolent tone. "Be that as it may, we'll be taking our leave. A farewell would be more appropriate than a greeting."
The incline of Furuya's head and his sedate, "Farewell," left Eijun flabbergasted.
"What a minute—"
Ochiai cut off his protest with a raised hand. "The commander can fill you in on the details, but we have much to do and must be going. Take care, Sawamura. I don't imagine we will have cause to speak again." Having said that, he turned and continued on his way with Furuya in tow.
Eijun stared after them in confused disbelief until they disappeared from sight. Then, shaking himself from his stupor, he took off to find Commander Kataoka and get some answers.
One of the monks shouted at him in reprimand for running, but Eijun's thumping feet didn't slow down until he turned a corner, and then it was less like slowing and more like hitting a wall that let out an "oof!" while staggering backwards. The collision made both of them reel. Eijun's reflexes were quicker than the rest of him and his hand snapped out to grab a wrist, counterbalancing their weight, and he pulled himself upright until he was nearly chest to chest with Miyuki.
"Um." The urgency drained out of Eijun in an instant. He found himself caught up in the fading flicker of surprise on Miyuki's face, the contemplative flash, and then the broad knowing as he figured out whatever was going on in a few measly seconds. How does he do that?
"Ah," Miyuki said, wearing a subdued smile. "You've heard about Ochiai."
"I just ran into him and Furuya—not literally!" Miyuki's eyebrows flew up and genuine amusement crept into his upturned lips. He outright grinned when Eijun added, "That's reserved for jerks like you."
"You wound me." Miyuki twisted his wrist to catch Eijun by the hand and place it over his heart. They were standing awfully close.
Eijun's fingers twitched but he didn't yank his hand away. He stared at it and the way Miyuki's fingers splayed over his, holding so lightly it was more presence than pressure, but capturing him just the same. Oh, Eijun realized, somehow without great surprise. The heaviness in his chest was nothing new, he recognized it from the day he'd overheard the doctor and Miyuki talking, but the bitter pill of that knowledge was chased down by the fleeting sweetness of cherry blossoms, and that was the most unfair thing in the world.
Something must have shown on his face, because Miyuki's hand lowered. Eijun jolted to attention. "No, I was just—!"
Miyuki didn't let go. But he did turn away, and pulled Eijun along with him. "Let's talk somewhere else."
They reached a bench underneath the cherry trees, newly sprouted flowers more white than pink, but a trickle of petals fluttered away from the trees that had bloomed early. The bright sun dappled the ground beneath flowering branches. Eijun slumped on the bench, gaze fixed on the splashes of light at his feet. The scent that had been so pleasant a few hours ago was now more than he could bear.
I'm such an idiot. An idiot with terrible luck. He blinked rapidly to forestall the inevitable tears that would be pouring out by the end of this conversation. His pride was often leaky, but he clung to it nonetheless.
"Don't take it so hard," Miyuki said in a comforting tone. "Most of us saw this coming."
Eijun went rigid in mortification. His hands made claws in the fabric of his hakama. "What?"
"It wasn't that big of a secret. And you're not exactly the cleverest guy, Sawamura."
"I know that! But still!" His face felt hot enough to explode. He wished it would. At least the threat of crying had evaporated.
"It doesn't matter anymore. What's done is done. Ochiai didn't take that many people with him, so our force is still plenty strong."
Eijun's head cranked sideways by stilted degrees until he was finally looking Miyuki in the eye. There was no trace of mockery in his expression. Nonplussed, he went on to explain, "Ochiai has been preparing to split the Shinsengumi for a while. He's been recruiting men who share his imperialist views, and that much was to be expected, but we weren't as careful as we should have been. Somehow he learned about the ochimizu experiments. He even discovered that Chris is still alive. So we didn't have any choice but to agree to his demands this morning."
"…Oh. I see." Eijun waited for the relief to wash over him, but rather than a wave it came in a disappointing trickle that left him feeling hollow inside. He should be thankful Miyuki hadn't noticed anything strange since getting one over him was nothing short of a miracle, but then again he always did put the Shinsengumi first—to the point of hiding his illness for the sake of fighting with them for a while longer.
On second thought, there was nothing to feel relieved or thankful about.
A hand clapped him on the shoulder. "It'll be fine," Miyuki said. "If Ochiai knows what's good for him he won't talk. A shame about Furuya, though."
Furuya…? Ah! "That's right!" Eijun sat up straight, reminded and affronted all over again. Latching onto a flame of anger helped shake off his gloom. "That bastard just left! How could he?!"
"Who knows? It was his choice."
"He should cough up a good reason at least! He was your kouhai at Seidou, wasn't he? He owes some sort of explanation!"
"It's not our place to judge his reasons." Miyuki was remarkably nonchalant about the whole thing. He leaned back and lifted his face to the canopy of pale blossoms overhead, petals trembling in the breeze. "If you want to pick a fight though, you might have the opportunity. The commander agreed to compromise with Ochiai for appearance's sake, but we could very well wind up enemies. The next time you cross blades with Furuya it won't be for training. Think you're prepared for that?"
"Of course! At that time I'll beat some sense into him."
A smile hitched up the corners of Miyuki's mouth. "Yeah, that's a typical answer from you. That would be better after all. We'll see what happens."
Eijun's eyes narrowed. "You… what are you getting at?"
"It's nothing, don't worry about it. On a different topic, Sawamura…" A hand jostled him, fingers darting towards his collar and peeling the layers back to bare part of his shoulder. "Weren't you injured last night?"
Eijun nearly fell off the bench in his haste to yank his clothes into place and hold the folds tightly together. "I—I already treated it! It was just a scratch!" Heart pounding at the close call, he thanked heaven and Buddha and all the spirits he could name that he'd put a bandage on last night for appearance's sake, and simply hadn't bothered to take it off in the morning.
"Hmm." Miyuki regarded him thoughtfully, and while there was no dark cloud of suspicion hanging about his face the keen-eyed perception was bad enough. "I suppose that makes sense. It doesn't seem to hinder you in any way, not even after Kuramochi's roughhousing. But be careful, will you?" He probably didn't buy Eijun's weak excuse, but was willing to let it go.
He must be tired of all my secrets. Eijun loosened his death grip on his clothes and bowed his head. "Yeah. Thanks."
"And try not to go looking for trouble. I mean it. I won't always be around to cover for you."
"Unless you really were meeting a girl in Gion last night."
Oh, that. "I—I wasn't—!" But Eijun had learned last night that denial wasn't the best defense against an onslaught of teasing. Besides, Miyuki was the one who put that idea in everyone's heads. "Fine! What if I was?"
A conspicuous pause widened between them and Miyuki's expression had gone carefully blank, betraying not even the smallest hint of surprise. That was no fun. In fact, it was downright uncomfortable. The longer the silence went on, the more Eijun wanted to squirm, and he was about to open his mouth again when Miyuki said, "Good for you. I hope you'll be happy. This means I'll get to see Kuramochi lose his mind with envy—which, heh, ought to be entertaining."
"Um…" Eijun tensed when Miyuki stood up, but he didn't walk away just yet. He stood under the trees with his hands open, fingers curling as if to catch the falling petals that slipped between them.
"The cherry blossoms are beautiful this year. I suppose that's true every year, but somehow… I guess it's because this will probably be the last time."
Eijun's throat locked up and he couldn't get a word out. There was nothing he could say to that.
Barely smiling, Miyuki let his hands drop to dangle by his sides. "It's not bad to appreciate this kind of sentiment once in a while. Say, Sawamura, you should take your girl flower viewing. The weather's perfect for it, and you never know if you might not get the chance again."
He heard Miyuki walk away after that, but Eijun couldn't bring himself to watch him go. His gaze was fixed to his tightly fisted hands in his lap. A gust of wind rustled the branches above his hunched form, filling the air with a sweetness that ached, and damp tracks ran bitter down his cheeks.
Eijun's nightmares, on the rare nights when they visited, came in the form of bright flame and black smoke. The cries of his friends and family split the air, and no matter if he threw himself into the fire, or ran away from the burning wreckage of his village, the same hopeless anguish clawed the inside of his chest. There was no saving any of them; even in his dreams he knew that. The past couldn't be undone.
So it was strange that this time, instead of the fire, there was only a chilling darkness. The village was empty and ruined, buildings razed to their foundations and the blackened trees coated in a frost of moonlight. Eijun knelt on ashen ground. There was the scent of fresh blood, too, right under his nose. Dread engulfed him and made his limbs heavy like the weight that lay unmoving on his lap. Someone's ragged breathing pulled at the cold air. Eijun started to look down…
Voices raised in furious shouts woke him from the dream, and Eijun's eyes flew open to the sight of a shadowed ceiling. Instead of nearby snores the clash of battle could be heard in the distance. He sat up, throwing off the covers of his futon, and joined the others who hurried out of their beds to grab their swords.
A hand smacked against his chest, holding him back. "You stay here," Kuramochi said. "You're still injured."
"I'm fine!" Eijun tried to push past, but he only made it a few steps when a grip on the collar of his clothes yanked.
"Stay inside! Haruichi, watch him, will you?"
"Sorry, Eijun-kun." Haruichi blocked the door while everyone but Eijun filtered out.
"Move aside, Harucchi! If we're being attacked, I can fight, too! I'm fine, see?" He rotated his perfectly functional shoulder, but Haruichi only shook his head.
"It's not about your injury. The rasetsu are surely fighting out there, in fact one of them may have been the cause of the commotion. It wouldn't be the first time."
Chris-san, Eijun thought for a heart-stopping moment, but no, Chris wouldn't lose control so easily. "If that's the case, all the more reason for me to help!"
"No. Let the Shinsengumi handle it. The rasetsu are our responsibility."
Eijun's insistence faltered. Haruichi's words were an echo of what Miyuki had said once before. The rasetsu were dangerous, but Eijun could match their supernatural strength. That wasn't the issue. He could defend himself, and if he had to he could even kill the crazed creatures who'd once been men and comrades-in-arms, but that wasn't his burden to bear. Even on that first cold, wintry night, when Miyuki and Furuya had shown up, their main objective had been to stop their own soldiers (and possibly eliminate witnesses, considering what happened with Eijun after).
He didn't have any business joining that kind of fight. It was the same reason Eijun had snuck out to locate the oni working for Tosa, and now that he'd learned about Okumura he was even more determined to keep the Shinsengumi out of oni affairs. He'd have to do something about Okumura quickly, before things got any messier.
Footsteps approached at a run, coming to a halt outside the door, which slid open. Miyuki stood there, clutching at the frame. "Sawamura—" He broke off and coughed into his arm. His eyes remained alert and narrow, attention shifting to Haruichi, and when Miyuki caught his breath he wheezed out, "Go help the others. Some are injured."
Haruichi nodded once, wasting no time to do as told. The fierce clash of swords continued outside.
Apprehension rolled uneasily in Eijun's gut. "What's happening?"
He stepped closer to Miyuki, who grabbed onto Eijun's arm and tugged him forward to bring their faces within inches of each other. Eijun could only imagine what kind of expression he was wearing, eyes wide and confused. His mouth opened to say something but nothing came out.
Miyuki frowned and his gaze searched Eijun intently for what felt like a long moment. His grip on Eijun's arm was tight and unyielding, but not… angry, from what Eijun could sense. Not angry at him, at any rate. When Miyuki finally let out a short, soft sigh, his expression was troubled as he looked away.
"That guy from the Ikeda Inn is here, along with a couple others. They're very obviously looking for you. If you're going to run, now's the only time."
"Run? Why the hell would I do that?" Although part of him understood running would be easier, and maybe better for everyone. He hadn't wanted the Shinsengumi to get involved. Wakana had tried to convince him to leave so many times. Too late now, and besides, Eijun was through with running away. "Shit, if Mei's here—how badly are people hurt? I'll go and stop him!"
"If you're sure, I won't try and stop you." The corner of Miyuki's mouth cut upwards in a painful-looking, self-directed smirk. "I'd go out there too, but I'd just be in the way like this."
The sound of his short, ragged breaths made Eijun's own throat contract. "I'll stop him," he promised. "Leave it to me."
Miyuki's hand on Eijun's arm squeezed before letting go. "All right. I'm counting on you."
Eijun unsheathed Daitsuren. The sword had been a Sawamura family heirloom for so long, but once it had belonged to another famous oni: the imperial princess Suzuka Gozen, daughter of a foreign deity, and married to the leader of the Japanese oni who plotted to overthrow the human government. She, too, had decided to raise this sword against her own kind, choosing to side with the humans instead (and one human in particular who had won her heart).
Funny how history tended to repeat itself.
The din of battle drew him to the front of the temple where the mountainous shapes of the Founder's Hall and Amida Buddha Hall loomed over a grim scene. Blood painted the ground in dark splotches, and the crumpled shapes of Shinsengumi soldiers lay unmoving where they'd fallen. Moonlight shone on white hair. The rasetsu weren't easy opponents, yet several had already been slain.
That was a true oni's strength, and Mei wasn't alone. Harada's fists would have made bone-crunching impact if they connected with flesh, but instead the guards covering his arms met the skimming blade of Chris' sword. The blows were just barely missing him, deflected and dodged rather than taken head-on, and when their fight neared a stone lantern Harada's swing exploded through the carved rock in a cloud of grainy dust.
There was a third oni Eijun didn't recognize: a tall man with dark skin firing a pistol. The rapid shots blasted loud in the night, and he reloaded his gun with a speed that was both inhuman and indicative of a far more technologically advanced weapon than Eijun had ever seen. Alone, Kuramochi couldn't have kept up with him, but together with Haruichi they were somehow managing. Ryousuke hung back, wounded but not completely out of the fight.
And finally there was Mei. He made himself hard to miss. Dressed in white and crimson, as if scorning the notion of blending with the darkness, refusing to submit any part of himself to an outside force, he was a coldly furious creature that knocked aside Yuuki's sword. Mei struck and was parried. Their weapons flashed, over and over, ringing a cacophony of sharp, steely notes every time they met and broke away.
Mei was taking his opponent seriously—as much as his abundant pride would allow. A mere human was giving him this much of a fight. The icy burn of his expression spoke to how much that pissed him off, and he'd thoroughly crush whoever stood against him, even if it meant he had to push himself. His eyes caught in the glare of light reflected from his blade, and the way he angled the sword for his next attack made Eijun suck in a breath and pitch his voice to carry across the entire temple grounds.
"Narumiya Mei, stop right there!"
He did stop, head whipping around to pin Eijun with a look that could have dropped a lesser person where they stood. "You," Mei growled, injecting the word with the black vehemence of a curse.
The fighting came to a tense standstill, dust settling, human combatants panting hard. They were all staring. Eijun swallowed but focused only on Mei. "If it's a fight you want, I'll take you on. No need to involve anyone else."
Mei scoffed at him. "I didn't stop by out of boredom, and judging by the trash strewn about, these foolish humans are already far too involved in matters they never should have touched." He strode forward to where one of the rasetsu lay. The man was a bloody, torn apart mess, but still alive thanks to the resilience of his transformed body, twitching and jerking through the healing process. Mei flipped his sword to point downwards. A straight stab through the heart put an end to the man's struggles.
"Bastard!" Kuramochi made as if to leap towards him, but froze at the sound of a hammer being cocked. Haruichi brandished a fistful of throwing knives and Ryousuke had shifted his position so the oni aiming the gun was surrounded. He could shoot, but both Kominatos would move in that same instant.
Ignoring everyone else, Mei withdrew his blade with a wet slide. He flicked it, lip curling in disgust as he regarded the corpse at his feet, and then pointed the tip at Eijun. "Were you in on this? Did you help create these fakes along with your grandfather?"
"He did not." Yuuki stepped forward. "The Shinsengumi bears the responsibility for the rasetsu experiments. How did you come to know about them?"
Chris was the one who answered, quiet and certain. "Sawamura-sensei. Where is he now?"
Mei glanced at Chris, taking in the gleaming white hair and blood-red eyes, and didn't respond. Fakes, he'd said. Trash, he'd called them. The rasetsu were unnatural and worse, even, than mere humans in his eyes.
A bad feeling swept over Eijun and he gripped Daitsuren tightly in both hands. "Mei. Where's Gramps?"
"If I knew that do you think I'd be here bothering with you?" The sword pointing at Eijun lowered to dangle in a deceptively limp hold. Mei rolled his eyes heavenward and gave a dramatic sigh, but no one dared to assume his guard was down. "I see you're of no use. I don't have any further business with you."
"You're not gonna leave just like that." Eijun's eyes narrowed meaningfully. Behind Mei the front gates of the temple had been blown wide open, the ground all around them soaked liberally with blood. How many Shinsengumi soldiers had died tonight?
Chris spoke in his soft voice—normally the voice of reason, but instead of counseling caution his tone was grim. "I don't imagine you'll tell us how you learned about the rasetsu, but we can't allow the secret to leave this place."
Amazingly, Mei laughed, but the sound was frostbitten and his eyes glittered diamond-hard. "Oh, I wasn't planning on leaving just yet. You humans and your politics and your wars—I couldn't care less about any of that. Once my clan's debt is paid I want nothing to do with any of you vermin. But dabbling in foreign science and the supernatural, producing these pathetic, appalling imitations… no true oni could allow such abominations to exist."
It was just like Mei to not care about centuries of secrecy. Not when his pride was at the forefront. The smile on his face dropped, and so did any pretense of holding back.
"Masa-san. Carlos. Leave none of the fakes standing. Exterminate them along with anyone who gets in the way."
He leapt at Chris in a blur of motion, but Eijun moved to intercept without thinking. The force of Mei's attack pushed him, feet sliding over pavestones… but he held his ground.
"It's not going to be like last time!" Eijun slid his sword free of their lock and swiped at the space where Mei had been an instant before. He blurred out of Eijun's sight, and instinct warned him but it was practiced skill that blocked the strike aimed at his back. Whirling, he faced Mei again, whose outraged expression preceded a vicious, lip-curling snarl.
"Why are you defending them!?"
"Because you're being an asshole!" Eijun parried every one of Mei's attacks—not with ease, but with a growing sense of exhilaration. They clashed, parted, and came together again in flurry of echoing steel. "Because you attacked us out of nowhere! The rasetsu and ochimizu and whatever have nothing to do with you, so just stay out of it!"
Eijun's skill may have improved by leaps and bounds, and finally he could fight toe to toe with his childhood rival, but Mei was more than just gifted. His talent was mined and forged and tested, made into a flawless blade that belonged in battle, carried to victory by his own hands rather than letting it carry him. He was a self-absorbed jerk, but he was also one of the best: fast and strong and piercingly insightful—as long as he didn't lose his temper. If Mei had one weakness, it was letting his emotions get the better of him.
"You're as much of an idiot as ever." His words were tightly controlled despite the anger simmering inside, and he hissed under his breath, "It's a little late to be uninvolved. Look past your stupid sentiment for a handful of humans and think: what good can come out of this? What happens when there's an army of rasetsu that outnumber us and are too powerful for anyone else to control?"
"It's not gonna come to that—"
"You severely underestimate human greed and depravity. The only reason the situation isn't worse is because your grandfather disappeared, taking everything he knows with him. But he can't hide forever. Not with every force in Japan looking for him."
Eijun shook his head helplessly. "What do you mean by every…?"
"Let's just say at this rate the rasetsu aren't going to remain a secret for long."
Before Eijun could reply Mei broke away from him abruptly. He half-spun and slashed, biting curses at the interference. Yuuki was undaunted, raising his sword in preparation for another attack, never taking his eyes off the enemy and exuding a powerful presence that was impossible to ignore.
"I think," said Yuuki, unwaveringly calm, "that I would like to hear more about this."
"You dare—" Mei began, and everything around him darkened as he looked around.
Eijun's bad feeling came back. More of the soldiers had come and joined the fray—he'd been so focused on his fight with Mei that everything else had faded to the background. Some of the men were tiring, and the rasetsu that remained could succumb to madness at any moment. Even Chris was straining, his face pale and beaded with sweat as he fended off Harada's thunderous attacks. They still had the advantage of numbers, but that meant nothing to Mei.
His gaze swung to Eijun, and the blue of his irises blazed into gold. "I'll say this once: it's not my goal to kill you, but if you get in my way I'll cut you down."
Disbelief slammed into Eijun like a physical thing that left him reeling. His mouth dried up. "Mei, no—"
But Mei wasn't listening anymore. He wasn't standing where Eijun looked either. The wet sound of a sword slicing through flesh revealed his new position as he withdrew his blade from the torso of a rasetsu. As soon as the tip slid free he was gone again, and this time Eijun caught the flicker of his movement. He'd been noticeable before, a pale figure under the moonlight, but now he practically glowed with a light of his own. His hair streamed behind him and scarlet markings slashed his face and neck. A pair of long horns curved upward from his forehead.
Similar in appearance to the rasetsu, yet devastatingly different, the oni decimated the soldiers one by one. They hardly knew what happened as they fell, eyes wide and frozen. A stab through the heart would kill a rasetsu. So would cutting off the head. Both were achieved with an effortless thrust and sweep of Mei's arm.
Killing humans required less finesse, and steel scraped when Yuuki managed to block the first attack, but his luck wouldn't hold for long. He was good—extraordinarily good for a human—but no human stood a chance against Mei like this.
The transformation washed over Eijun before he knew what was happening. He'd done it before, just once, when he first learned how as a child. Until now he'd never actually seen what an oni could do in their true form. He always imagined it would be liberating and powerful and right, and in a way it was all those things, but unlike the times before when he'd considered using his true strength, he wasn't craving vengeance and spilled blood. There was so much of it splattering the ground already, iron-smelling human blood and the strange half-familiar, half-foreign blood of the rasetsu, like metal and earth and something else from distant shores.
Eijun's hair swept down his back in a cloud of silvery white that parted around the elongated tips of his ears. His head was heavier bearing the extra weight of hair and horns, which were much longer than they'd been as a child, but the change didn't slow him down one bit. The pavestones under his feet cracked when he pushed off them.
Mei turned away from Yuuki—he'd been wounded, but it wouldn't kill him—and took the full force of Eijun's swing with his sword lifted in defense. He dug his heels in and in a blink was already counterattacking.
Wearing their true selves on the surface, the violence of their dance escalated. There was no point in holding anything back. Mei's sword bit into Eijun's middle but so long as his guts weren't falling out it was little more than an annoyance. Growling, he sliced Mei's face in retaliation, the white of a cheekbone becoming visible for a second before the flesh started to seal itself closed.
Oni blood carried the scent of Japan's mountains and rivers, its evergreens and wildflowers, the ancient musk of the land itself. For a dizzying moment Eijun was awash in the smell of home, and his stomach turned as the memory of fire and smoke threatened to overcome him.
While he was distracted a stabbing pain pierced his chest. Eijun's sharp intake of breath turned wet and he coughed, blood bubbling on his lips, hand coming up as if to grasp the blade impaling him. It had luckily—or skillfully—missed his heart.
Mei wanted to avoid killing him. Eijun's grin was nearly a grimace. In that case…
Eijun's fingers clamped around Mei's wrist, holding him in place. Metallic eyes met his and their gazes were identical like this. They could have been brothers. Before the massacre, when Eijun had been engaged to Mei's sister, they would have eventually become in-laws. Eijun didn't want to kill Mei either, but if he could just incapacitate him in some way, defeat him so he'd be forced to retreat with Harada and the other one…
Alarm gripped him. He'd forgotten about the other two. He could only handle Mei, if two more oni came at him with their full strength there was nothing he could do.
He realized it just in time, releasing Mei as Harada's muscled bulk came between them. A curled fist to Eijun's sternum sent him flying back and his chest ached with the bruising, but miraculously, the bone wasn't shattered. Harada's appearance remained unchanged. The same went for the gunman, who kept others from interfering with warning shots from his revolver.
"Let go!" Mei glared down at the hand that landed on his shoulder, then up at Harada's impassive face.
"Be sensible," Harada said, as calm and solid as a rock in the face of Mei's stormy temper. "You're drawing too much attention. For the clan's sake, stand down. There are no further answers to be found here."
"I haven't taken care of all the fakes yet." But the immediate threat was leaving Mei's posture, his gaze cooling while it raked over those left standing. He sniffed petulantly. "If we killed everyone there would be no one to spread any tales."
Eijun tensed, brandishing his sword. "As if I'd let you!"
"Mei," Harada sighed.
"Tch. Fine. They can live until our business is concluded."
The Shinsengumi were in no shape to try and stop them, and with one last baleful look Mei and his companions took their leave. Eijun stared through the open gates where they escaped into the night.
He put a hand to his sore chest and caught his breath. The hole there had closed, but he had a broken rib or two that needed to finish healing, and he coughed up more liquid from his lungs as they worked to fill properly with air. Dragging the back of his hand over his mouth, the smear of his blood was a darker red against the scarlet lines patterning his skin.
Eijun became aware of noise and movement: feet shifting over the ground as the wounded were tended to, grunts of pain being muffled or bitten back. No one spoke or approached him. They watched, though, and the range of their probable expressions flashed through his mind.
His fingers clenched, but he didn't change his form just yet. No use in hiding at this point. Part of him was relieved to finally let go of this secret, but the relief only lasted until he thought about what happened next. Squeezing his eyes shut, he swallowed down his sour uncertainty.
Here goes nothing.
Holding his head high, Eijun braced himself for anything: anger, fear, betrayal, swords pointed at him and accusations flying. Like that night at the Ikeda with Miyuki, only worse. But whatever happened, Eijun would accept it. After lying to everyone for so long it was natural to face consequences. He nodded to himself and turned around.
The first thing he saw was Miyuki was standing right in front of him. Eijun's composure flew apart. He stumbled back a step, and another, as Miyuki peered closer, taking in the horns that swept from his brow and the markings that lay over his exposed skin. Miyuki's scrutinizing gaze made note of the blood-stained tears in his clothes, the color and unruly length of his hair, lingering on bright golden eyes that blinked in rapid succession as Eijun stammered, "Wh-what? What is it? Staring is rude, you know!"
Miyuki's mouth quirked. "Sounds like the usual Sawamura."
"Who else would I be?!"
"Your injuries look completely healed and your mind is… well, the same as ever."
"What's that supposed to mean?!"
Chris walked over to join them, disheveled from head to toe and there was a tight strain about his blood-red eyes, but his voice remained level. "I believe he's referring to the bloodlust and madness that afflict rasetsu."
"Sure," Miyuki said with a careless grin. "That's part of what I meant."
Chris looked at him with hollow-eyed patience.
Eijun wrestled with his ire for a few seconds before electing to ignore Miyuki entirely (served him right) and he turned to Chris instead. "It's different with oni. Sure, we might get caught up in battle, but if we lost control that easily the whole country would know about us. After Shuten Doji caused all that mess back in the day, living in the open got kind of hard."
"Shuten Doji was real?" someone whispered and was quickly hushed.
"Interesting. So you possess the same strength and healing capabilities that rasetsu have, but none of their weaknesses."
"Erm. Yeah. Basically." Eijun hesitated, then plowed forward. "Rasetsu are… weird hybrids." That probably wasn't any nicer than Mei's disdainful labeling of fake, but Eijun's heightened sense of smell was clear about what the rasetsu were. "Part human, part oni, part something else. I don't know anything about Gramps' studies of Western science, but the combination of all those things is why there are problems. I think."
"I see," Chris said, his tone becoming speculative. "I've been researching the Western components of course, but the native Japanese connection is new. We have much to discuss."
There wasn't anything Eijun could do but agree. "Um… so does this mean I'm not in trouble? You're not angry about…" He gestured to himself in his transformed state.
"That will depend on how forthcoming and cooperative you are from now on."
Miyuki snorted a laugh. "Let's not forget you saved some lives. We know where you stand, Sawamura. Isn't that right, Tetsu-san?"
A makeshift bandage was wrapped around Yuuki's arm but it didn't appear to be a grave injury. He met each of their gazes and nodded once. "The commander will make the final decision when he returns to Kyoto, but it's as Miyuki says. We owe you our thanks, Sawamura."
A rush of warmth made Eijun's skin tingle and pride swelled his chest. "It was nothing! Next time that bastard Mei comes around he won't get off so easily! I am a pure-blooded oni after all; you can trust that the Shinsengumi will be safe under my watch. From now on—"
"Yes, yes, good work." Miyuki gathered a lock of Eijun's long hair and twined it about his fingers, examining how the fine strands soaked in the moonlight. "Where did all of this even come from? Will it stay this long when you change back?"
Having this much hair was annoying now that he could pay attention to the sheer mass of it attached to his head, but the sight of Miyuki playing with it did strange things to Eijun's stomach. Maybe the excess length wasn't all bad. "N-no, it's only like this when I'm in my true form, but it's not polite to use this appearance unless necessary. I know it looks weird."
"'Weird' isn't the word I'd use." He relaxed his grip and the hair slid from his hand in little streams. "I guess that means you should change now that the excitement's over."
The transformation in reverse was more deliberate; the horns vanished, his hair darkened and became short again, the red lines and swirls faded from his skin. His five senses returned to a level that was just a little more acute than a human's. It was disorienting this time, either because there was no battle to distract him or putting on the false guise was harder than shedding it. Miyuki watched the whole process with interest.
"Thanks," Eijun said when he was done, resisting the urge to glance away. "For, you know…"
"What?" His tone sounded innocent, yet the tip of Miyuki's smirk was anything but. "For not threatening and waving a sword at you? I thought we were friends, but I guess I could for old time's sake." He let his hand rest on the hilt of his sword. Eijun just now noticed that he was carrying both of them. If the fight had gotten any worse, Miyuki might have had to join in, illness or no. He was always prepared for that.
Eijun grumbled, "Why do I even bother?" but his heart wasn't in it.
Miyuki gave his shoulder a light push. "Go get cleaned up, O Great and Terrible Oni. You may not be wounded, but you're a mess to look at. Laundry's going to be fun tomorrow."
"And you," Chris said, eyeing Miyuki with a touch of reproach, "should go back to bed."
"I will—though I have something I want to ask you first. Goodnight, Sawamura, Tetsu-san."
"Make sure you rest," Yuuki told him. "We'll take care of things here."
The bodies strewn about were being gathered. The human soldiers would receive proper funeral rites, but the rasetsu had been dead men to begin with, already mourned by their families if they had them. Their anonymous remains would simply be disposed of somewhere and hopefully their spirits would be able to rest after remaining on earth beyond their time.
Eijun could understand where Mei's outrage and loathing came from, but killing everyone unfortunate enough to be turned into cursed, inhuman warriors wasn't the answer. He was sure of that. Gramps wasn't going to continue the research anymore, and without his help the shogunate would have no choice but to abandon the project. Everything would work out in time.
The night had gone quiet, and Eijun let a slow, steady breath. Faint voices reached him on the breeze. Miyuki and Chris had walked a distance away to speak in private, but Eijun could just barely make out their words. He should have turned around and left, but what he heard sent a chill down his spine.
"So, about your research with the ochimizu… do you think it can cure diseases?"
Chapter 6: Road
I have always known
That at last I would
Take this road, but yesterday
I did not know that it would be today.
– Ariwara no Narihira
Twilight burned orange on the horizon and cast long shadows on the ground by the time Eijun haggled an old man down to a reasonable price for his rare, hand-picked herbs. He was half-temped to save his money (and trouble) by going out and harvesting them himself, but Eijun wasn't confident in his ability to identify the plants. Wakana could have done so easily—probably with her eyes closed—but Wakana was barely speaking to him these days. When he told her what had happened in the spring, that was bad enough, but then he went on to say he was going to help Chris refine the ochimizu. They'd had a grand old fight that got them both swiftly removed from the teashop they'd met in, and summer had been unusually cold afterwards.
Now it was nearly winter and the cold had set in for real. Eijun made his way back to headquarters—a new building after they'd been ousted from Nishi Honganji. The bloodbath on the temple grounds had been the last straw for the monks, who'd been so desperate to get rid of the Shinsengumi they paid for the construction of the new compound themselves. It was located in Fudodo village and Eijun frowned as he entered the neighborhood, the early December wind picking up to bite at him.
A shadow slipping down a narrow lane caught his attention. Tall stature, daisho hanging at the waist, and up to no good Eijun would bet. He followed the man, suspicions growing as the roundabout route took them closer and closer to headquarters. The walls came into view and the man stopped. He spun in place, hand on his sword, and called out, "Who's there?"
It had been a while since Eijun last saw that face and he stepped into the open, eyes narrowing at the sight of a former comrade. "What are you doing here?"
Furuya didn't remove his hand from his sword and was a shift away from a drawing stance. The fact that he hadn't slid into one just yet was the only indication that he wasn't about to start a fight, but that could change at any moment. After a long pause, he said, "I came to see the commander."
That was where Furuya clammed up, and the stubbornness in his gaze said he was going to ignore Eijun now.
Oh no you don't. Eijun crossed his arms. "Go back," he said, making an attempt to imitate Mei's imperious tone but was only half successful. To achieve that level of outrageous arrogance one had to be born with it. "Ochiai's cohort aren't allowed here, so whatever that sly old man wants with the commander he can come here and ask himself."
Annoyance made Furuya's impassive features wrinkle just a little. "I don't need your permission and this is important. If you cause a scene you'll regret it."
"Explain what you mean by that! Hey, wait! Where are you going?"
Furuya brushed past Eijun, going back the way he came. "It's pointless if you make a commotion so never mind. Forget that I was here."
Eijun stared. By now they should have had their swords drawn—or Eijun would have drawn already, eager to test the speed of Furuya's iaido. It must have gotten even faster since he left. Ochiai's only other merit, aside from plotting underhanded schemes, was his knowledge of kenjutsu techniques.
"Wait—wait, come on." He jogged ahead of Furuya and blocked his path, arms akimbo and glaring up at a face that gave away nothing no matter how hard Eijun searched. "You're really not gonna fight me, huh?"
Eijun didn't get it. He didn't get it, and he didn't particularly like it, but apparently that's how things were going to be. He sighed explosively and let his arms fall. "Fine. Whatever."
Furuya took a step forward to leave and was stopped by Eijun throwing up a hand again.
"Where are you going? The commander is that way. …Don't just stand there! Come on, I'll take you to see him."
"Excuse me—huh?" Eijun stopped in the doorway when he found the room unexpectedly crowded, and with such a grim-faced bunch, too. Hardly anyone looked up, but Miyuki glanced his way and lifted a questioning eyebrow while the commander motioned Eijun to come in with a silent nod.
"Sakamoto Ryoma has been assassinated," Kuramochi said by way of explanation.
"You don't even know who that is, do you?" Rolling his eyes, he turned to face Eijun and did a double-take when he saw Furuya standing behind him. The startled noise Kuramochi let out drew everyone else's attention, generating a wave of confusion and wariness.
Furuya paid them little mind. He entered the room and knelt before Commander Kataoka. "I've come to make my report."
"What's going on?" Out of everyone, Tanba wore the deepest scowl, his face resembling an angry demon's mask—and it had been that way since before Eijun opened the door with an ex-comrade in tow. Whatever the situation was with the murdered man (Sakamoto—now that Eijun thought about it, the name rang a bell), it must mean dire things for the Shinsengumi.
Yuuki was the one who answered. "The truth is, Furuya has been spying on Ochiai under our orders. We apologize for the deception, but Ochiai is perceptive and we couldn't risk letting anything slip. Everything has been for the Shinsengumi's sake."
"As of now," Commander Kataoka added in a tone that brooked no arguments, "Furuya is once again a member of the Shinsengumi."
The news was met with astonishment and relief… in various forms.
"Damn, you really tricked us!"
"I thought it might be something like that."
Miyuki shook his head, smiling. "I admit I'm surprised. And impressed. Who'd have thought he had it in him to be so sneaky?"
"You would be proud of that," Kuramochi said with tremendous disgust.
Eijun didn't know what was more surprising: the truth about Furuya or the fact that Miyuki hadn't caught on. And it was a very good thing, in retrospect, that Eijun hadn't insisted on fighting with Furuya outside. He sweated just thinking about the amount of trouble that would have caused.
Commander Kataoka let the burst of reaction run its course before he silenced the room and turned his attention to Furuya. "Let's hear your report."
"Yes, sir. Regarding Sakamoto's assassination, there's no proof that Ochiai had anything to do with it, but he is responsible for spreading the rumors that implicate Tanba-senpai as the killer."
The sound of teeth grinding became unnervingly audible from where Tanba sat.
"Secondly, Ochiai plans to expose the rasetsu experiments to discredit the shogunate."
Isashiki's temper flared. "That rotten, two-faced…!"
"But the shogun already resigned." Nori's brow creased in puzzlement as he wondered aloud, "Why bother to make him look bad now?"
"It's not so surprising," Miyuki said. "Tokugawa Yoshinobu may have officially stepped down thanks to Sakamoto's negotiations, but unofficially he still holds a lot of power. Imperialists like Ochiai aren't happy about that. Anyway, we knew he'd play this card eventually, it was only a matter of when."
"That's not all he's doing." Furuya's expression rippled with an emotion that was hard to pin down until his eyes turned steely and his hands tightened into fists in his lap. "He wants to destroy the Shinsengumi, starting with the commander. He's planning an assassination."
A cold silence fell over everyone; Isashiki was too angry to even speak, and Commander Kataoka closed his eyes as if to say, so it's come to this.
Ryousuke was the only person in the room who smiled, slit-eyed and bone-chilling.
"Not if we kill him first."
The plan was a grisly one. Ironically, it was the type of underhanded, ruthless scheme that might have come from Ochiai's own mind. First he would be invited to Commander Kataoka's private residence, believing it to be safe since not even the Shinsengumi were brazen enough to murder him in the commander's home, but they weren't above striking afterwards on the street like a lowly gang. Ochiai would be drunk and unprepared. That was the easier part of the plan.
The second part was even uglier: using Ochiai's corpse as bait, the Shinsengumi would lure out and ambush his men to reduce the chances of his followers continuing what he'd started. They had to be crushed completely. To ensure this, Kuramochi and Isashiki took no fewer than forty soldiers with them for the attack.
No one asked Eijun if he wanted to join them, and for once he was glad to be left out. He didn't entirely approve. Ochiai had to die all right, he wasn't protesting that, but there were better—more honorable—ways of doing it. A one-on-one duel for example… but those were forbidden to the Shinsengumi. Using numbers to their advantage had been their philosophy from the start.
Eijun tipped his face up to the three-quarter moon that glowed in the night sky. A lot of time had passed but no one was back yet. The breeze carried no distant sound of battle to his listening ears, but one was surely taking place somewhere in the city, and ambushed or not Ochiai's men would fight hard when they saw the body. Their anger would be justified. It could be a while yet before the Shinsengumi emerged victorious.
Footsteps approached, a single pair that moved light and fast, and Eijun placed Haruichi as the owner before he came into view. He was hurrying, hair flying away from his face to reveal worried, intent eyes that landed on Eijun when he asked, "What happened?"
"Reinforcements from Satsuma showed up and made a mess of things. Ochiai is dead, but the others need help."
"In that case, I'll—"
"You stay here," Haruichi said with a short, firm shake of his head. "The rasetsu unit should stay, too. We can't risk the enemy learning too much right now and something feels off. The Satsuma were too prepared. I'll get some of the others to provide backup. Let everyone else know to be on guard."
The warning made Eijun's skin prickle and he did as told with a growing sense of unease. Despite the season, the air felt charged as if a storm was about to break upon them.
He tracked down the captains and relayed the info. The commander and vice-commander were still away and not due to return anytime soon. Furuya was absent as well—until the matter with Ochiai and his followers was settled it was better for him to lie low. Nori and Shirasu went with Haruichi, which left the others to guard headquarters.
"What's going on?"
Eijun whirled around, dismayed to find Miyuki waiting and watching him. He looked pale and worn out, clothes hanging off his too-thin frame, while his eyes shone with a stubborn brightness, feverishly intense. The more the disease ate away at him, the more desperately he struggled against it. "You should be resting," Eijun told him, but it was useless.
"Hard to stay in bed with you running all over the place. Did something go wrong with the plan?"
"Sort of… but it's fine! It's under control."
"Somehow," Miyuki said, crossing his arms, "I don't believe you."
Eijun opened his mouth to insist there was nothing to worry about when a commotion from outside turned the words into a lie. Miyuki's attention snapped towards the noise and Eijun wasted no time grabbing him by the shoulders to steer him into an empty room. "You stay right here! I'll see what's going on—don't come out!" He didn't wait for Miyuki to try and argue.
He followed the sound of fighting to the front of the compound, smelling blood before seeing the pair of bodies, both rasetsu, killed with efficient strokes. More of the Shinsengumi—humans, not rasetsu—were holding off a group of attackers. Something struck Eijun as odd as he threw himself into the fray. The enemy numbers weren't overwhelming, and individually the men were good, but not extraordinarily skilled. Sending such a small group to attack Shinsengumi headquarters, even with their force split tonight, was foolhardy plan. This wouldn't take long to finish. It was hardly more than a nuisance.
After cutting down his opponent, Eijun used the brief reprieve to turn towards the building. The fallen rasetsu were what bothered him; they'd been taken care of immediately by someone who knew to aim for the heart, and the culprit definitely wasn't one of these guys out here.
They weren't just a nuisance, they were a distraction.
"Damn!" He dashed back inside. The regular soldiers could handle things out front.
Eijun knew with a strange certainty that the mystery assailant wasn't Mei. This wasn't his style, it was too covert, too business-like. Mei would have rounded everyone up and fought them all head-on, astoundingly arrogant but honest in his own fashion. That was one part of him—a small part—that Eijun didn't dislike.
He didn't have any idea where to begin looking for the intruder, but instinct or worry drew him to where he'd left Miyuki. As he neared the room, a closed sliding door burst out of its frame with a body falling on top of it, and Miyuki hit the floor hard enough to lose his breath.
"Miyuki!" Eijun leapt in front of him and his eyes widened as he stared through the opening in the wall. "You…"
Okumura merely stared back.
"You know, Sawamura…" Miyuki's voice rasped out between coughing fits. "I can't say I approve of your friends. They seem like a bad crowd."
"They're not my—what are you doing, stay put! You're not in any shape to fight!"
"Doesn't look like I have much choice." Miyuki drew his hand away from his mouth, dark with blood. He was trembling. He could barely keep his grip on his sword.
"I'll fight for you!" Eijun carefully positioned himself so he'd be ready for whatever move Okumura made. "I can take this guy—and he's my responsibility anyway! Just leave it to me!"
"I didn't come for you," Okumura said, eying Eijun with flat dislike. "But I won't hesitate to kill you if you oppose me. The village is gone and we have no more ties. Claiming any kind of responsibility is just a way to satisfy your ego."
Only a rough grip on Eijun's arm stopped him from charging forward with his sword raised. Miyuki's fingers squeezed hard enough to actually hurt. He was still shaking, his face was pale and sweating under the smear of blood he'd coughed up, but his gaze was steady. Determined. "Not yet," he said, breath rattling as he dragged air into his weakened lungs. He was running on willpower alone. "I'm not useless yet. I'm the 1st Division Captain of the Shinsengumi, and I can still fight."
"Not like this you can't!" Eijun shook his head, but his protests were futile. There was a way—the only way—and he had it tucked inside his sleeve for this exact situation. The side effects were still a problem. The risks were certainly high. Wakana wouldn't speak to him anymore because of it, and Mei might try to kill him if he found out, but it was the only thing that could save Miyuki's life.
Eijun gritted his teeth and forced one of his hands to uncurl from his sword. His fingers brushed the fold of his sleeve, then halted, refusing to go any further. Come on… come on! Are you just going to stand by and lose what's important to you again?!
But Wakana and Mei have a point, this stuff is dangerous…
"Sawamura, give it here." Miyuki held out his open hand. "I'll drink it."
Eijun's fingers closed around a smooth glass vial. Such a fragile, small thing, but the ochimizu it contained was life-changing. There was no going back after swallowing the crimson liquid. He hesitated again. "The side effects are still…"
"I don't care," Miyuki said tightly. He grimaced and took a shuddering breath. After letting it out, a tired, wan smile rose on his features. "It's better than nothing, and I'm not ready to give up yet."
"I wouldn't if I were you," warned Okumura, and that was the final push Eijun needed to shove the vial into Miyuki's waiting hand. Then Eijun launched himself at Okumura to keep him from interfering or getting away.
It'll be fine, it'll be fine, Miyuki is really strong, I made the right choice…
Delicate glass shattered on the floor, and behind Eijun came a thick, guttural cry that didn't sound human, let alone resemble the man Eijun knew. He faltered mid-battle and Okumura cut a gash across his arm, gaze darting over Eijun's shoulder to see what was happening.
"Foolish," was all he said, focusing his attacks on Eijun's injured side. In the handful of minutes it took his arm to heal he didn't have full use of the limb, rendering him just slow enough to leave an opening for Okumura to slip through.
Eijun spun to give chase, but Okumura's retreat was already cut off. Miyuki stood firmer than he had in months, blood-red eyes trained on the enemy and pure white hair falling over his brow. After a heartbeat, he smiled. "Leaving so soon?"
Okumura was trapped between them with nowhere to go. To his credit, he didn't hesitate or surrender. A handful of knives flew towards Eijun, making him duck and deflect, but it was nothing more than a brief distraction to let Okumura confront Miyuki. Their swords met, and Okumura was the one pushed back.
Miyuki at his best—even while human—could have given the average oni a good fight. As a rasetsu, he was more than a match for someone of Okumura's level.
Footsteps pounded down the hall, coming closer, and more rasetsu appeared. Their swords and clothes were bloody, and not one of them was sane.
They were closest to Miyuki so he turned to deal with him, leaving Okumura to Eijun.
"You're not getting away this time!"
"It doesn't matter," Okumura said, defending against Eijun's attacks. "The Shinsengumi are doomed regardless of what I do." Between the two of them, Eijun was the better warrior, but Okumura was fast and sneaky with his hidden weapons. More than once Eijun had to twist away from the sudden appearance of a knife. He took a few shallow wounds that healed quickly, while Okumura's side dripped blood from being sliced into.
Eijun knocked Okumura's blade out of the way and leveled Daitsuren against the column of his neck. He was breathing hard, eyes narrowed to slits. The sound of steel cutting flesh, punctuated by a rasetsu's howl of fury, tried to pull Eijun's attention away. He forced himself to concentrate on the enemy before him. "What do you mean the Shinsengumi are doomed?"
"Ignorant as ever."
Daitsuren's edge pressed a red, seeping line across Okumura's throat. "Enlighten me," Eijun growled.
Then his sword jerked, biting deeper, but not deep enough to be deadly as pain stabbed into Eijun's unprotected back. He stumbled and reached behind him, but his fingers weren't quite able to reach the handle of the knife. Twisting around, a dark-haired figure stood with another knife poised to throw, but he hesitated at seeing Eijun's glare.
The newcomer's worried eyes quickly glanced past and called out, "Koushuu!"
Eijun swung, but his reaction was a hair too slow. Okumura evaded the path of his sword. As he slipped by, he murmured, "You shouldn't have turned to the ochimizu."
"What do you know about it? Hey!" But it was too late, Okumura and his friend were gone in an instant. "Damnit—ow!" Eijun reached for the knife again. Stretching his arm to the limit, his could brush the handle sticking out. Just a little more…
"I got it," said Miyuki, giving a tug, and Eijun grunted when the short blade came free. "You all right?"
"M'fine." His pride was worse off than his body. That was the second time Okumura had gotten away from him. "What about… you…"
The bodies of the out of control rasetsu splattered the floor. Some of them were in pieces, or carved so deeply it looked like the work of a butcher. Miyuki was covered in blood. It didn't look like he had any injuries himself, but Eijun supposed that was normal now that he possessed a rasetsu's healing ability—along with everything else, the good and the bad, that came with being an unnatural, monstrous hybrid. Swallowing, Eijun met the red gleam of Miyuki's eyes. "Are you all right?"
Miyuki glanced down at his dripping sword. "More or less. This will take some getting used to. But at least I'm alive, right? And stronger than ever." He offered a little half-smile and flicked the excess from his sword, then wiped the remaining residue off with a clean cloth before returning the blade to its scabbard. It slid all the way in with a muted click. "Don't worry," he said, not looking at Eijun. "The choice was mine, so you shouldn't feel responsible. Now, let's go see what's happening outside."
He started walking away, paying no mind to the corpses at his feet. Eijun took one more look at them, pushed down the anxious surge in his stomach, and followed after. He'd made his own choice, too.
Frost coated the ground when Eijun stepped outside, his breath puffing in the frigid air. The sky was still dark and it was hours yet until sunrise.
Some exercise would help keep his body warm. He didn't want to stray far from the front gate, though, and was practicing katas in the yard when the patrol returned.
They looked like they'd had an uneventful night, clothes unbloodied and no one missing from their ranks. No wounded, of course. The night patrol didn't have to worry about injuries—their only concern was the trifling matter of madness and death at the hands of their comrades.
Despite the amount of rasetsu the Shinsengumi lost, replacing them was never an issue. Ordinary soldiers fell during combat with similar regularity, and Miyuki wasn't the only captain who chose to drink the ochimizu that night when Ochiai was assassinated. It had come to be known as the Aburano Koji Incident, named for the crossing where the Shinsengumi staged their ambush, and during the fight with the Satsuma troops Kuramochi had been grievously wounded. Now he and Miyuki were part of the rasetsu unit headed by Chris.
Out of the men who'd just returned, one split away from the others to join Eijun in the yard. Miyuki came to stand before him with crossed arms and an arched eyebrow. "What are you doing awake at this hour? You were still up when we left, too."
"I slept in between," Eijun said, though it came out sounding more like a challenge than a reassurance: I'll do what I want.
Miyuki continued to look unimpressed. "We're not taking you on patrol with us. Stick to the daytime patrols, you're supposed to be looking for your grandfather, remember?"
"I haven't forgotten, but—"
"No buts. Your family should come first. You got dragged into all of this by accident, and while you've been a great help, you have a life beyond the Shinsengumi. Don't get too involved in our business."
"I'll decide what I get involved in, thank you very much!" He stepped forward into Miyuki's space and grabbed a handful of his clothes for good measure, staring defiantly into guarded eyes. Who did he think he was fooling? Eijun might be a tad slow on the uptake sometimes, but by now he had a good idea of what Miyuki was like. He was irritating and meddlesome, doubly so when he was troubled and trying to hide it, but when he got really worried he pulled back. He kept things to himself. He pushed others away. "I'm not going anywhere," Eijun declared.
"I can see that," Miyuki said, ceding this small battle. There was a larger war to be fought. "Have it your way, you can stay up all night if you want. But don't expect too much, Sawamura."
The cover of darkness was a strangely suitable way to have this conversation, throwing everything they said into shadow. The shape was undefined, suggested and talked around rather than displayed plainly, but obscuring a thing wasn't the same as denying it existed. Eijun knew all about the value of hiding. He wasn't going to let that stop him. "Why? Because things have changed? Don't worry, you're still a tanuki bastard, being nocturnal now makes no difference. I don't care if you're not human anymore, it's not like I was ever human to begin with!"
"Ah, that's right," Miyuki agreed easily. Too easily. "By the way, are you the son of a powerful oni lord or something? Because that's the impression I got from your blond friend. The arrogant one, I mean."
"The Sawamura clan is one of the major families and there used to be this big alliance, but we're a lot more isolated now and—that's the beside the point! Don't change the topic!" Eijun still clutched the front of Miyuki's clothes and gave him a shake.
Miyuki sighed at his failed attempt at distraction. He reached up to grasp Eijun's hand and uncurl his fingers, holding them briefly. His gaze turned intent. "All right. You want the truth? The truth is things haven't changed. I was as good as dead before, and now… what kind of future do you think I have? I drank the ochimizu in order to keep fighting, so that's what I'm going to do. It's what all the rasetsu do. And you've seen how they usually end up. I'm basically dead already, Sawamura, I just haven't stopped moving yet."
He dropped Eijun's hand, smiling crookedly. Eijun was far from amused—or deterred. Dead already, what the hell was that? He grabbed either side of Miyuki's face and pulled him downward until they were inches apart. The skin under Eijun's touch was cold from patrolling the city, but it flushed pink when warmed. This close, he could feel when Miyuki's breath stuttered in the frozen air, and sense when his pulse jumped. His eyes were wary, but waiting. Watching to see what Eijun did next.
"You're alive, you idiot. No matter what else, right now you're alive. That's enough for me." As far as expectations went, Eijun didn't have any. Miyuki didn't owe him anything except the choice to stay by his side.
"…That's all it takes, huh?" The corners of Miyuki's mouth twitched.
"I am but a simple man," Eijun said solemnly.
"You're a simple something, all right."
Eijun glowered and pinched Miyuki's cheeks. "Here I am, trying to be kind and supportive…" Though it was nice to hear Miyuki laugh, a helpless sort of bubbling amusement that meant he was really delighted about something, usually at someone else's expense. He hadn't laughed like that in a long time. "Jerk," Eijun muttered half-heartedly, releasing him.
"Ah, Sawamura." Miyuki didn't let Eijun go far, slinging an arm around his shoulders, and the winter cold was chased away by the warmth spreading between them. It got worse (or better) when Miyuki leaned into him and said, "I'm glad you're here."
Eijun's face burned and a dizzy rush made his head feel light. "As you should be! And you better stick around too, you hear? Now that your illness is gone there's no reason for you to go dying on me, so don't talk about it like it's a fact."
"Quiet down, people are sleeping." Miyuki steered him inside, floorboards creaking under their feet. Lowering his voice, he continued, "You know any of us could be killed in a fight tomorrow, and also…" He trailed off. The mid-sentence pause lengthened and Eijun filled in the blank with sobering thoughts of the rasetsu. By the time Miyuki spoke again his words were distant. "Well, I'll do my best."
Eijun woke up in the middle of the night, disoriented. His sporadic sleep schedule was taking its toll on him, leaving him tired when he was awake but unable to sleep when he was supposed to. Slumber hovered just out of reach, evading his drowsy grasp, and the sound of voices outside dragged him into full wakefulness.
Someone spoke in low, angry tones, before being hastily shushed by another. Footsteps passed by the room.
A jolt shot through Eijun—are we being attacked again? Just a few days ago the commander was ambushed while he was traveling back to headquarters. Commander Kataoka had been shot, and though he survived, it had been a close call. He'd only had a couple guards accompanying him. Everyone was on edge now.
Eijun listened, but the night was quiet. No sounds of battle. The tension drained out of him and he stared up at the dark ceiling. Maybe it was nothing, or none of his business. Eijun could return to sleep, get a good night's rest, and solve the mystery in the morning.
He attempted to relax, but before long Eijun was throwing off the covers and treading down the cold hallway. He found the meeting room dark and empty.
I definitely heard people come this way though…
Looking around, he caught sight of a faint light coming from outside. Instinct warned him to be quiet, and with silent, careful steps that would have made Wakana proud, Eijun crept to the door and slid it open a crack. Three figures were illuminated by a lantern, walking away from the building, and as they kept going Eijun risked venturing outside to follow close enough to listen. As long as he stayed in the shadows of the veranda, and avoided creaky boards, they probably wouldn't notice him.
The first thing he heard was Zono insisting, "I'm telling you, Nabe isn't a deserter!"
Eijun's eyes widened. Desertion was a serious crime in the Shinsengumi; those who ran were caught and sentenced to the usual penalty for breaking regulations. As far as Eijun knew, no one had successfully escaped before.
"Then where is he?" That was Miyuki's voice, impatience clipping his words short. They must have been arguing for a while. "And could you put that light out? It's too conspicuous, not to mention it's ruining my night vision."
Zono turned sharply, lantern swinging in his hand. "Some of us only have human eyesight to rely on!"
"Keep your voice down," Kuramochi hissed.
The trio paused at the gate and Eijun leaned around the corner to get a look at the rare furrows of irritation digging into Miyuki's face. "Regardless of what you believe, the fact is Nabe is missing. He hasn't been adjusting well to the change in lifestyle, either. Maybe you're right, maybe he didn't run, but it's still the most likely option. Either that, or he went mad."
"You're just assuming the worst." Shadows from the lantern carved Zono's scowl into a frightful expression. "You don't know anything for sure, and instead of helping him, you're already thinking of killing him."
"I'm prepared to do what's necessary."
"Necessary?" Zono repeated, volume rising. "Nothing's necessary yet! You bastard, you've always been a pain, but this—you know what I think? If Nabe isn't adjusting, good for him, that means he's holding onto his humanity!"
"You don't know what you're talking about—"
"All right, you two, shut up." Kuramochi glared at them both. "Let's just find him first. We'll do our duty if he's broken any rules or if he's become a danger to others, but if not, we'll hear him out. Got it?"
Zono grumbled his assent while Miyuki murmured, "Fair enough."
"So are we splitting up?"
"No," Zono said, shooting Miyuki a suspicious look that was pointedly ignored.
"Yes. We need to find him quick. Chris has the rest of his unit combing the city in the northwest, and the more ground we can cover, the better."
There was no arguing with his logic. The three went their separate ways and Eijun tailed Miyuki without a second thought. It was true that a rogue rasetsu on the loose was a matter to be taken seriously, and when it came to his duty Miyuki was more serious than anyone. He didn't flinch from the ugly business of executing his fellow soldiers, whether it was done as a punishment or a mercy, and he never took offense to the Shinsengumi's bloody reputation. He accepted that as something they'd earned. The fear and the hatred were justified—look no further than the carnage the rasetsu left behind as proof.
Cold air stung Eijun's throat as he inhaled sharply, the memory of the night Miyuki changed springing fresh to his mind. The aftermath of that had been especially gruesome.
"I drank the ochimizu in order to keep fighting, so that's what I'm going to do. It's what all the rasetsu do. And you've seen how they usually end up."
Eijun shook his head in vehement denial. Miyuki wouldn't end up like that. Chris was still fine after all. They may be in the minority compared to how many succumbed to the madness, but—
"Huh?" He stopped short after turning a corner to find the street empty. It was a clear night, the moon past its peak but still full enough to see by, and there was no trace of anyone in the open. Nothing stirred in the shadows nearby. Eijun took a step backwards, then stiffened, hand flying to his waist to close around air because he'd foolishly left Daitsuren in his room. There hadn't been time to retrieve it when he realized the others were leaving the compound.
"Somehow," said a voice from behind him, dry and familiar, "I'm not surprised."
Relieved, Eijun turned around, only to blink at the tip of a sword pointing under his chin. He glanced down at it, then back up at Miyuki, who wore a displeased frown in place of his usual smirk. Many would have found him intimidating. Eijun merely nudged the blade aside with the back of his hand and stepped forward. "Sorry. I woke up and heard you talking."
"And instead of leaving well enough alone, you followed me." Miyuki rolled his eyes heavenward and sheathed his sword. "One of these days you're really going to get yourself in trouble, Sawamura."
Same old warning, same old Miyuki, though the grumpiness was a bit novel. Eijun offered a grin. "I'm sure I'll be able to get myself out of it, too!"
Miyuki muttered something under his breath that sounded like, "optimistic idiot."
"Better than being a pessimist." Eijun poked him in the chest to make his point, then spun on his heel and started walking. "Anyway, let's go! We're looking for someone, right?"
Reluctant footsteps began to follow him. "If you insist on helping, we should spread out."
The footsteps stopped. When Eijun looked behind him, Miyuki's expression was closed and unreadable. "Why?"
Whatever thoughts were running through his head, Eijun was sure they were unnecessarily complicated, and he didn't have the patience or delicacy to figure them out. Miyuki made things too hard for himself and everyone else who tried to get near him—that was the problem, and that was why Eijun had come along. He tucked his hands inside his sleeves, shivering from the cold (definitely from the cold, not because of nerves), and cleared his throat. Then, lifting his chin, he met Miyuki's eyes. "Because I want to be with you."
Eijun was treated to the sight of Miyuki completely at a loss for words. His eyes widened and he froze, the declaration apparently so unexpected it derailed his entire thought process, at least for a few seconds. Then he started to blink, and covered his face with his hand. "That's not… a good reason…"
"That's the only reason I've got! And I think it's good enough!"
"Seriously, you…!" Miyuki peeked between his fingers and glanced away, hiding some more. His palm hovered in front of his mouth, muffling his words, as if he wasn't sure he should be saying them. "Why are you so persistent? No, don't answer that. This isn't the time to—never mind. Let's just go." He lifted his face and strode off without waiting. As far as retreats went, it was not his most graceful.
Eijun let him get away with it. He had a feeling if he pushed, Miyuki would run in earnest. He was that difficult to handle. Jogging to catch up, Eijun stuck to his side, and managed to walk in agreeable silence for almost a minute before piping up, "So… who are we looking for?"
"Nabe—Watanabe. He was one of the guards who was wounded during the attack on the commander. Since Nabe would have died, he was presented with the usual choice. I suppose he regrets it now."
What about you? The question floated unspoken; Eijun already knew what the answer would be. Instead he asked, "Do you really think he deserted?"
"It wouldn't surprise me."
Eijun narrowed his eyes. He was getting better at noticing when Miyuki was being evasive. "There's no harm in hoping he didn't."
Miyuki finally looked his way, gaze dropping to the empty space by Eijun's hip to note his lack of weapon. "You should be careful. He is a rasetsu after all."
"I'll be fine! I'm more worried about you."
"That's ridiculous, I am perfectly capable—"
"I mean, I don't want you to have to kill another comrade!" Eijun's shout echoed down the streets. He winced and ducked his head, hurrying to finish saying his piece before the inevitable reprimand. "I get it, sometimes you have to do what's necessary, and I'm not arguing about what's right or wrong, but… but you don't have to shoulder all of that burden alone."
A heavy, expectant pause filled the space between them. Eijun waited and waited, pressure squeezing inside his chest, making it difficult to breathe, until Miyuki spoke at last in a falsely light tone: "I appreciate the concern, but you don't have to worry so much. It's not as bad as all that. I'll be fine."
Eijun's breath whooshed out in an incensed rush. "That's not—!"
Miyuki's hand clapped over his mouth, silencing him. "Wait. Do you hear…?"
It took a few seconds for him to calm down enough to pay attention, but when he focused he heard it: the distant ring of metal, and a choked-off cry that ended in a whimper. Miyuki dashed towards the sound of the fight and Eijun followed quickly.
The noise ceased after a while, but by then they could smell the blood. It led them to an alley where the ground was stained dark around four torn-up bodies, three of them unmoving, while the fourth pushed himself upright and leaned against the wall, sword clutched in a shaking fist. The blood soaked into his clothes and splashed on his skin was so dark a red it was nearly black, but his eyes—widening at the sight of Miyuki and Eijun—glowed crimson.
Nabe swallowed and straightened up. His movements were tense and jerky, and he had the pale, wretched look of someone about to be ill, but most importantly, his reason hadn't abandoned him. Though he swayed on his feet, he didn't attack or run.
"Captain," he said, bowing his head slightly. "I… found the men who attacked the commander."
Miyuki's eyebrows climbed upwards. "And you dealt with them, I see. I must admit I'm surprised."
A smile wobbled into existence on Nabe's face when he looked up. "I only intended to find out who they were and their location, but I was a bit too thorough in my search. Things got… messy. I apologize for the trouble."
Crouching down, Miyuki rolled the nearest body over. The man's stricken expression was frozen in death. "Hm. Looks like they're the remnants of Ochiai's faction. It's well enough that they're dead now, but it was rash of you to run off on your own. You know what that looks like."
"Yes. I'm sorry." Nabe's gaze lowered and his voice softened. Blood still dripped from the wavering tip of his sword. "I just… wanted to do something. I wasn't any use at all when the commander was hurt. If I had guarded him properly back then…"
"What's done is done," Miyuki said, blunt at first. Then, awkwardly, he added, "The commander will recover, and you've taken care of those responsible. The end result isn't bad. I… that is… you handled this much better than I thought you would. Good work."
Surprise and relief finally soothed Nabe's trembling, and Eijun started to grin, especially when Miyuki looked away, embarrassed. He was soft at heart, there was no denying it.
"Well," Eijun exhaled, stretching and loosening his shoulders now that the atmosphere had relaxed. "Now that that's cleared up, shall we head back?"
"What about…?" Nabe's eyes skirted to the corpses littering the alley.
"Oh. I guess something has to be done about those."
"Yes," Miyuki agreed, growing sarcastic. "It's generally good manners to clean up after yourself. We should find Chris and report back to—"
Footsteps tramped over the ground. A group of several, closing in. Miyuki fell silent and all three of them turned to the mouth of the alley that was being blocked off by dark figures. The weapons they held were pistols rather than swords.
Luckily, oni and rasetsu didn't have much to fear from bullets. Only a very accurate shot could kill them. There was no getting out of the line of fire, though, so injuries were inevitable, and the gunmen would witness their inhuman healing ability.
"No other choice," Miyuki said, drawing the same conclusion as Eijun. He stepped forward, hand on his sword.
Nabe moved to join him, pale and sweating. He clenched his teeth. The stink of blood already clouded the air around them, threatening to cloud the rasetsu's sanity as well. Miyuki had a firm grip on his concentration, but Nabe was shaking again. He only stopped when Eijun grabbed his wrist and pushed him to the back of the alley.
Explosive shots fired, one after another. They punched into Eijun's turned back and he stumbled, bursts of pain hammering him, but he stayed on his feet. "Go," he ground out giving Nabe another shove. "Find Chris-san! We'll hold them off."
Eijun didn't wait for Nabe to reply, spinning around to run into another volley of bullets. There were fewer this time, the men scattering as Miyuki cut through them. Blood sprayed, and Eijun tasted it in his mouth, breath catching on the liquid seeping into his lungs, but that didn't stop him from slamming a fist into the nearest man's chest. He may not have the pulverizing strength of someone like Harada, but he packed enough of a punch to lay out an ordinary human just fine. The man staggered backwards, wheezing, and another hit dropped him.
A close-range shot tore straight through Eijun's shoulder. His arm went limp. Turning, he stared down the barrel of a gun pointed at his head.
Steel arced through the air and the gun dropped, along with the hand holding it. Another slash of Miyuki's blade ended the man's horrified scream.
"I really wish… you'd think your actions through a bit more…" Miyuki wavered on his feet. He bled from several wounds, the stains on his clothes spreading. A wide swing of his sword made the enemies fall back in a panic, but when he started to pursue them he went down on his knees with a grunt.
"Miyuki? O-oi…" Eijun pressed his hand to torn, soaked fabric. The flesh underneath was wet and gleaming. It wasn't closing up. "Why—?!"
His own wounds were already healing, though the bits of metal lodged inside complicated the process. He'd worry about those later. Miyuki just kept bleeding.
"Sawamura, get out of here…" He slumped in Eijun's arms, sword slipping from his grip. The heavy settling of his weight, the slickness of blood everywhere, and the gun smoke pervading the night called up a memory, or a half-remembered blood-and-ash dream, and Eijun could do nothing but stare at Miyuki's slack face, drained of color. He was horribly still.
The men gathered around, encouraged by their success, but Eijun paid them no mind. Was Miyuki still breathing? Was his heart beating? Eijun had to check, but he couldn't move. Not until a voice spoke up:
"So it worked after all."
A flood of anger burst through Eijun's numb shock, surging down his arm to snatch Miyuki's sword and point it at Okumura's chest. The bond of brethren vanished in that moment and all Eijun could see in that impassive, hated face was an enemy.
"What did you do?"
"Just an experiment. I was surprised when he kept fighting at first. As a warrior, his skill and willpower are second to none, I'll give him that." Before Eijun could attack, Okumura raised a hand. The remaining men trained their weapons on him and Miyuki. They were completely surrounded.
Eijun snarled wordlessly, but let the sword drop. He could maybe get to Okumura before being killed, but if Miyuki was hit again… "What do you want? If you hate me so much, then come after me alone!"
Okumura's eyes narrowed, fury sparking in them. "I'm not doing this because of you. Any of the Shinsengumi could have walked into this trap. Us meeting again was simple bad luck… but I guess I won't have to worry about that happening anymore." The muscles in his face tensed, and for a second a grimace of bitter distaste crawled over his features before they became stiffly blank. He looked away and then he dropped his hand.
Eijun dove to try and cover Miyuki as best he could. Something whizzed by his head, too large to be a bullet.
Shots fired, but they went awry. Pained cries erupted as men dropped their guns, bleeding from the small knives buried in their flesh. Those who weren't injured looked around wildly, noticing too late when a shadow leapt from the roof to land in their midst, blade flashing. Wakana felled them with ease, the kodachi Shotsuren elegant in her hand. When one of the men took fumbling aim she stabbed him through the arm and twisted, manipulating him like a puppet to shoot someone else.
She made short work of them all. Her knives found the ones who tried to run, and soon the last body crumpled to the ground, dust settling. Wakana surveyed the remains, wiping her sword absently. "With all the commotion tonight, I knew you had to be involved. Thank goodness I made it in time. Unfortunately, it appears Okumura escaped. Shall I go and—Eijun?"
He pulled on her arm, babbling. "Please—please, you have to do something, he's not healing at all, something's wrong and he's gonna die and I don't, I can't—"
Voices could be heard in the distance, coming closer in a hurry. Wakana hesitated. Her eyes darted to the open end of the alley where a light began to bob into view. Eijun shielded his eyes from the sudden brightness and felt Wakana prying his grip loose, slipping away from him. He didn't try to reach for her again.
The silhouettes standing in the light resolved into familiar figures that gave him a small measure of relief. Nabe rushed forward, asking questions Eijun could only half hear, while Zono stared at everything in shock and Kuramochi swore up a storm.
Eijun rocked on his feet as if struck. His attention swung to where Miyuki lay, and Wakana knelt beside him, tearing fabric into strips to wrap tightly over the wounds. "You," she said, glaring at Kuramochi, "make yourself useful and press down on here."
His mouth flapped open, but then he thought better of it and clamped it shut, hurrying to do as she ordered. Zono brought the light closer at her command.
"We need to get him out of here before anyone else comes by," Nabe said, sounding urgent but more in control than he had all night. "Sawamura, can you carry him?"
"Yes. Of course!" Eijun snapped out of his shock.
"He's lost a lot of blood," Wakana warned. Her hands moved quickly. "If he was human he wouldn't have a chance, but even though something is strange about the wounds, he still has the resiliency of a rasetsu. That might be enough. Eijun, come here and get him. I need to pick up a few things and then I'll join you."
"We're stationed at the Fushimi magistrate's office right now."
"I know." She turned to him with an arch look. "Don't think I haven't been keeping an eye on you all this time. Just look at what happens when I'm not around."
Eijun heaved Miyuki up into his arms. He wasn't exactly light, but this much weight was no problem for an oni. Besides, he could weigh as much as Masuko and Eijun would still find a way to manage. "Wakana," he called out before she could vanish into the night. "Thank you."
She folded her arms. "I still don't approve."
"That's fine. I'm still grateful."
Her expression softened and she let out a sigh, shaking her head. "Just because you're a troublesome fool doesn't mean I'll abandon the only family I have left. Now hurry up and go!"
She jumped all the way up onto the rooftop without another word, leaving as silently as she came. When Eijun faced the others again Kuramochi was staring with his jaw hanging open.
"That was Wakana? Wait, wasn't she the maiko we met? Is she your sister or your girlfriend?!"
"Oh, not this again." Eijun gripped Miyuki close and took off running. As soon as Kuramochi recovered from the surprise he'd catch up in no time, and then grill Eijun the whole way back. "I bet you'd find this hilarious," Eijun grumbled to the unconscious man he carried. "Since you're in such a pitiful state, I'll tell you about it when you wake up. Just hang on until then. You have to stay alive, you promised me you'd try your best, so please…"
Please, I don't want to lose anyone again.
Chapter 7: Firefly
The fireflies' light.
How easily it goes on
How easily it goes out again.
The bullets they removed from Miyuki were made of expensive silver—not ideal ammunition under normal circumstances—but Okumura had called it an experiment, and it was an experiment that produced ominous results. Not only did the enemy know about the rasetsu, they now had a newly discovered weakness to exploit, as if there weren't already enough of those. One wondered when the many disadvantages of the ochimizu outweighed its advantages of healing and combat ability.
Miyuki's wounds were slow to heal even after removing the silver. He was sent to Osaka to recover, and Eijun went with him, so they were far from the action when war finally broke out between the shogunate and the allied imperial forces. It happened at the end of the month, and the result was a devastating loss for the shogunate despite having greater numbers. Their military technology was ancient compared to the modern weapons of the enemy, and soon the daimyo loyal to the shogun began to defect.
The Shinsengumi, naturally, did not come out of the battle unscathed. Some of the captains had started to carry a vial of ochimizu with them just in case, but others refused to touch the stuff. They didn't talk about their choice.
("There's no point when it's only hypothetical," Kuramochi said late one night, not long after Aburano Koji. Earlier that day there had been a funeral service: his own. He was supposed to have died in the attack. His family would never know the truth. "You might think one way and have it all figured out, all your reasons lined up nice and neat, but when the time comes none of that's gonna matter. It comes down to a split-second decision. You learn a lot about yourself in moments like that.")
After suffering a shocking defeat, Tokugawa Yoshinobu retreated to Edo, and the Shinsengumi were among the forces that went with him, Miyuki included, though his condition had not improved. Officially, he was suffering from his illness, and fear of contracting the disease kept others from getting close enough to discover the truth. He was set up in a small residence separate from the rest of the Shinsengumi to recuperate in private, looked after by Chris' father and Wakana. Eijun did what he could to help, though it wasn't much.
His hand pressed lightly over Miyuki's brow, which was wrinkled in a fitful sleep. Pain etched more readily on his face when he wasn't awake to suppress it. He was warm to the touch, but the fever wasn't quite as high as it had been yesterday, and both Takigawa and Wakana agreed he was slowly getting better. His rasetsu resilience was a double-edged sword; on one hand he was alive when a human would have died from such injuries, but on the other hand his suffering was prolonged. His body hung on in a wretched state.
"I must be terribly selfish," Eijun muttered to himself, wringing out a wet cloth to lay over Miyuki's forehead, "for being glad you're here even if it's like this. I think there's something wrong with me. But that's okay, because I'm not going anywhere. No matter what happens or how you choose to live, I decided I won't stand for you being alone."
Miyuki had no response for that, though his troubled expression remained. He slept worse some nights, but rarely better. He was pale and he'd lost weight, looking eerily similar to the way he'd been just before drinking the ochimizu, brought low by his illness. How he must hate this, being weak and powerless again, and it was all thanks to that which was supposed to have saved him. In spite of everything, he never said he regretted it. He was that determined to keep fighting.
Eijun really liked that about him.
"No, no, no. Takigawa-sensei said no moving yet!"
"I'm not going anywhere," Miyuki assured in a too-placid way that made Eijun plant himself in front of the door with his arms crossed, and Miyuki rolled his eyes. He stayed sitting where he was, a picked-at meal left forgotten by the wayside. Night had fallen and he was feeling well enough to push boundaries, but as far as Eijun was concerned the doctor's orders were absolute. After a while, Miyuki sighed. "All right, I promise I'll behave. Come here, you don't have to stand guard like that."
When it came to Miyuki, "good behavior" was relative, but in his current state Eijun could handle whatever he tried. Probably. Sitting down by the futon, Eijun picked up a half-full cup of tea and held it out insistently until Miyuki took it. If he wasn't going to eat, he should at least drink something.
"You have the pushiest bedside manner," Miyuki commented, taking small sips. "But now I know where you get it from. Where is Aotsuki-san, by the way?"
It was weird to hear Wakana be called by her family name after so long. The way Miyuki said it was politely distant and Eijun couldn't tell if he disliked her from the tone. He was respectful to her, but not very friendly, and while Wakana treated him to the best of her doctor's ability she didn't seem fond of him, either. Being the same room with them was stressful even though they were perfectly civil to each other. "Home," Eijun answered distractedly, wishing that everyone could just get along.
"Oh. That's right, you're from Edo. Have you been home yet? You always seem to be here when I'm awake. You don't have to stick to me so much." Miyuki decided that was a good time to take a long, leisurely swallow of his tea, missing the vexed look Eijun directed at him.
"Well, sorry for sticking!" He huffed to make sure his ire was noted, then sobered when he thought more about the question. "'Home' isn't really the right word. It was just a place we lived for a while. I don't care about going back there, but Wakana wanted to see if Gramps left anything related to the ochimizu." Although Eijun didn't like to think Gramps had been researching the stuff for that long, under their own roof. It was possible he'd been helping the shogunate even before he left for Kyoto.
Miyuki lowered his cup. It was empty, but he didn't set it aside, instead turning it around in his fingers. "Sorry. I remember—your village is gone now, isn't it? So you've been living among humans since then."
"Yeah." His heart ached at the memory, but his gut didn't twist so viscerally anymore. The massacre had been nearly ten years ago. He'd lived half of his life among humans now. Eijun snorted, remembering, "I really hated humans for a while. When I first came to Kyoto I was looking down on you all."
"I remember. At the time I thought you were a sheltered brat."
"And then you thought I was a spy!"
"In my defense, you were undeniably suspicious."
"I guess I can't argue with that." A lot had changed in four years. Eijun didn't have any more secrets left to hide. He turned to the nearby brazier and poked at the low-burning coals with a pair of tongs. "You know… I do want to go back. To my village, I mean. Someday. But I also kinda don't. There's probably not much left there, and I dream about it sometimes. …They're not good dreams." To say the least. They were more like his worst nightmares combined, and Miyuki getting shot hadn't helped. That was fuel Eijun's imagination didn't need.
"You should go," Miyuki said. He set the cup down on the tray with the rest of his meal. "Seeing something with your own eyes can do a lot to dispel the fear of what you don't know. And it's not like you're obligated to stay here. You can leave whenever you want."
"Not gonna happen! Would you stop trying to send me away? Obligation or whatever… how stupid…" Eijun snatched up the tray of neglected food and rose to his feet. "If you're not going to finish this I'm cleaning it up. Stay put and rest."
"Yes, yes. I don't have any other choice here, do I?" The words were spoken light and wintry, laced with frustration.
Eijun paused in the doorway. "I'm just doing what I want to help you to get better. I'm sorry if it's a burden."
Once he stood outside, with the door shut between them, Eijun let his shoulders slump dejectedly. He knew he could be a nuisance, and Miyuki indulged him a lot, but if one day Miyuki really didn't want him around anymore… Eijun was stubborn, but that might be his limit. He didn't want to be hated.
The quiet murmur of words reached his ears, making him perk up and listen. His fingers tightened on the tray at what he heard.
"…geez. I'm the one who's a burden in this situation…"
Eijun was washing the dishes when Wakana returned, her entrance letting in the brisk winter air before the door clattered shut. He looked up from his task. "Welcome ba—what the hell happened!?" A rice bowl slipped from his slack fingers to splash in the sink.
The kitchen of the house was tiny, and Wakana crowded near him to hunker by the stove where a fire remained lit under a kettle for tea. She extended her hands to its heat. Her face was flushed and her hair was matted, tacking to a bloody smear across her temple, and upon closer inspection her hands were tinted with more than dirt, her sleeve hems stained. Despite her appearance, she was calm when she said, "The house was being watched, as I thought it might be, but they didn't attack until I left. It was nothing I couldn't handle."
"I should have gone with you!" He soaked a rag and wrung it out, wiping the blood from her face.
"I said I handled it. Besides, someone had to stay here. Takigawa-sensei can't fight and Miyuki-san isn't well yet." She let him fuss over her for another minute while warming herself by the stove, then plucked the rag from his hands when she'd had enough, finishing the job herself. Hands and face clean, she looked down at the sleeves of her kosode and clicked her tongue. It would require a thorough washing. "I found what I was looking for, by the way. Grandfather had notes about the ochimizu hidden in the workroom."
She sat on the edge of the raised floor above the packed dirt of the kitchen. Eijun abandoned the dishes in the sink and dropped into a slouch beside her. "…What did they say? Is there a cure?"
"No. At least, not in the notes I found. They're old, I don't think he's been back at the house at all, but he wrote about a medicine that can suppress the bloodlust—temporarily, mind you, and at this time of year the ingredients will be hard to come by."
"But that's better than nothing!" A cure might be too much to hope for right now, but a way to treat the symptoms was the next-best solution. All the rasetsu could benefit from that, and the Shinsengumi were in desperate need of something to boost morale. "Can you make the medicine? What do you need?"
"Some of the herbs are rare and I doubt ordinary humans will be selling them in town. I'll have to leave here to get what I need, but I think it's worth it. Eijun, there's… something else." One of her hidden knives appeared in her hand. She touched her thumb to its blade, which was as sharp as ever, and a red line oozed up from the split flesh. Her voice grew quiet. "Two things, actually. First, drinking oni blood will also alleviate a rasetsu's symptoms, to an extent. It should help counter the silver poisoning at least. But it's still blood, and feeding a rasetsu's bloodlust is its own problem, so think carefully before you turn to that method. Secondly…"
She wiped her thumb, and underneath the skin was as pristine as if it had never been cut. Eijun stared fixedly at her hand; something about her soft, gentle tone made him not want to look at her face. If only she could be her usual, blunt self, his stomach wouldn't be sinking like this.
"Rasetsu don't heal the same way we do. Our bodies are different. They were originally human, and though the ochimizu transforms them, their abilities have to come from somewhere. Amplified strength, accelerated healing… that's their own vitality in a condensed form. In other words, they're burning their lives as fuel. When they use it all up…"
Eijun curled in on himself. The heat of the stove didn't reach him anymore and cold emanated from the pit that had opened up inside his gut. There's no way. That can't be. Not after everything… His throat squeezed tight, choking off any protest he could make—and oh, how he wanted to protest. He'd scream himself hoarse if it would help. If only iron-clad denial was all he needed to make Wakana's words untrue.
She never lied to him, though.
"So that's why," she continued, still in that horribly understanding tone, "I believe it's best to treat the symptoms we can, and lessen the burden on his body. That's all I can think of to do. …I'm sorry."
Her hand covered his own, holding onto him as she always did whenever he found himself hanging from a cliff. Wakana was always there to drag him to safety, to push him out of the path of danger, and she could face down assassins without breaking a sweat, but this…
Eijun let himself slump against her. She was so much smaller than him now—as children they'd been about even, and for a while she'd even been taller—but her slim frame didn't buckle the slightest under his weight. Her arm came up to wrap around his shoulders, awkward and unused to comforting this way. "I'm sorry," she said again, helpless. As if she'd failed in her duty somehow.
Eijun shook his head mutely. It wasn't her fault.
But it was so unfair.
"And you better stick around too, you hear? Now that your illness is gone there's no reason for you to go dying on me, so don't talk about it like it's a fact."
"You know any of us could be killed in a fight tomorrow, and also… Well, I'll do my best."
Eijun blinked and scrubbed away the hot tears that had started streaming down his face. His vision swam, and so did his thoughts. Wait. Wait a minute.
"That guy couldn't have…" He drew himself up, staggering on unsteady feet before finding his balance. But it would be just like Miyuki to keep something like that to himself. He hid his illness for years. Pulling in deep breaths, Eijun turned and marched out of the kitchen.
"What is it?" He was sitting where Eijun had left him, rumpled and with his color still high from the fever. Miyuki glanced up, and then—suspiciously—his gaze drifted elsewhere. "Has Aotsuki returned yet? Is something wrong?" The words were casually spoken, but the way his chest rose and fell indicated he was breathing hard, like he'd exerted himself. Upon closer inspection, he looked a little too disheveled.
Eijun fell to his knees, head hanging, with his hands curled into fists on the tatami. It was all he could do to keep from throttling the bastard. "You—! You got up! I told you to stay put!"
"Ah… it was just for a bit. No harm done."
"No harm?!" His head jerked up, glaring. Miyuki continued to avoid his eyes. "Don't play dumb, you eavesdropping tanuki! You… knew all along… that you're…" He choked on the words, and the whimper that eked out of him was downright pathetic, but he didn't care. His vision blurred again. Eijun sat back and pressed his arm over his eyes, sleeve getting wet. "Damnit…"
For a while, the only sound came from the coals burning in the brazier, crackling occasionally. They popped more when the ashes were stirred, and Miyuki said, "Listen, Sawamura. If I hadn't chosen to drink the ochimizu back then, I'd probably be dead by now. Or laid up worse than this. At least this way I can still fight, even if time is short. It's still more time than I would have had otherwise. So, you see, I'm not really losing anything."
"That logic is stupid," Eijun said, voice thick. Grief crowded his chest, suffocating him.
"I'm basically dead already, Sawamura, I just haven't stopped moving yet."
So that was why he said that…
No. Eijun pulled his arm away from his watering eyes. No, that wasn't true then and it's not true now. He slammed his hand flat on the tatami and leaned forward, finally seizing hold of Miyuki's attention. "You're wrong! Or—you're right, you're not losing anything, but that's because we're going to find a cure. Gramps knows more about the ochimizu than anyone, he's the one who created it, so he'll have an idea at the very least. It's too soon to give up!"
The curiosity in Miyuki's gaze dimmed. He lowered his face, and Eijun's spirits threatened to go under, too. Clenching his teeth, he shook off his doubt. He'd show Miyuki. He'd prove he could make things better. Eijun rallied to declare his intentions, but then a short, breathless burst of laughter broke free from Miyuki's hunched form. His shoulders trembled and he pushed his fingers through his hair, face angled to show a lively expression.
"All right, all right. When you put it like that, I guess I have to agree." Reining in his amusement, Miyuki rubbed the back of his neck, smiling sheepishly. "Who said anything about giving up? Fighting against impossible odds is nothing new for me."
Eijun grinned and tapped his thumb to his chest. "Don't forget, I'll be fighting with you!"
"Yeah. Honestly, I'm thankful… because… well, I mean… it's reassuring… hey, you're too close!" Miyuki's palm smacked against Eijun's face and pushed.
"You were mumbling and I couldn't hear!" The words were muffled under the hand splayed over his mouth, but Eijun's grin widened, undaunted. "Say it again, louder this time."
"No way." The flush coloring Miyuki's face deepened.
"Aw, come on!"
"I know you heard me the first time!" Miyuki grappled with Eijun a bit, exerting more energy than was probably wise, but he was smiling in spite of himself. He hadn't had any kind of fun in ages. Playing around a little might be all right—just when Eijun thought that, Miyuki's whole body tensed and he collapsed.
Eijun's stomach bottomed out. "Oh no, I'm sorry, I shouldn't have—"
"It's not—ngh!" Miyuki paled, folding in on himself. This wasn't mere exhaustion overcoming him. As white crept into his hair, pain quaked through his body in waves that shook and shattered. He clutched at his arms to hold the pieces of himself together, biting his lip to keep from crying out, and red oozed up where his teeth clamped down.
"Miyuki? What should I—should I get Wakana?" Eijun started to get up.
"No," Miyuki gasped, lifting himself partway. That was as far as he could manage, and sweat dripped from his face as he strained. "No, this will pass. It just… takes a few minutes." He wiped his mouth on the back of his hand and shuddered. "Just have to wait it out."
"There has to be something—!" There was something, Eijun remembered, zeroing in on the smear of blood that stood out like a stain on Miyuki's skin. Blood was what he wanted. His eyes were screwed shut, jaw clenched, and he made as little sound as possible while bearing the agony and resisting the bloodlust that drove rasetsu mad. Feeding it wouldn't stop the cravings and might only make them worse, but if the pain could be alleviated at least… if the stress on Miyuki's body could be reduced… then there was no need for Eijun to hesitate.
"What are you doing?" Miyuki's eyes cracked open and he flinched at the sight of Eijun's blood pooling where he sliced open his palm. "No, I don't want—that's—" His breathing hastened. He tried to back away but either the pain or the hunger didn't let him go far, and his attention was riveted to Eijun's cupped hand.
The cut closed quickly enough that the blood didn't spill over, but it seeped into the creases of his fingers and a drop fell to be absorbed in the straw of the tatami. Eijun extended his hand in offering. "You don't have to, but it will help. I don't mind. I hate seeing you suffer."
Miyuki swallowed. His gaze sought Eijun's, crimson and desperate. "What if I can't control myself?"
"Then I'll stop you," Eijun said with solemn confidence. "But you'll be fine. So trust me and drink."
It cost Miyuki to let himself be drawn in, as wary as a wild animal. He let go of his pride and reached for Eijun with an uncertain hand, their fingertips touching, Miyuki's fingers curling light and tentative over his. They dipped in the shallow pool of blood and for an instant Eijun thought Miyuki would pull away. His breath caught, pupils large and dark, and then he was tugging Eijun's hand close, lowering his mouth to Eijun's palm.
The warm, open press of lips, and the soft swipe of tongue, sent an unexpected shiver down Eijun's spine. His fingers twitched reflexively and Miyuki's hold on them tightened. A sound escaped from the back of his throat, surprised and gratified and then just hungry as he lapped at the blood, wet strokes growing bolder and more intent, following the grooves and creases of Eijun's hand. Damp skin heated under the sultry, focused attention of Miyuki's mouth.
The heat went to Eijun's head, too. He was certain his hand shouldn't be that sensitive, roughened as it was from gripping a sword, but every curl of Miyuki's tongue found nerves Eijun didn't know he had. It wasn't quite ticklish, but the distracting flutter in his belly was similar—warmer—a not entirely new sensation that made Eijun flush and fidget. Part of him wanted to snatch his hand away, but it was a very small part.
There wasn't that much blood to drink, but Miyuki was thorough in licking up every drop. His lips lingered on Eijun's skin. The white had faded from his hair and the strain of his body had eased, not disappearing completely, but he was no longer wracked with pain. The tension that remained was wrung out and tired. He had yet to let go of Eijun's hand.
"Sorry," Miyuki uttered into Eijun's palm, exhaustion thinning the word into something small, a sentiment that was regretful and bare. He wouldn't look up.
Eijun slid his hand to cup Miyuki's cheek, but he didn't try to lift his face. Instead, he pulled Miyuki towards him, and guided him into lying down with his head in Eijun's lap. "There's nothing you need to apologize for," Eijun said, fingers combing through messy hair before coming to rest over Miyuki's eyes. The barrier let him relax a little bit more.
If that was better for him, Eijun didn't mind. He'd be right here. He wasn't going anywhere. Miyuki could take his time and rely on him little by little.
Drinking Eijun's blood helped speed along Miyuki's recovery until at last the doctor declared him in good health—and just in time, too, because the Shinsengumi had been ordered to suppress the uprisings in Koufu. The main force left Edo already and had a few days' head start, but Miyuki fully intended to catch up to them. As soon as he had the doctor's permission, he couldn't grab his swords fast enough.
"Sawamura, are you ready yet?"
"I am!" He hurried to where Miyuki waited in the genkan. "Are you sure we shouldn't say goodbye to Takigawa-sensei first? It seems rude… to just…" Eijun trailed off in the middle of stepping into his waraji, and five seconds later he completely forgot what he was going to say.
"I already did," Miyuki said. A quick, sidelong glance indicated he wasn't unaware of Eijun's staring, and after several beats, each one more heart-pounding than the last, Miyuki cleared his throat. "What? Do I look weird?"
"Uh… no…" Eijun belatedly remembered to close his gaping mouth. He pressed a hand over it, cheeks flaming, and looked away—or he tried to. His eyes kept finding their way back to Miyuki's figure in the new uniform.
Gone was the signature blue-and-white haori, and instead of draping sleeves and wide-legged hakama, Miyuki was dressed in a Western-style military jacket over a buttoned shirt and pants. The new style of dress was a change mandated throughout the entire Shinsengumi. Miyuki's clothes had arrived days ago, but this marked the first time Eijun was seeing him wear them. He'd even cut his hair, feathery ends brushing the top of his jacket collar.
He looked… different. Not bad (really, definitely not bad) but the straight lines and close-fitted layers created a much different silhouette. Eijun couldn't help but notice things he'd never paid much attention to before, things like the span of Miyuki's shoulders and how his chest looked broader in the structured jacket, but his waist was still lean. The uniform was predominantly black, but the jacket was lined in navy and gold, making for a dignified, not too somber appearance. He looked the part of a captain.
"Hmm. I see." A mischievous grin tugged Miyuki's mouth upwards. "I'm that handsome, huh?"
Eijun was distracted and blurted out the first words that came to mind: "Of course you are!"
"Yes, ye—wait, really?" They stared at each other and Miyuki's face slowly turned pink; never before had he looked so self-conscious.
Even though he's the one who brought it up first! Eijun's own blush wasn't going away either. "N-never mind that! We're in a hurry, aren't we?" He bent down to tie the laces of his waraji as fast as his fingers could move. Miyuki wore Western-style boots, heavy and sturdy, and they were probably warmer than straw sandals. Eijun wasn't too keen on the idea of the whole country adopting Western styles of dress, but he had to admit there were certain benefits. His eyes strayed to the sleek outlines of Miyuki's legs. "Okay!" Eijun popped back up, redder than ever, and immediately started herding Miyuki towards the door. "Let's go!"
"All right already, quit pushing me—oi!"
Winter should have been winding down, but a heavy snowstorm had passed through the region just a few days ago and made travel to Koufu miserable. The nights weren't cold enough to be icy so they trudged through mud and slush, the two of them alone on the road, barely stopping to rest. Eijun didn't need many breaks and he suspected the same was true for rasetsu, but he kept an eye on Miyuki to make sure he wasn't pushing himself. He was eager to join up with the rest of the Shinsengumi and fight alongside them, even if doing so would mean shortening his own life. Asking Miyuki to not fight was something Eijun couldn't bring himself to do.
For better or worse, they made good time despite the weather conditions, and soon they could hear repeating cracks of gunfire echo in the night along with the intermittent boom of cannons. The noise was easy to follow, but they couldn't just rush into the thick of the battle without knowing the situation. They had to locate the Shinsengumi's camp first.
Leaving the road, they cut through the hills and forest around Koufu castle. Before finding the camp, though, they came across a battlefield. Eijun's nostrils flared as the smell of blood suddenly overwhelmed him, but the surrounding area was quiet. No one was fighting nearby. The clearing they stepped into had been the site of a small, but bloody skirmish, a dozen or so bodies strewn across the wet ground. All of them wore imperial uniforms. Eijun was relieved to not see any Shinsengumi members among them, but then he noticed Miyuki frowning.
"What is it?"
"Theirs is the only trail. There's no sign of another force that came this way."
"An ambush?" Eijun suggested, examining the bodies more closely. They were stabbed and sliced rather than shot, though he could detect a faint whiff of gunpowder lingering in the air. "Or one of the rasetsu…" He trailed off as his gaze landed on the handle of a small, concealable knife sticking out of a man's throat.
"Close enough," Miyuki said, and Eijun attention snapped in his direction.
Okumura's pale hair was soaked dark with blood and he was dressed the same as the other men, clothes tattered around several bullet holes, body pierced by swords he didn't have the strength to remove. His neck bled but was intact enough that it would heal on its own. He had his head, his limbs, and if he wasn't dead yet his heart must be fine, but the injuries were still severe and he could die if left like this. It would take a while. It would be a painful death.
Eijun clutched his sword by the hilt and slid an inch of the blade free. He met Okumura's unobscured, impassive eye which gave away none of his thoughts, but then it closed shut with a pointed silence that seemed to imply: I've nothing to say to you.
"You—!" Growling, Eijun slammed Daitsuren back into its scabbard. As if he'd let the brat have the honor of dying on such a noble blade. Instead Eijun reached for one of the swords impaling him and pulled it free, tossing it to the side. He grabbed another one and discarded it as well. The third was a broken-off shard of steel that Eijun bloodied his hands on while prying it out, not bothering to be gentle. He complained at length while he worked. "Damnit, it only takes one hit in the right place! Either you're really good or they really underestimated an oni, and I don't know which pisses me off more."
"What are you doing?" Okumura asked when he no longer resembled a pincushion. The bullets stuck inside him were going to be messy to get out—Eijun knew from experience.
The memory made his expression cloud over. "What does it look like I'm doing?!"
"I don't want your help. Kill me or leave me, it's what I would do if our positions were reversed."
"I'm not taking orders from you and you're in no condition to stop me! I'll do what I want. Seriously, what an ungrateful brat…" Eijun pulled Okumura's unresisting body up and slung him like baggage over his shoulders. It wasn't going to be a comfortable trip for either of them. Turning to Miyuki, who watched without comment, Eijun lowered his head in apology. "Please go on ahead without me. I'm taking this guy to Edo. He's a jerk who tried to kill us multiple times, but he's still… well, I can't just leave him. I'll definitely, absolutely come back, though! No matter what!"
"No need," Miyuki said, and Eijun looked at him in surprise. The expression on Miyuki's face was withdrawn and unreadable. "I'll go with you."
"But the battle—"
"It's already over. We'll need to regroup, so we might as well head back."
Now that he mentioned it, Eijun couldn't hear the fighting anymore. That had ended quickly. Too quickly. "Did… we lose…?"
Okumura was the one who answered. "The imperial army outnumbered the shogun's forces ten to one." His voice was dispassionate, stating the fact as if it didn't concern him at all. He wasn't the type to gloat when his side won—although, right now, who knew what side he was on.
Eijun sucked in a breath that was fraught with worry, but before he could say anything Miyuki started walking away. "Let's go," he said, clipping his words short. The anxiety he must be feeling was tightly contained and repurposed into taking action. "If we stay here looking for our comrades, chances are we'll run into the enemy instead. It's better if we meet back in Edo where it's safe. And besides…" He glanced over his shoulder, eyes calculating. "…I have a few questions for your friend."
"Of course," Okumura muttered darkly under his breath, low enough that only Eijun could hear. "You should have just killed me."
"It's not like that." Eijun shook his head, privately shooing away his own misgivings. Ryousuke was one thing, but Miyuki wouldn't go that far, and if anyone did try to torture information out of Okumura then Eijun wouldn't stand for it.
No matter how much he disliked the brat, they were oni from the same village. Okumura could mock him and say it was because of Eijun's ego or whatever, but that didn't change the fact that Eijun felt responsible, and he would act as a clan heir should. The village may be gone, but it was his duty to protect what was left of its people.
The situation was worse than Kazuya had thought. They had to sneak back into Edo, avoiding imperial troops the whole way, and with a prisoner in tow just to make life more interesting. Okumura's wounds healed quickly after they picked up him and he made his first escape attempt during the daytime when Kazuya was sluggish. Luckily, Sawamura wasn't so restricted, and he became almost excessively vigilant afterwards. Okumura, in turn, became surlier, and they fought like cats and dogs to the point that Kazuya often fantasized about leaving them both in the dust. If nothing else, the constant squabbling made for a good distraction from the more worrisome thoughts crammed into the far recesses of his mind, and by some miracle they never caught the attention of enemy soldiers.
Kazuya was exhausted by the time they reached the house, but there was no time to waste. They needed to get in touch with the rest of the Shinsengumi. Surely the others had made it back to Edo as well (was it too much to hope everyone was alive?). Since Sawamura was more familiar with the city, and he wasn't an infamous Shinsengumi captain, he left the two of them at home to find out what he could.
Okumura's attempts to run had grown scarcer as they neared Edo. Kazuya was reasonably sure he wouldn't make any trouble now, though he'd probably bolt quietly if left alone long enough to free himself. A pity Kazuya didn't have a bell to tie around his neck.
"Hungry?" Kazuya asked after it became evident neither of them was going to let down his guard. Sawamura's absence left a noticeable void. Kazuya would have welcomed the silence, but since he couldn't relax he might as well be productive.
A flat glare was the only response he received.
Undeterred, he went on: "Just as well. It's late to be cooking, and we wouldn't want to attract any undue attention now, would we?" His smile steadily sharpened while Okumura's wariness increased. "Am I correct in thinking that the Tosa no longer consider you an ally? It certainly looked like they had planned to get rid of you. Or maybe you turned on them first?"
No answer, not that Kazuya was expecting one, and he was confident in his assessment. Okumura had tried to sneak away unnoticed rather than call attention to their little group, as reluctant as they were to get caught by imperial forces. It was safe to say they didn't have to worry about his allies coming to rescue him. On the other hand, if he'd pissed someone off, they'd have a different kind of trouble coming down on their heads. They should prepare for the worst. Kazuya settled in to fish around for more information.
"I find it hard to believe they would throw away such a useful asset on a whim. You seemed loyal. Oh, and I'm not holding a grudge or anything about last time. You know a lot about the rasetsu though, huh?"
"Nothing good comes from being a rasetsu." Okumura spat the words, but his vicious look turned bitter afterwards. When he flexed against his bonds the motions were agitated rather than calculating.
"There are numerous disadvantages, true." Kazuya didn't elaborate, and that was definitely a flash of pity in Okumura's eyes (how annoying—but that wasn't what he should be focusing on), which soon clouded over with a tight-lipped scowl. He was reacting a lot to the topic. Kazuya doubted he cared about the rasetsu in general, but there could be an exception. A very specific exception. No harm in taking a shot in the dark. "What happened to your friend? The one who saved you when you attacked us at headquarters."
"Shut up," Okumura snapped instantly. "You talk too much."
Kazuya laughed merrily; that had been a direct hit. A lucky one, too. If Okumura was intent on escape his friend must be presumed alive, but something had soured their relations with the Tosa domain. "Sorry, sorry. Don't mind me, I'm just thinking aloud. You're the reticent type, except when it comes to Sawamura. You kept picking fights with him. Granted, he is fun to rile up, so I can sympathize."
"That's not why—!" Okumura's mouth clamped shut, cutting off whatever he was going to say. He looked furious with everything, including himself, frustrated by the situation and his lack of control. Again, Kazuya could sympathize.
"Well, whatever. That's none of my business, so you two can work it out among yourselves. I trust that you don't have a reason to kill either of us now."
"What makes you think that?"
"Am I wrong?"
"Yes," Okumura said bluntly, but even now there wasn't an ounce of real bloodlust in him. He could boil over with anger sometimes, and he picked fight after fight like he had something to prove, but his killing intent was always subdued. He might very well hate Sawamura for unknown reasons, and was prepared to kill out of a sense of duty, but he didn't actually want him dead.
Although, having said that, it's not like I'd put my life in his hands. In a way, it was fortunate that the outcome of the battle had forced them to retreat; otherwise, Kazuya would have been facing a dilemma. Would he have let Sawamura take Okumura back to Edo all alone? It was ridiculous to worry about his safety when Sawamura was one of the strongest people Kazuya had ever met. He didn't need protecting, and yet, Kazuya couldn't leave him alone.
Or maybe it was the other way around, and Kazuya was the one who didn't want to be left alone.
Ah… how did things end up like this? He almost sighed but stopped himself just in time, aware of Okumura's watchful presence. It wouldn't do to let him get comfortable. Kazuya thought back to what they'd been talking about. "All right. Let's say that's the case, but even so, he's already decided to help you. And he'll help your friend, too, although he hasn't realized what's going on yet."
"I don't need any help, especially not from him. You don't know what you're talking about."
Kazuya shrugged. "Suit yourself. But I do know what someone looks like when they're backed into a corner, and you oni are a loyal bunch. Am I wrong?"
This time Okumura didn't deny it, looking away instead. Loyal and stubborn, the whole lot of them.
If Sawamura did decide he had a responsibility to help his fellow oni, regardless of Okumura's protests, he'd leave Kazuya's side then. That was the right thing to do. They both had obligations to prioritize and Kazuya had to rejoin the Shinsengumi quickly; his long convalescence had weakened him in unexpected ways. Guilt prickled at him, but he brushed it aside, ignoring the sharp little stab of uncertainty in his gut. This wasn't the time to be getting distracted. He needed to be firm if he was going to be useful, and make the best of what he'd gained through sacrifice. That was all.
Kazuya drew in an affirming breath. "When Sawamura gets back—"
The rest of what he intended to say snapped off as his breath was seized in sudden, cramping torment. Pain twisted inside him. One of his hands smacked against the floor, saving himself from falling over, while the other instinctively clutched at his sword. He tried to look up and keep an eye on Okumura. This timing was the worst.
There was the damn pity again, and Okumura didn't look surprised, either. Kazuya bared his teeth, more of a violent grimace than a smile, and held himself together somehow. "I'm going to step out for a few minutes. I suggest you stay put. If you leave this room I can't promise I won't kill you."
Hopefully, the threat would suffice, and it was far from an empty one. The pain itself wasn't debilitating. What made him slump to the floor outside the room, gasping and sweating, was the desperate, clawing effort to stay in control. To say he hungered for blood was putting it mildly. It was more of an obsession—one that never went away, but could be ignored most of the time, and managed if he was careful. When it flared, though, his thoughts and actions got away from him, no matter how hard he tried to hold on.
It would pass eventually. It always did. He just had to last through it, no matter how ugly and undignified and agonizing. His face pressed on the tatami, inhaling the musty scent of old rushes, but they did little to distract from blood-tinged memories. The scene where they'd found Okumura had been nothing but carnage. He fought in the reckless way Sawamura did, not caring about injuries that would kill or incapacitate a human. Kazuya had thought it was just sloppy training or bad habits on Sawamura's part, but it turned out that was just how oni kenjutsu was taught, messy and bloody and brutal.
Rasetsu could fight the same way. There was little need for technique when raw strength did the trick, cleaving through flesh and bone and letting rivers of blood flow freely. Part of Kazuya thought the lack of finesse was a shame. The other part could only think about the wet splash of blood under moonlight, the deep red gleam of it, warm on his skin and sticking to his hands, his face, tasting it thick and heady on his tongue.
Kazuya's forehead thudded against the floor in vain. The thoughts weren't so easy to dislodge. His whole body shivered and ached for a taste, for the fresh, warm pulse of life to spill out. He'd cut men open dozens of times. Been soaked in their blood as they died. Enemies, comrades, it didn't matter when they all bled the same. It was gruesomely mesmerizing how the stuff sprayed and splattered, leaked and stained, trickled and went stagnant when the heart finally stopped pumping. Scarlet patterns were left behind, and darker, cooling puddles that dried rusty and stale. Old blood was no good; he wanted it fresh and bright and fighting, alive when he spilled it out, flowing over his hands and dripping irresistibly.
The clatter of a door opening threw him into chaos. Kazuya bolted upright in a flash, snarling, "I warned you—!" He drew his sword without thinking, and was already striking with it when he realized the door to the room he'd been guarding remained closed at his back. He could have pulled the strike at the last moment but Sawamura, that brash, unflinching idiot, reached out and caught the blade in his bare hand.
For an awful moment, Kazuya couldn't breathe or move an inch. His heart felt suspended in his chest, quivering and fragile, as a stream of red ran down the length of his blade.
"Ow," Sawamura said, blinking and breaking the silence. He let go and glanced at the deep wound that had mangled his hand, severing right down into his wrist, with only a frown showing on his face as if this was no worse than getting a splinter. "Nice welcome. Look, I almost lost my thumb! I've heard limbs and stuff can be reattached but I don't know anyone who's tried it."
Kazuya's sword dropped from his nerveless fingers, thumping on the tatami. He followed suit and half-fell into a crouch, burying his face in his knees, and tried to remember how to breathe. His chest felt like it was being crushed.
"Miyuki—oi, Miyuki! Come on, I'm fine. Really, I'm fine."
Of course he was fine. That kind of injury was nothing. Even if he was human he wouldn't die from something like that, and there was no need for Kazuya to overreact like this. He had to get a grip. He was shaking—how pathetic. How funny. He hadn't been this pitiful since he was ten years old, abandoned by the only parent he had left and unable to last two seconds against the other dojo students.
Sawamura settled on the floor beside him. "Here. You need it."
Kazuya didn't have to look; he could smell what was being offered, tantalizing and fresh, exactly what he'd been craving. The human part of him was horrified and revolted, but it was no match for the rasetsu part. He reached for Sawamura's hand, hesitating at first contact, and saw the newly healed skin under a slick coat of shiny red. He really was fine. More than fine, he was steadier and saner than Kazuya was, and if Sawamura said this was all right then his words could be trusted. He was dependably honest like that.
The first taste whetted Kazuya's appetite so sharply he felt like he'd been stabbed, but the pain was inconsequential, and he pushed his mouth against Sawamura's hand to drink. Sawamura made a startled sound but he didn't protest or move away, going loose and compliant in Kazuya's hold. So trusting and easy. Kazuya could allow himself to relax a little, and the ravenous hunger ebbed as blood wet his lips and he swallowed it down.
He turned Sawamura's wrist and licked up every tiny trickle and rolling drop of crimson, sipped the traces of it from warm, giving flesh. The taste was salty and coppery and vibrant with life, pure and powerful, more delicious and addictive than anything else in the world. Kazuya chased the flavor along each of Sawamura's fingers where the blood had dripped, pulling them into his mouth and sucking.
"Wait—wait just a minute!" The fingers slid free and Kazuya's hair was fisted in a tight grip, effectively holding him off. He gazed down at Sawamura who was flushed and tempting, laid out on the floor under Kazuya where they were almost pressed together. When had that happened? And did it matter?
The firm hand in his hair wouldn't let him move an inch and reminded Kazuya that yes, it did matter. He tore his eyes away from Sawamura's open, softly panting mouth, while his heart seized up in his chest. Panic clawed at his insides. What was he doing?
Sawamura gentled his grip, fingers stroking, petting through the chopped ends of Kazuya's hair, and while the frenzied part of his brain urged him to move, his body wouldn't obey. His awareness gathered and centered on the soothing motions that caressed the back of his head. Every pass of Sawamura's fingers eased Kazuya's tension in minute degrees.
When he no longer felt on the verge of falling apart, Sawamura asked, "Do you need more?"
The sound that rumbled through Kazuya's throat wasn't one of voracious hunger. He didn't have to look at himself to tell that his appearance had returned to normal, and the acute pain of craving had dimmed down to a steady, muted throb. He didn't need anymore blood right now. "I…" Sawamura was looking at him with such an earnest, clear gaze. Not even the faintest wisp of pity clouded it. There were no secrets or doubts, just clarifying assurance that pulled Kazuya in. "I want…"
A familiar, ugly spasm rattled in his lungs, choking off the words. Kazuya threw himself away from Sawamura and wheezed, pressing a hand over his chest. Why now of all times? He couldn't help but twist his lips into a smile at the irony.
"Miyuki? What's wrong? You can take more blood, it's fine."
"No," he snapped out, harsher than intended. His knuckles turned white as he clutched at the front of his clothes. "It's not fine, nothing about this is—forget it. I don't need blood. I'm just… tired." Kazuya forced himself to exhale slowly, breath stuttering. He closed his eyes, unable to look at Sawamura, and drew on his deepest reserves to at least emulate calm, collected patience. "Sorry. I need some rest, that's all. Could you check on Okumura, make sure he hasn't tunneled out of the house?"
"Well… yeah, sure. I'll do that. You're really okay?" The tone was uncertain, and no doubt Sawamura was coming to his own conclusions. Kazuya barely had the energy to ponder what they could be. He really did need rest, it had been a long week, and they still had to figure out what to do next. A headache started to pound at his temples on top of everything else.
"I'll manage," he said wearily. Seeing how that was Kazuya's only option, at least he was telling the truth.
Chapter 8: Burn
The cicada cries out
Burning with love.
The firefly burns
With silent love.
Eijun woke with a gasp as something blunt nailed him below the ribs, booting him rudely out of his dreams. He popped upright in an instant and cast about with wide eyes, expecting a fight, but all was quiet. The room was dark, but not empty, and Okumura stepped away from him without a word. He returned to his spot as far from Eijun as possible, sitting aloof and unapologetic with his back to the wall.
"What the hell?!" Eijun exploded, hands balling into fists. "Did you just kick me?!"
"You're annoying even when you sleep," Okumura said by way of explanation.
"That doesn't make it okay to kick me awake!"
Okumura made an aggrieved sound, like he was regretting his actions—as he should! What kind of person went around kicking others when they were asleep? "Just be quiet. It's almost nightfall."
Eijun wiped an arm across his leaking eyes, and that was when he realized his cheeks were wet and his nose was clogged. Astonishment blanked his mind for a moment. His face was a mess of tears and snot, which he furiously tried to scrub away, burning with embarrassment from the neck up. It must have been a spectacularly bad dream this time. He couldn't quite remember. For once he didn't think it was about the village massacre, but there had been blood, and swords cleaving through the wind rather than bullets. A phantom touch lingered on his cheek and when he pulled his hand away he half-expected his fingers to be red with blood. He curled them tight so they'd stop trembling and took deep breaths.
Did… did Okumura wake me up because of the nightmare? No, no, no. No way. That brat isn't that nice. Besides, he kicked me!
Snuffling one last time, Eijun drew his legs up and tucked his chin over his knees. He didn't feel like going back to sleep after that, and it was almost time to be up anyway. Miyuki must have risen early, but he'd gone to bed early, too. It was probably better not to bother him. Last night's rejection still weighed on Eijun's spirit.
"Maybe I shouldn't have given him my blood," he mumbled, voice thick after crying, "since he hates drinking it so much."
Surprisingly, Okumura spoke up. "It was his own choice to drink it. Stop trying to claim responsibility for other people's actions. That goes for the village, too. You couldn't have done anything."
"That's completely different from what you said before! You were the one blaming me to begin with!"
"I said you were ignorant and naïve and foolish. I wasn't wrong about that." Okumura glared, but after a drawn-out pause the steel in his eyes wavered and his gaze slid elsewhere. He muttered out of the corner of his mouth, "But I was wrong about it being better to cooperate with humans."
Eijun snorted. "No, that part you got right. You just picked the wrong humans. I don't regret helping the Shinsengumi."
"They won't betray me!"
"Because they'll be dead." Okumura closed his eyes and tipped his head back, thudding softly against the wall. "I told you about the difference in strength at Koufu, and the imperial army gains more support by the day. The shogunate is done for. Their rasetsu shock troops are useless. I suppose I might as well tell you that your grandfather was with the Choshu for a while—that's how they learned about the rasetsu—but I don't know where he is now."
Eijun went rigid, the shock of the news sending a jolt straight to his heart. It had been so long since he'd heard anything about Gramps. "Did you see him? How was he? What did he say?"
Okumura shook his head. "I only heard from someone else. He was working on the ochimizu. They wanted…" His voice tightened and he gritted his teeth. "Why should I even tell you this?"
"Don't be stupid!" Eijun surged forward as if to leap across the room and grab the stubborn boy, restraining the impulse at the last minute. His knuckles pressed into the tatami and he growled. "Will it hurt to tell me? I won't interfere with your business, but if it has something to do with Gramps, I need to know!"
The look Okumura slanted at him was still wary, but he relented with a sigh and a murmured, "It concerns us both now I guess. What rotten luck. The ochimizu is truly a curse that never should have been made."
"I won't argue with you there! I definitely plan on giving Gramps an earful once I see him."
"You want him to make a cure, right? I want that as well. But don't misunderstand," Okumura's eyes narrowed, "I don't care about the humans. They're the ones who started these abominable experiments, so they can reap what they've sowed. I just want the cure for Taku." Anger crept back into his expression, seething around the edges. "We're not pureblood like you, and his lineage is even more diluted than mine, so they thought by drinking the ochimizu he could become more powerful. And maybe being an oni would lessen the side effects. It was just another experiment to them."
"What happened?" Eijun asked with a sinking feeling in his gut.
Okumura's lip curled. "What do you think? He got stronger like they wanted, at the usual price. The plan was for us to escape during the battle at Koufu, but you saw how that ended, and I don't know where Taku is now."
"I have an idea about that." The door suddenly slid open, revealing a slim figure still dusty from travel.
Eijun's mood lifted considerably at the sight of Wakana. "You're back!"
"And not a moment too soon by the sound of things," Wakana said dryly. "I have news and you'll need to act quickly after hearing it."
"The medicine?" Eijun inquired first.
"I had some prepared beforehand, fortunately, because there won't be time to make more. I gave what I had to Miyuki-san."
"Thank you. I owe you one." Where was Miyuki, anyway? He should be here if the news was that important.
"I've stopped keeping track of what you owe me." Wakana knelt on the floor, slipping her pack from her shoulders and nodding at Okumura. "It's been a while. I see you two are behaving."
Okumura skipped over the pleasantries. "What do you know about Taku's whereabouts?"
"Don't be rude to her!"
Wakana silenced Eijun with a raised hand. "Nothing specific, but I did discover where Grandfather was being kept. He was with the Choshu, as you said, but not anymore. Someone helped him escape two nights ago."
"Taku," Okumura guessed, relief gleaming in his eyes.
"Most likely. My bet is they're hiding right now since it's too dangerous for them to come looking for us. There's only one place I can think they might go."
The answer came to Eijun with unnerving certainty, welling up from his countless dreams. "Home," he said, and for a moment he could have sworn he smelled burning wood before the memory passed and his heart rate returned to normal. A queasy feeling in his stomach remained.
Okumura frowned, skeptical. "The humans could find them there."
"The shogunate has bigger problems right now," Wakana explained. "They don't have the men to spare to watch an abandoned village. Unless you told others where to find it, it should be safe enough for time being."
"I didn't tell anyone. It still seems risky… but I'll admit it's our only lead. All right, let's go check it out."
"Go?" Eijun repeated, looking back and forth between their expectant faces. Realization dawned slowly with mounting trepidation. "Wait, right now? But what about… Wakana, where's Miyuki?" He rose to his feet and threw open the door, but the room beyond was empty. The kitchen was dark. A pair of Western military boots was missing from the line of shoes in the genkan.
Wakana came to stand quietly behind him. "I had news for him as well. The commander of the Shinsengumi was caught and taken in for questioning. There will be a trial, and I heard the vice commander made efforts to request leniency… but who knows how the verdict will turn out. Miyuki-san left right away to join his comrades."
"That… that sneaky bastard! How dare he?! Without even saying a word!" Eijun whirled around and something rattled when thrust at his chest; his arms came up to reflexively take the sheathed sword that Wakana pushed on him. Eijun stared down at Daitsuren, then back up at her, a question hovering on the tip of his tongue.
She arched a brow. "I did say you'd have to hurry after hearing me out."
"…But… I can't just…" He clutched his sword, every instinct telling him to run out the door this instant. The trouble was he couldn't decide which way to go, who to chase after. Both were imperative. If Eijun could split himself in half, he would.
Wakana let out a sigh, shaking her head. Her wry expression turned soft and wistful. "You went against my advice for years to stay with the Shinsengumi, so if you don't see it through to the end I won't forgive you. Okumura and I will head to the village. We'll find Grandfather, don't worry. You just make sure to stay alive."
Eijun enveloped her in a grateful hug that lifted her off her feet, which she tolerated with a good-natured huff in his ear. "The same goes for you," he said, setting her down before she kicked him in the shins. "Stay safe. Keep that Okumura brat out of trouble."
"Good riddance," Okumura muttered loud enough to be heard. Eijun let him get away with the impertinent attitude just this once.
" Edo is going to fall to the imperial government. However, there's still some resistance in the north, so that's where the remaining Shinsengumi members are heading. You can catch up to Miyuki-san if you hurry."
Eijun ran as fast as he could through the dark streets, taking the most direct route possible. Imperial troops were everywhere and the first ones he passed shouted in alarm. Some of them chased after what they saw as a suspicious person who didn't stop when ordered, but Eijun outdistanced them easily. Afterwards, he tried to avoid the soldiers. The deepening cover of nightfall helped, and he rushed through narrow alleys with the turbulence of a stormy wind that died down as quickly as it had appeared.
His steps faltered when he came across a cluster of people on the road. It was late for decent folk to be loitering outside and they murmured amongst themselves, upset about something—but that was no concern of his. Eijun had to keep his priorities straight. He started to pass by only to stop in his tracks at the first copper whiff of blood.
He turned around and pushed his way through the crowd. He'd just take a look, just in case, Miyuki couldn't be far but he might have run into trouble, and maybe there was a clue to be found…
Eijun cried out when his anxious gaze landed on a bloody figure with white hair, but his next breath came on a wave of relief. He almost fell to his knees, catching himself in a stoop, and waited for his heart to calm down. The figure was someone he didn't recognize—though he was a rasetsu for sure—and the ground around him was wet with blood. Something about that was strange.
There was something odd about the man's clothes, too; they were ripped and stained over the heart where he'd been stabbed, and dirty from laying the ground, but they showed no other tears made by a sword. He'd been dispatched with a single thrust, and that didn't account for all the blood. There had been others, and they'd put up more of a fight. Where were they now?
Eijun straightened up and squirmed free of the crowd. Imperial soldiers would be here any minute. Scanning the area, he asked himself which way he would run if confronted with an enemy he couldn't defeat, and took off in that direction.
He knew he was going the right way when he caught the scent of blood here and there—droplets scattered on the ground or smeared on the side of a building—and the trail led him up a flight of stairs to a shrine on the summit of a hill. Passing under a torii, he halted as a spray of crimson flew upwards and a body dropped to the ground.
Miyuki stood over the corpse, sword dripping. His eyes were red, glowing streaks as he spun, blade slicing to take off an opponent's arm in mid-swing. The enemy rasetsu howled. His sanity had fled and he paid the raw stump of his arm no mind, lurching forward only to lose his balance and fall, snarling and scrabbling at the blood-splashed pavestones. Miyuki's sword rose to administer the final blow.
Before he could bring the blade down, the rasetsu's animal cries choked off. The body convulsed. Miyuki took a wary step backward but all the rasetsu did was stiffen, fingers scratching at the ground with force that should have cracked and broken off nails, but what broke away was more like crumbling dust. The rasetsu's skin darkened and dulled to the color of charcoal, and became ash as more of the body disintegrated. Clothes sunk inward as the flesh underneath collapsed. Gleaming red eyes faded and turned to old rust, and then those, too, desiccated until nothing but a pile of dust remained where the rasetsu had been.
Eijun's throat had dried up and he couldn't find his voice. He was barely aware of putting one foot in front of the other to come and stand by Miyuki in shocked silence, both of them staring down at the pile. The night breeze stirred the empty clothes and scattered loose grains.
Just as his senses began to clear and the blankness lifted from his mind, Eijun heard a voice scoff imperiously at his back: "Here you are, finally."
The other oni wore an impatient scowl as he strode forward. His hands were empty and he made no move to draw his sword, but Harada was with him as always, so if a fight broke out things could get ugly. Mei didn't look angry this time, though. Just irritated. He sniffed disdainfully at the first rasetsu corpse, and when his glance fell on the second one—or what was left of it—he merely curled his lip.
"What's going on?" Eijun finally asked, not caring how helpless and lost he sounded. He pointed at the remains with a shaking finger. "That… how…"
Miyuki was the one who answered, disconcertingly matter-of-fact as he went through the motions of wiping his blade clean. "He used up his powers until there was nothing left."
"I guess it takes one to know," Mei said with a curling, cat-like smile.
"Planning to kill me? I still owe you for Ikeda, so if you want to fight I'm happy to oblige."
Mei laid a hand on his sword. "Well, when you put it that way…"
"Absolutely not!" Eijun put himself between them. "Miyuki, don't goad him, you idiot! And Mei, what do you want? Spit it out!"
Miyuki snorted quietly while Mei's attention narrowed on Eijun, grinning with a flash of teeth. "Oh-ho. You have a lot of nerve, speaking that way to me."
"I've always spoken this way to you!"
"Enough," said Harada, long-suffering. "Mei, we shouldn't stay longer than necessary."
"Hmph. I suppose that's true. Well then, come here, I've something to tell you." Mei lifted a hand and beckoned ¬arrogantly.
Eijun clenched his jaw and refused to move until Miyuki nudged him and muttered, "See what he wants. If you take too long I'm going on ahead, I've wasted enough time as it is."
"You're not leaving me behind," Eijun hissed back, leveling a glare on him that promised a good scolding later. Reluctantly, he went to talk to Mei. "What is it?"
"I already regret going out of my way for this, but for your information our debt to the Satsuma has been paid. Harada and I are leaving this wretched place and we'll have nothing to do with human affairs in the future. As clan head I'll make sure of it."
"Oh. Well. That's…" …good, he was about to say, when the fate of the Sawamura clan flashed through his mind. They had become a cautionary tale. Paling, Eijun shook his head. "No, Mei, you can't!"
"Oi, don't get me wrong!" The words were for Eijun, but the anger blazing up in Mei's expression was directed elsewhere. He glared into the distance—towards the dark silhouette of Edo Castle, its tiered rooftops illuminated by moonlight. The shogun may no longer be in charge of the country, but the impressive structure had been the seat of the Tokugawa's military power for hundreds of years. "I'm perfectly aware of the tragedy that befell your clan and I won't risk my people because of my foolish pride. I know we're vulnerable, that's why we're going to move. As much as I hate to abandon our ancestral homeland, this mess has made me realize leaving is better than being threatened and used."
"…Yeah." Eijun looked away, conceding quietly. Not all humans were bad, but the servitude the oni were forced into and the ochimizu experiments went too far. "That's probably for the best. But is there anywhere left that you can go? The country's more crowded than it used to be."
"Have you been away from your own kind for so long you've forgotten your history? There's one village that stayed hidden and can be protected from humans."
Eijun's eyes widened in understanding. "Yase?" Long ago, when the oni clans had been joined together in an alliance, Yase was where the clan chieftains gathered. It was a sacred place governed by the descendant of Suzuka Gozen, whose wisdom and prophetic powers warded the village from outsiders. "But… the Yase clan is no more. You might be able to hide there for a while, but sooner or later you'll be discovered."
Not to mention it didn't feel right, settling in the place their clans had already forsaken. During the age of chaos when war engulfed the country, the princess of Yase cautioned the oni to stay uninvolved, but they didn't listen and one by one pledged themselves to neighboring daimyo, fighting in human wars. Some did it only to protect their people, others were motivated by friendship or greed, but the result was the same for everyone in the end. The alliance broke apart until only the Yase clan remained unaffiliated. They were saved from being bound to the humans later on, but without support they were a small clan, and when the princess died there was no heir to succeed her. The oni of Yase soon disappeared.
"You really have forgotten." Mei folded his arms and looked down his nose at Eijun—he always managed to do that despite being shorter. "The Yase line may have been mostly daughters, but occasionally they had sons, and since the boys couldn't inherit they were sometimes married off to other clans. You're descended from one of them, you idiot."
…What? "This is the first time I've heard such a thing!"
"Liar. I bet you forgot. Or you didn't pay attention to your lessons. Why else would the Sawamura clan be entrusted with Suzuka Gozen's swords?"
Eijun placed a protective hand over Daitsuren and gave Mei's words some thought. What he said made sense, and he was too much of a snob about bloodlines to lie when it came to heritage. He must be telling the truth. "Well… okay… but even so! I don't have the kind of ability a true Yase heir would have."
"I'm not depending solely on your watered-down blood," Mei scoffed. "But you have two of the three swords—don't growl at me like that, I'm not going to steal them. Kenmyoren belongs to the Todoroki clan, and if there's a way to revive the wards around Yase village, they've agreed to help."
"Old Man Todoroki really said that?" The Todoroki clan was nomadic; they'd visited Eijun's village once when he was young and from what he knew they weren't interested in settling down anywhere. It was easier to avoid being cornered by humans that way.
"They're running out of places to roam. So will you join us or not? Surely you don't plan to live the rest of your life among human vermin."
Eijun was sorely tempted to turn him down out of spite, just for that last comment, but his tight grip on Daitsuren reminded him that this wasn't a decision to make on childish impulse. If Mei could set his ego aside and put his people's safety first, Eijun could do no less. "I'll do it," he said, thinking of Gramps and Wakana and Okumura. They'd be safer at Yase village than hiding in the ruined remains of their home. "But how I choose to live is none of your damn business."
Mei glanced past Eijun in flat disapproval and tipped his chin in Miyuki's direction. He didn't bother trying to lower his voice when he said, "You know the only reason I'm not hunting down the rasetsu is because they'll die on their own anyway. The Shinsengumi won't survive this war. Waste your time with them if you want, but remember what you've promised and don't get your fool self killed."
"I wouldn't die even without you telling me!"
"Then we're done here. In my infinite generosity, I already informed your retainer and her tagalong brat about this, no need to thank me." Mei turned to go, and Harada followed behind him after giving Eijun a polite nod of thanks. They paused at the top of the stairs, framed in the arch of the torii. "I'll have my clan relocated to Yase by the end of the summer," Mei said in terse parting. "Don't make me wait."
Once they were gone, Eijun groaned aloud. "I really can't stand that guy. And you!" He spun on Miyuki, whose features were set in an expressionless mask. "You tried to leave me behind!"
"I did," he said, offering neither an apology nor a justification. He brushed past Eijun and kept going without pause. "Do whatever you want, Sawamura. If you're coming, then hurry up."
"Of course I'm coming!"
When they left the shrine, they left behind a strange corpse and an even stranger pile of dusty clothes. Neither of them talked about what they'd seen happen. With the way Miyuki was acting, Eijun was afraid to ask.
The journey north was rife with danger as they avoided the imperial pursuers who were after the Shinsengumi—though they weren't officially the Shinsengumi anymore. The remaining members were few, and they were joined by men of non-samurai classes, but Yuuki was the one leading them. According to the trail of news, they were able to win a small chain of victories in the Hitachi province.
Miyuki's fervor to catch up didn't lessen. Even Eijun thought he was being reckless when he insisted on traveling during the day. The season was warming and direct noonday sun made him ill; after having to slow down because of heat stroke symptoms he at last agreed to only move during the early morning and evening.
"You're pushing yourself too hard," Eijun muttered under his breath, keeping vigil over Miyuki's restless sleep. Sunlight glinted through the trees but the day would be dimming soon. They didn't dare stay at any inns, and thankfully the weather had been mostly fair. "Look at you, you only just got healthy again and now you're running yourself ragged. What a waste."
He touched his hand to Miyuki's brow and found it slightly warm. Checking the position of the sun, Eijun settled back to wait a while before waking him up. It would be nice if Miyuki slept until nightfall. He'd be mad about the late start, but Eijun could handle him being angry better than him being sick.
Plus, the sun wasn't the only thing they had to worry about.
They were running low on the medicine to treat the bloodlust, and Miyuki staunchly refused to drink from Eijun. He had the awful suspicion the episodes were becoming more frequent, too. The medicine had only been a stopgap measure to begin with, but who knew when they could get hold of more?
"I wonder if Wakana has found Gramps yet…"
"Why didn't you go with her?"
So much for letting Miyuki sleep until nightfall. He wasn't moving to get up, though, and had slung an arm over his eyes to shield them against the slivers of light piercing through the trees.
Eijun leaned over, blocking out the sun with his body. His shadow might only offer a miniscule amount of relief, but short of controlling the weather it was all he could do to help. "No matter how many times you ask or try to convince me otherwise, my answer will be the same. I want to be with you."
"I don't know how you aren't tired of me, honestly." The crooked smile that hung from Miyuki's lips was brittle and wan. "You have such bad taste."
"So what?" Eijun pulled on Miyuki's arm, drawing it away so their gazes could meet. "I made my peace with your rotten personality years ago! It's not like you don't have any good qualities either. You…" He ignored the spots of heat burning in his own cheeks to take Miyuki's face in his hands, ensuring he had Miyuki's undivided attention. There could be no room for doubt. "Loving you isn't a burden. And whatever you don't love about yourself, I can easily carry. I'm pretty strong, you know? Just accept it already! Stubborn tanuki."
The mild warmth under Eijun's hands grew hotter until Miyuki was flushed to match. His bare-faced surprise made an ache throb in Eijun's chest.
Hesitant, Miyuki reached up. His eyes were still wide, and with an exposed, vulnerable expression, his fingers wound around Eijun's wrists. The careful touch gave no indication of wanting to break free. He simply held on, thumbs brushing over the delicate tracery of bones and veins. Each feather-light stroke carried volumes of meaning.
Miyuki was a difficult person, it was true. He was secretive and tried to do everything by himself. He spoke too little about his own feelings. He kept the people who cared about him at arm's length.
But he was merciful when he didn't have to be. He was compassionate when it would have been easier to be completely ruthless. He looked out for others. He gave and gave without a word of complaint, and without expecting anything in return. Eijun couldn't help but chase after him. There wasn't anything difficult about that at all.
"You're far more stubborn than I am," Miyuki said at last. He closed his eyes and a soft, surrendering smile came to rest on his features, the sight of which lit something warm and precious in Eijun's heart.
But the fragile moment came to a shattering end. It broke in the space between heartbeats when Miyuki's grip suddenly tightened, only to release just as fast. He jerked away from Eijun, rolling onto his side while a shudder worked through his body, and each breath he pulled in was harsher and shallower than the previous.
Eijun wasted no time, snatching up their meager supplies to locate the medicine packets. There were only a few left, but—
"Don't," Miyuki gasped, and covered his mouth to cough. "This isn't…"
"If you won't take blood you at least need to take the medicine!"
"That's not it." A wet, hacking sound clawed up Miyuki's throat, and red seeped from between his fingers. It dribbled down his wrist, and when he pulled his hand away the blood was bright and garish against his mouth, staining his chin. Panting, he stared at his palm without emotion before wiping it dully on the grass.
"…no…" The denial was faint, barely a whisper. Eijun sat frozen in horror at the sight of an enemy that had come out of the past to loom despairingly over the future. "But your illness was supposed to be cured…"
Miyuki dragged his sleeve over his mouth. "Turns out there are some things the ochimizu can't fix."
"You knew. Of—of course you knew, and didn't say anything. That's so typical." Eijun clamped his mouth shut when hysterical laughter threatened to spill out. Lips pressed firmly together, he uncorked a bamboo flask and handed it to Miyuki so he could rinse the taste away. It would be bad if the bloodlust was triggered for real.
"I could tell, after a while. It's not as bad as it was before. I guess we'll see what gets me first, the consumption or—" Crying out, Eijun put a stop to that line of thought and threw himself at Miyuki, clutching him tight and desperate. He shook in outrage—it had to be outrage, because it was better to be angry than scared. Miyuki reached for Eijun's arms but didn't try to loosen them. "I'm joking, Sawamura. Really, I'm…" His voice trailed off on a lost, thinning note. He sucked in a breath and held it, trembling, hands grasping Eijun with helpless force. "For what it's worth, I'm not hiding anything else. That's it. Can't get any worse."
"Don't say that, it's bad luck!" The words pushed out of a throat that was thick with emotion. Eijun's face was quickly becoming a mess, tears tracking down his cheeks to drip on Miyuki's shoulder, but Eijun's arms were too occupied to do anything about it. They were the only part of him Miyuki was holding onto, but he held on like Eijun was his only lifeline above an abyss.
"Are you still… okay with…" Miyuki's grip squeezed and he ducked his head, confessing close to Eijun's ear. "I don't know what will happen tomorrow. Despite everything, this illness hasn't gone away. Ironic, isn't it? After drinking the ochimizu and all…"
He didn't sound like himself. The words kept leaking out, and he didn't say he was fine. He didn't tell Eijun not to worry. He'd been holding back too much for too long. "I'm a rasetsu that needs to drink blood like a monster if I don't want to go mad, and I could—I could just die, without warning, at any time. You saw what happened. Chris and everyone else, they could already be dead for all I know. What Mei and Okumura said is true, there's no future left for us—for me. I was never afraid of dying before, but now… somehow… I don't want to abandon you. I don't want that most of all."
Daylight was starting to fade and the sun's slanting beams filled the gaps between the trees with a hazy golden glow. At the same time, the shadows on the forest floor lengthened. Eijun blinked the blur of tears from his eyes and turned his face upwards to cease their spill. Leaves rustled overhead as a cool breeze skimmed through countless branches, and the ends of Miyuki's hair tickled against Eijun's damp cheek.
"It's not abandoning if you fight until the end," he said in a choked, determined voice. "And when you struggle, I'll be here to support you. That won't change whether you die tomorrow or live a hundred years. So like I said before, just accept the fact that I'll stay by your side. You don't have to worry about me, I'm the type that wouldn't die even if you killed me."
A watery chuckle slipped free between Miyuki's labored breaths. "It's strange," he whispered against the side of Eijun's neck. "You say the most ridiculous things and I find myself believing you."
"What's not to believe? I've never lied!"
"Yeah. You're stupidly honest." Miyuki shifted in Eijun's arms, reaching around him to fully return the embrace. When his hands were pressed warm and solid over Eijun's back Miyuki relaxed at once while letting out small, relieved sigh. "Then… in that case… please stay."
Eijun laid a hand over the back of Miyuki's neck and pressed a cheek to his hair. "I will," he promised.
They'd been lucky to travel for so long undetected, but eventually that luck ran out. The imperial army came across them during one of their daytime rests and Eijun was on his feet in a flash, sword in hand, to confront the small patrol unit. He didn't hesitate to cut them down. He and Miyuki probably could have escaped, but not without the sun taking its toll. Better to end the matter quickly than let Miyuki overexert himself.
Or so Eijun had hoped.
The men were well-armed and Eijun took a bullet in the chest—it staggered him for a second and cut his breathing short as he lost air, an unpleasant wetness filling his lungs (he really hated when that happened)—but the injury was nothing he couldn't shake off. He kept fighting, and when the soldiers saw that the shot barely slowed him down, one of them shouted, "Load the silver bullets!"
Eijun's eyes flew wide. That changed the situation entirely. No way was he letting Miyuki get shot full of silver again.
"More coming," Miyuki grunted, thrusting forward with his blade to pierce through the resistance of flesh and muscle. The body impaled on his sword convulsed before going limp. A single strike was all it took; he was as technically proficient as ever. He was also right, there were more enemies approaching, drawn to the sounds of battle. They needed to flee while there was still an opening.
The crack of gunshots exploded in the air while they ran, bullets thudding in nearby trees and shredding pieces of bark. In the daytime they had little chance of losing their pursuers, whose numbers made up for their comparative lack of power. At least a dozen soldiers chased after them. The men spread out, trying to flank their targets.
Eijun gritted his teeth. As things stood now, their only chance was to try and break through the enemy. It was big risk against opponents armed with silver, but there was no other choice. Miyuki knew that as well, and he was the first to stop and turn around, sword brandished.
"Looks like we'll have to fight after all."
"Be careful! Stay back if you can!"
"I'm not like you." Miyuki gave the bloodstained hole in Eijun's clothes a pointed look. "I'm not in the habit of letting myself get shot. Just watch my back, that's all the help I'll need."
Eijun looked him over with a critical eye. His face was pale and he was sweating already, but his concentration was razor-keen, his grip steady on the hilt of his sword. Bad odds were nothing new to Miyuki. He was honed to meet whatever came at him.
Grinning in spite of the situation, Eijun took his position guarding Miyuki's back. "An impressive man like always! That's the Shinsengumi's 1st Division Captain for you."
The imperial soldiers were near now, armed with swords and the latest imported rifles. Fighting defensively wasn't Eijun's style—and it wasn't Miyuki's, either. Shots fired but missed their mark, and Miyuki closed in on them with his sword sweeping to cut open a man straight across the middle. The long rifle barrels became cumbersome at this range and out came the swords instead. Steel struck on steel, but a push of rasetsu-level strength overwhelmed the opponent who met his end with a deep gash carved from shoulder to waist.
Eijun swung Daitsuren one-handed to dispatch a soldier, and with the other he grasped the barrel of a rifle to push it aside right before it fired. His palm burned where he touched the heated metal, scorched flesh aching as he curled it into a fist, and then he slugged the gunman square across the jaw.
The air stank of blood and hot metal, and bitter smoke stung Eijun's eyes. He moved on instinct to avoid the slash of a blade, following with a counterattack that was repelled, the enemy circling him warily. Behind, he could hear a dying gurgle as another body fell, and then the repeated clanging of swords. Almost half of the soldiers were taken out, but more were coming. If they didn't finish this quickly it would be endless.
The enemy in front of Eijun made a move, but it wasn't to attack. He staggered as if hit and Eijun took advantage of the opening. When the body dropped down dead there was a thin-bladed shuriken embedded in the man's back.
More shuriken suddenly whizzed through the air, taking their targets by surprise and distracting them long enough to be easily finished. "Better hurry," said a light, amused voice hidden in the leafy cover of the trees. "And you're welcome."
A relieved smile spread across Miyuki's face, easing away some of the exhaustion. "Thanks for the help, Ryou-san."
Ryousuke dropped down to run alongside them, smirking faintly. "You were taking so long we thought you'd never find us. Bets were placed. The vice commander lost money because of you."
"Ah, geez… Tetsu-san doesn't have any sense for that kind of thing."
"Indeed. I believe Chris wins this round."
Miyuki chuckled and his smile widened. "That's hardly a shock. If you guys have time to throw away your money, the situation must not be too dire."
"That doesn't mean things are good," Ryousuke warned. "We took Utsunomiya a few days ago and were able to resupply there, but even after joining with another force we were unsuccessful in capturing Mibu. We're holding up in Utsunomiya Castle for now, but it's only a matter of time—"
A short burst of gunfire ripped through the forest and Eijun's arm was clipped by a lucky shot. He whirled around, mouth agape. They've gotten this close already!? The range and accuracy of the enemy rifles was mostly to blame, but at least the trees made wide volleys impossible. "Miyuki…!"
"I'm fine," he replied in a grim tone. "But…"
Ryousuke leaned against a tree trunk with a hand pressed to his side. "How troublesome," he said, his smile tight and fixed on his sharp-featured face. "You two go on ahead, I'll—"
Eijun didn't wait for him to finish, picking him up tossing him over his shoulder. "We're definitely not leaving you behind!"
A balled-up fist knocked him across the head, but Eijun kept on running. Miyuki made a "pfft" sound by his side, hand clapped over his mouth and looking away while Ryousuke's voice floated ominously. "You've gotten awfully cheeky, haven't you?"
"I will hear all your complaints and take any punishment once we've safely reached the others!"
"This will only slow you down. You'll have a better chance if I buy you some time."
Eijun shook his head and his grip tightened. He'd never be able to face Haruichi if he left his brother to die. "Don't underestimate an oni! I can carry you both if I have to!"
"No thanks," Miyuki said immediately. The strain of keeping up showed on his face, but his gaze was bright and clear, his lips tilted in a sideways smile. "Don't worry about me. Let's get to Utsunomiya as fast as we can."
"All right. Hold on, Onii-san!"
"When we get there," Ryousuke said in the careful, deliberate tone he used when he had a blade to someone's neck, "you had better be prepared, Sawamura."
The waxing moon hanging above Utsunomiya shed paltry light upon the castle, and to Kazuya's eye the land beyond the surrounding town was much darker—downright impenetrable. The imperial army was out there somewhere, but the main force had likely stopped to rest for the night. However, that wouldn't apply to rasetsu soldiers, and Chris had their own rasetsu unit standing guard and patrolling the perimeter. The rest of their men weren't sleeping easy; they were instead busy preparing to march north to Aizu by dawn.
On the run again, huh? True, there were allies to be found among the northern domains, so it was better to join up with them than waste effort by making a stand here. Utsunomiya's defenses wouldn't last in a siege and no one was eager to die pointlessly.
"'It's not abandoning if you fight until the end,' right?" The night breeze blew in through the open window of the guard tower, and Kazuya gazed down at the moon's reflection upon the still waters of the castle moat. He had no intention of giving up. He'd come all the way here to help fight with the time he had left—that was why he drank the ochimizu in the first place. His resolve remained firm thanks to Sawamura.
So why did Kazuya's heart still feel terribly heavy?
Guilt was part of it—there were some things he just couldn't unload on someone else—but somehow the thought of dragging Sawamura into his cursed life didn't bother Kazuya so much anymore. On the contrary, having Sawamura by his side, being his generously loud, generously big-hearted self, was a relief.
I wonder if Ryou-san is lecturing him right now. Enough time had passed for his wound to have been seen to, and wouldn't that be an interesting conversation to listen in on. Ryousuke wouldn't mince any words, that was a given, but he wasn't too proud either. Sawamura had single-handedly saved his life. If it had been up to Kazuya in that same situation, he wasn't sure he'd have done the same.
It was good to have even one more comrade still among the living. The people Kazuya knew and had grown up with were disappearing one by one.
Commander Kataoka was dead. They'd heard the news upon arriving in Utsunomiya. He'd stayed behind to allow his men to escape, knowing he'd be caught, and though petitions were made to pardon him and spare his life, none of those efforts were successful. His execution had been witnessed and confirmed. Tetsu was the sole leader of the remaining Shinsengumi members now.
Kazuya placed a hand over the ache in his chest and snorted quietly. He was wasting time examining his feelings because it wasn't like he had much to be happy about these days. Nebulous guilt aside, he came here to fight, not for the decrepit remains of the shogunate, but for…
For the Shinsengumi, he supposed, although the force itself had been more of a job than a cause. For his comrades, maybe. For the debt he owed to those who had taken him in and taught him how to fight to survive. That was worth dying for, wasn't it?
"I want to be with you."
Ah… Kazuya's eyes widened slightly. His heart thumped behind his ribs, insistent. So that's it. Sawamura isn't whom I feel guilty towards.
His fingers tightened in the cloth of his uniform jacket, and a short, dry chuckle passed his lips. "What the hell is wrong with me?"
"Is that a rhetorical question?" The stairs of the tower creaked as someone climbed them.
"Chris," Kazuya greeted, both pleased and abashed when the other man joined him by the window. This was their first chance to talk in a long while. "How does it feel to be miraculously resurrected? I wish I could have seen everyone's faces."
A smile touched Chris' mouth. His complexion was much paler than Kazuya remembered, especially in the ghostly moonlight, but his counsel and leadership were as sound as ever. It was no surprise that his presence was well-received despite having been officially declared dead years ago. "Desperate times call for desperate measures. I'm glad it boosted morale rather than the opposite."
"We live in a world with oni and berserk, blood-drinking monstrosities—and who knows what else? People can get used to anything."
"That's true. I heard from Sawamura what you two went through to get here. How are you feeling?"
That guy, tattling to Chris right away… Kazuya relaxed his expression and leaned against the side of the window. "I've rested a bit, so there's no need to worry."
"That's good," Chris said, "but not precisely the answer to what I asked."
A soft, nostalgia-tinted laugh welled up from within. "You're merciless. That hasn't changed since you came to the dojo and beat me in a challenge." Kazuya turned his face to the shrouded scenery outside. It hadn't been easy getting here. Hiking through the wilderness didn't suit him, first of all, but Sawamura was quite used to it. "I guess I'm hanging in there. And I'm grateful for… you know… that is, I…"
"I understand. Quite well, in fact." Chris drew in a deep, deep breath, and let it out. Somberly, he confided, "I don't have much time remaining. I know Sawamura wants to find a cure, but I'm going to fight as much as I can while I'm able. I'm sure you want to do the same."
"Yes," Kazuya whispered. The ache in his chest sharpened and he swallowed what felt like a thousand needles when he pressed out, "But I can't."
"I know you can," Chris said easily. "You're not someone who gives up a fight. But you can choose your battles. Mine will be on the road north, but yours don't have to be, and there's nothing wrong with that. If you've found something more important to fight for, I'm glad for you."
For a while Kazuya didn't—couldn't—say anything. He wiped under his eyes with the heel of his hand and blinked up at the multitude of twinkling lights in the sky. The white face of the moon mocked him, but he didn't turn his gaze away from it.
He wasn't abandoning anyone, or being abandoned. He was simply going down a separate path. Please stay, he'd asked Sawamura, but what Kazuya really meant was, I want to be with you, too, wherever that may lead.
The sigh Kazuya released was swept up into the night air, taking away the burden that had been weighing in his chest, and he stood a little straighter. He stepped away from the moonlit window and saw clearly despite the shadows of the tower. "I should go talk to Tetsu-san, though he must be busy."
"I think you'll find that he always has time for you. He won't be very surprised, either."
"Everyone's so eager to get rid of me," Kazuya joked. It gave him a pang to say the words aloud, scratching at an old wound, but the scar wasn't as deep as he remembered.
Chris sent him a chastising look, and the expression was so familiar Kazuya couldn't help but smile. He thought back to the days before the war, before the Shinsengumi, when they were all nothing but lively, reckless youths with big dreams, gathered under Seidou's roof. Since then, Furuya had grown from a promising student into a peerless warrior. Kuramochi, once a scrappy kid with a short fuse, had become one of the most dependable and loyal friends one could ask for (though he still had that short fuse). Kazuya was fortunate to have been raised alongside such people. Seidou had taught him how to fight and survive, but it had also taught him how to live.
"Thank you," Kazuya said, bowing his head. "Thank you for everything up until now. I would have been honored to fight alongside you at the end, but just this once, I'm going to be selfish. Thank you for understanding."
"The fact that you can say those words so earnestly puts me at ease. I wish you luck, both you and Sawamura. If anyone can undo the rasetsu's curse, you two can."
Kazuya lifted his face with a grin. "Yeah," he agreed. "We're both pretty stubborn, so we'll find a way somehow. I'll be trying my best, so you should, too."
Chris nodded once, smiling. He looked more like his old self than he had in years. "It's a promise."
Chapter 9: Moonlight
Should the world of love
End in darkness,
Without our glimpsing
Where the moon's light fills the sky?
– Ono no Komachi
Eijun's eyes were open wide but shadows eclipsed his vision. He was swimming in darkness. He couldn't hear anything but his own heartbeat pounding away inside his chest, and he curled around the sound, cradling it within his body. Hugging his legs, his back pressed against a rough, bumpy wall. The ground underneath him was cold and hard, bare toes scrunching over packed dirt. Amidst the musty smells of earth and wood, the delicate fragrance of cherry blossoms wafted through the air.
Whispered talk in his village said that the thunderstruck, hollowed-out cherry tree housed a lingering spirit—and not just any spirit, but the sorrowful, doomed princess of Yase. Her words had gone unheeded by the proud oni clans, and in the end they each submitted themselves to human whim and war. Regret haunted the princess to the end of her life, and unable to pass on to the other world, her spirit rode on a bolt of lightning back down to earth where she became anchored to the tree. There, she continued to warn her people about the disasters that awaited them in the future.
Or so the rumors went. Villagers claimed they saw her ghost, sometimes ghastly but other times beautiful, always a young woman whose tragic life had been too brief. Some came away bemoaning the terrible misfortunes that would befall them, yet others saw only good things. People went to the tree with questions and prayers, troubles and confessions, and regardless of whether the princess' spirit really was lingering in the aged wood, the cherry tree was revered by the entire village.
Eijun huddled inside the hollow of the trunk, vigilant for any sign of an otherworldly presence. Dreaming inside the tree was supposed to be a tradition, but with the tight fit, the chill of early spring seeping through the thin layer of his clothes, and the claustrophobic darkness pressing in all around, he wasn't sure he'd be getting any sleep.
Ba-dump, ba-dump, ba-dump went his heart, filling his ears with a rhythm that was becoming too loud for his body to contain. He squeezed himself into a tighter ball and kept his chin propped on his knees, staring defiantly into the myriad of shadows that lurked beyond the opening just big enough for a child to crawl through. The bark was blackened but the tree still lived, its twisting, skeletal arms flowering beautifully every year. A miracle thanks to the princess, perhaps.
He must have closed his eyes at some point, because when he opened them again the darkness was pierced through by moonlight mirrored on the blade of a sword. It drew a silver arc through the air as it slashed down. The tree was gone and Eijun was standing—no, he was running through familiar scenery, past the shells of abandoned houses, while the wind stole the breath from his lungs. His chest contracted and his heart felt like it was being crushed. There was a terrible, wet split of a sound, and Eijun lost sight of everything but the figure in front of him as it fell.
He woke with a hoarse sob, lying on his back under the shade of a wisteria tree. Long, flowering tendrils swayed back and forth while pale dusk light filtered through the branches far above him. Eijun pressed both hands over his face, covering his streaming eyes, and gulped in deep, shuddering breaths of air.
"Sawamura?" Miyuki's sleep-heavy voice made Eijun lock up. Then he started to wipe at his face vigorously, but before he could finish a hand caught one of his wrists, pulling it away. Frowning in concern, Miyuki touched his damp cheek. "Are you all right?"
"Sawamura." The hand that cradled his face was slick with blood. Eijun held it in place against his skin, gripping the fingers tight, unable to form words. His tears wouldn't stop. "You see?" Miyuki said, the corners of his blood-stained mouth lifting ever so slightly. "This is what I was afraid of the most. I don't want to leave you. That's why…"
Eijun jerked away from the touch. "I—I'm fine!" The grass was reassuringly dry under his palms, flattening under him as he scrambled to sit up. Not a blood-soaked patch in sight. He hastily finished cleaning his face. "Just another nightmare… I'm sorry for waking you."
"Sorry, Sawamura. I'm sorry."
Eijun squeezed his eyes shut.
"It's fine, the sun's going down anyway. We must be getting close. …Hey, come here."
The brush of Miyuki's fingers returned, this time trailing along the back of Eijun's head. His eyes popped open. "What are you…?"
Miyuki held up a curved petal, lavender with a soft white center. "You had this in your hair." His lips were quirked in a half smile and he let the petal flutter away. Then, with a tiny bit of hesitation, his fingers stroked through Eijun's hair again.
"There's more?" Eijun started to lift his own hands to help.
"Ah, no. I was just—never mind. Sorry."
"What are you apologizing for—oh." The pink tint dusting across Miyuki's cheeks as he turned away finally clued Eijun in. He blushed as well, but the warmth was pleasant and welcoming since it chased away the lingering shivers of his dream. "You don't need an excuse or anything, you know! Come on, don't be shy!"
"Who's shy?!" Miyuki crossed his arms and continued to avert his gaze. "Forget it, the mood is gone, and we should be going soon."
Before he could move Eijun rearranged himself and plunked his head down in Miyuki's lap, declaring, "Not yet! I wanna stay like this for a while. Just for a bit. …If that's okay." He curled on his side, cheek burning where it pressed on top of Miyuki's thigh.
"You…" Miyuki tensed up and he sounded at a loss. It wasn't that strange, was it? Maybe he hated this sort of thing. He wasn't overt with his displays of affection, few that they were, but he would throw an arm around Eijun's shoulders or ruffle his hair once in a while. Eventually, he let out a sigh and relaxed. "All right. If you insist."
Their journey was taking them deep into the mountains, and they were far enough from the roads that there was little chance of imperial troops stumbling across them. The war was being waged in the opposite direction Eijun and Miyuki were headed. If they were lucky, there were no leftover shogunate forces in the area either, and Wakana and Gramps were safe in the village. Okumura and his friend, too.
Eijun would soon see his former home again for the first time in ten years. It probably looked much the same as it did in his dreams.
"Are you worried?" Miyuki's fingers were back, sifting lightly through the rumpled mess of Eijun's hair. The skimming touches across his scalp put a flutter in the pit of his belly. "You haven't been sleeping well the past few days."
"Mm." He supposed it would be hypocritical to insist everything was fine. Reluctantly, Eijun admitted, "I have a bad feeling about going back. I don't think we should stay long. We'll meet everyone and then leave for Yase village… but are you sure you're okay with coming?"
"I said I was, didn't I?"
"You say a lot of things," Eijun pointed out.
Miyuki traced the curve of Eijun's ear, idly, provoking a hot quiver of a response that almost distracted Eijun from what Miyuki said next. "Well, I meant it. I've decided to do all I can to live with you."
The word "live" struck a bell in Eijun that rang and rang. The sound of it captured his focus. He rolled over to look Miyuki in the eye and found nothing hidden in his gaze, no sideways humor tucking a secret out of sight. No sadness smothered under layers of nonchalance. There was just a self-conscious honesty, vulnerable to be caught in the open, yet faintly challenging as if taking pride in the fact, and Miyuki endured the scrutiny until Eijun was satisfied.
Twilight made the world softer, framing Miyuki in a glow that seemed lit from within. He smiled, a little awkward, and the hand that came to rest against Eijun's face gave him something to lean into. "Yeah. I promise."
They stayed like that until nightfall. When they finally stepped out from under the curtain of blooming flowers, an open sky spread above them, brimming with stars. A round, bright moon nestled between mountain peaks in the distance, lighting their way. It was a familiar view.
"Not much further," Eijun said, the remnants of his foreboding shoved away into dark spaces were they belonged. He fingered the silk wrapping of Daitsuren's hilt, finding the threads worn and in need of replacement. Old as the sword was, and considering how much practical use it got, most of its parts had been replaced throughout the years of its long history. Only the blade itself remained original, and it required remarkably little maintenance. The edge never dulled or rusted—as expected of Suzuka Gozen's legendary sword.
Mei could be right about the three swords together restoring the wards around Yase village. Humans wouldn't be able to enter, and the oni would be safe as long as they stayed within the boundary, isolated from whatever happened in the world outside. It was a good solution. It was the best way they could protect themselves.
And it would be a little lonely.
"Do you think," Eijun began, his gaze tugged eastward where the Shinsengumi were still fighting, still standing firm before the overwhelming march of history in the making. "That maybe, one day, humans and oni could live side by side? …I guess it's not likely."
"No, it's not," Miyuki agreed, facing in the same direction with quiet reverence. This—his regard for the comrades he'd separated from—was something Eijun could only understand in part. Eijun missed everyone with the heartsore desperation of watching the last bright sparks of a fire go out, but even that must have paled in comparison to what Miyuki felt. And still he'd chosen to come with Eijun in the end. "But," Miyuki added, placing a hand on Eijun's shoulder, "that doesn't mean it's impossible. I'm here with you right now, aren't I? Maybe I'm not entirely human anymore—"
The comfort of his words was cut cruelly short when a spasm rocked through him, his fingers digging into the blade of Eijun's shoulder. He pushed Eijun away, but only at arm's length, his grip holding tight with bruising contradiction. A pained grimace crawled across Miyuki's features. "Sorry," he ground out through clenched teeth. "Always—inconvenient—"
"Is there any medicine left?"
Miyuki shook his head. Moonlight soaked his hair white, the short ends swaying as he staggered on his feet. His breath came in rapid, shallow drafts, and his eyes were squeezed shut, but they pried open—luminous, crimson slits—to locate the clink of a sword sliding free of its scabbard.
"I know you hate it," Eijun said roughly as he drew Daitsuren's sharp, sharp edge across his palm. He sliced deep to allow the blood to well up and flood his cupped fingers before the wound sealed itself closed. "But you need this. I'm sorry it disgusts you, but it's the only way, so please…"
"I know. You're right." Miyuki wet his lips, gaze drawn to the blood as if mesmerized. He stepped closer, took a deep, fortifying breath, and pulled Eijun's hand up in a swift, decisive motion, tipping the palmful of blood into his mouth. The column of his throat flexed as he swallowed. Dark red trickles slipped down his chin, gleaming and slick. He let out a low, deeply gratified exhale, and the heat that fanned over Eijun's skin was soon followed by the hotter press and purposeful swipe of Miyuki's tongue.
Eijun stifled a noise, fingers curling. He still held his sword in his other hand and sheathed it clumsily, numb in some ways but hypersensitive in others. A flare of want was spreading outward from low in his belly, building into an ache that was almost sweet with how it slowly, warmly filled him. He let it seep in, giving everything over to the rising flood.
Miyuki mouthed at the dip in Eijun's palm, lips tracing the lines that creased his skin. A husky murmur pressed indelible words into Eijun's hand, promising, "I won't drink from anyone but you, and I'll only take what you offer me. That's how I'll stay sane. Is that all right?"
Red, glancing eyes flicked up to peer at Eijun, waiting, and more red darkened Miyuki's mouth. Eijun dragged his thumb across a soft, wet lip, and nodded. "Of course. You can rely on me."
The hungry, searching touch of Miyuki's mouth gentled into a caress that glided along Eijun's fingers, kissing the tips before leaving. But he didn't go far. His hair was still bathed in the white of the moon, his gaze still haunted by crimson bloodlust—but, despite that, he was careful when he reached for Eijun. The hands that cradled Eijun's face barely made contact, hovering feather-light and fragile over his skin.
Miyuki leaned in close enough for their breath to mingle, blood-scented, and abruptly he let his hands drop and started to turn away. "Sorry," he mumbled, wiping at his mouth. "After I just—you probably don't want—"
A thwarted growl rumbled out of Eijun's throat, and he pulled Miyuki in with a hand clamped around the back of his neck, holding him in place. "I don't care," Eijun said, exasperated. He buried his fingers in pale locks, pausing to eye the color critically. "You need more."
Before Miyuki could even think about protesting, Eijun bit down on his own tongue. A stinging, coppery taste welled in his mouth, which he slanted over Miyuki's. It was graceless and brutal, and Miyuki went rigid at first, almost recoiling, but in a lightning-quick instant he yielded, opening and accepting. A low, hot sound was pulled from him, and he clutched Eijun with abandon, drinking everything in. Eijun had plenty to give, whether that referred to the blood in his veins or the whole of his heart—of those, he could give endlessly.
When the symptoms faded, and the soft hair stroked by Eijun's fingers returned to its ordinary brown color, they parted just far enough for a sigh to pass between them. Flushed faces cooled in the night breeze, aromatic with the wisteria blooms nearby. The fragrant wind whisked away the immediate scent of blood until it was just a memory, a faint metallic taste lingering in Eijun's mouth. He didn't mind, touching their foreheads together while their noses bumped.
Neither was in a hurry to separate and move on, and when Miyuki cupped the side of Eijun's face, angling their mouths to meet once more, Eijun returned the kiss with a contented hum.
Much of the forest floor had regrown since the fire, covering the ground in a sea of grasses and ferns to wade through as they neared the village. New trees sprouted from the undergrowth, and some were as tall as two meters, green and bristling. Towering over them, though, were bare cedars stripped of life, and their withered peaks offered no canopy to hide under. Exposed to the glare of moonlight, the dead trees were blanched white as bone.
Eijun paused at the perimeter of the forest where the treeline ended and the village lay before him. Or what was left of it.
Whole buildings had been razed down to their stone foundations, and those that remained standing were little more than dilapidated piles of timber. No traces of the families who'd once inhabited them were left behind. Eijun passed them one by one, and even his own house was reduced to broken framework claimed by creeping foliage. He stood in the weedy undergrowth and stared at where the veranda and walls and doors were supposed to be, tatami mats laid fresh in all the rooms and light filtering through shoji screens. Grass shushed around his ankles as he walked, recalling the creak of floorboards.
Only the earthen storehouse was still intact, its walls scorched, heavy doors flung wide open. Faint light came from within. Eijun neared with Miyuki trailing a step behind, and Wakana came out to meet them. Her lips parted as if to speak, but with one look she changed her mind and instead embraced Eijun, understandingly silent. Her hand rubbed small circles over his hunched back.
He might have wept if not for the second figure appearing in the doorway; gaunter than Eijun remembered, and smaller somehow, but there was no mistaking that wrinkled face and tuft of hair. Gramps met Eijun's eyes and nodded once.
"My boy, I'm glad to see you again at last. Welcome home."
A strangled sound caught in Eijun's throat. He stepped away from Wakana and searched through the tangle of emotions in his chest to form words. "…Are you all right?"
"I'm well enough. You've been through a lot because of me, and for that I'm sorry. I'm sorry for the mess my actions have caused."
"Yeah," Eijun said tightly, hands balling into fists. He started to tremble. "Yeah, you should be! Why—why the ochimizu? Why did you create such a thing?!"
"I didn't have a choice—"
"Don't give me that!" Wakana laid a hand on his arm but he shook her off, an incensed step bringing him closer to Gramps. "The shogunate didn't create the ochimizu, you did! If you didn't want to do what they said, you could have taken us and run away the moment they approached you! Instead you made that stuff in secret, right under our noses, and went to Kyoto with it—so I'm asking you why!"
He'd been wondering for years, ever since learning about the ochimizu and his grandfather's connection to it. What had started as pure confusion and disbelief had slowly, dreadfully churned muddy and dark with each new consequence discovered: the madness that threatened the rasetsu, the bloodlust, the silver poisoning and the burnout of life that was supposed to have been saved. The ochimizu didn't save people, it cursed them.
Tempers ran hot in the Sawamura family, and for a charged moment a telltale spark ignited in the old man's gaze. Elders weren't questioned like this—not in public, not ever. Eijun was prepared to be slapped for his insolent outburst and braced himself, chest heaving, unable or unwilling to back down.
Gramps was the one who backed down first. The fire went out of his eyes and left them shadowed as he bent his head, shoulders drawing inward. A weighty sigh prefaced his answer. "Yes… that's all true. I had opportunities to stop before things reached this point. In the beginning—I only wanted to help us survive. You must believe that. I thought perhaps the ochimizu could be used on the oni so we could flourish again, but of course, the complications were far too much of a risk. As for the humans…"
With steel-backed effort, he lifted his face to look past Eijun and meet Miyuki's silent, indecipherable stare. "Truthfully," Gramps said, "I was willing to sacrifice the shogunate's soldiers in order to refine the ochimizu. It was a bit of petty vengeance. The shogunate threatened me, but I agreed to work for them for my own reasons, too. However, little progress was made with the experiments."
Miyuki nodded but his expression betrayed nothing of his thoughts, not even a flicker. "And then you disappeared."
"I tried to run before the shogunate could put more pressure on me. I thought I was only using them, or we were using each other." A dry laugh rasped through the night air. "Just like our ancestors thought when they helped put Ieyasu in power. And as the princess of Yase foretold, nothing good came from being entangled with humans. Those Choshu bastards caught me and for a while I continued my work under them… but it soon became apparent what position I'd put myself in. I started to regret. When Seto-kun came to help me escape, I finally realized the extent of what I'd done."
Gramps spread his hands, looking at each of them in turn. Okumura had come outside to join them, stone-faced, but no one spoke or moved. "So there you have it. The rasetsu are my mistake to atone for. I don't know if I can make a cure, but I will do my best for the sake of you all who have suffered."
Eijun started forward. "But there are others—!"
"It's too late for them," Miyuki said quietly. "They've already chosen what they want. And I think it's best to keep all the research concerning the ochimizu out of human hands."
"Says the human," Okumura muttered, ignoring the glare Eijun directed his way. He focused instead on Gramps, cold and curt. "You owe Taku. That's all I care about. We'll stick with you and go to Yase village since it will be the safest place."
The mention of Yase reminded Eijun of the hurry they were in. "Let's go right now! There's still time before the sun rises, it will only take a couple of nights to get there."
"No," Okumura rejected immediately, turning away. "Taku isn't well enough to travel yet."
Before Eijun could march after him and demand an explanation, he was pulled aside by Wakana. "Seto-kun was hurt when he helped Grandfather. It will take some time for him to recover from the silver poisoning."
"But—" Eijun grimaced and the protest died on his lips. He couldn't very well insist on moving an injured person based on, what, bad dreams? If it was Miyuki who was hurt, Eijun wouldn't push him. Protecting him would be enough.
Eijun looked at what was left of his family—Gramps, haggard and haunted, and Wakana, tense and watchful. Miyuki was subdued, hovering on the edges, and Eijun leaned towards him until their arms brushed, well within grabbing range in case he had the nonsense thought of leaving Eijun's side. The ruins of the village surrounded them, stacks of rubble like monuments of loss.
He wasn't a helpless child anymore that could do nothing but run away. This time, whatever happened, Eijun would stand and fight.
Morning came, but instead of spilling sunlight down the mountainside, the sky above was canvassed in clouds and mist rolled in to cloak the valley. Everyone took cover inside the storehouse to rest until nightfall, shutting the heavy doors, but sitting in the cool, dry dark, Eijun was unable to sleep. He'd never been able to adjust to sleeping during the day to match a rasetsu's schedule. Not to mention the dreams…
Right. The dreams.
He got up, slid Daitsuren into place by his hip, and stepped out into the pallid light that shrouded the village. It looked even bleaker like this, ruins casting ambiguous shadows within the dim haze. Eijun shook his head and strode forward, cutting through the mist to disappear into the forest.
Trails were few and far between on this mountain—the village was supposed to be hidden after all—but the oni knew how to find their way around. The fire and resulting regrowth made navigating a bit more difficult, but the landscape hadn't changed that much in just ten years.
"It should be around here…"
He kept looking for the flutter of tiny, pale blossoms, and then had to remind himself that the flowering season was over. It was rice-planting season now—in other villages at least.
Fleetingly, Eijun wondered what Mei planned to do about food when they settled in Yase. He'd better bring enough supplies to last the winter. The Sawamura storehouse fortunately still had grain preserved, but Eijun doubted the same could be said for the long-abandoned Yase stores. There was probably nothing there anymore except dust and ghosts.
He shivered in the cool air, glancing up at the field of gray where the sky was, and a smattering of color caught his attention. Fresh green leaves clung to a dark branch overhead. Eijun followed it with his eyes and there was the tree he'd been seeking, gnarled and old, as if it had materialized out of the mist. A small gap opened in its trunk near the ground, far too small now for Eijun to tuck himself into, and when he crouched down to peer inside a musty animal smell greeted his nose. The sudden odor took much of the mysticism out of the tales.
He huffed out a disappointed breath and sat down under the tree. What had he been expecting to find here—a princess' ghost with answers and explanations?
Spirits weren't going to be of any help. But that was fine; Eijun was used to looking after himself. He went to Kyoto all by himself, got involved with the Shinsengumi by himself, and through his own choices he came back here, the place where everything had started. It wasn't home anymore, though, and never would be again.
"Hey," he said quietly, lifting his gaze to the crown of leafy branches that flourished above him. "I guess this is goodbye. I don't know if there really is a spirit or whatever, but… well. If there is, then it's proper to say goodbye. Maybe we're even related if what Mei said is right." Eijun shifted, trying to find a more comfortable spot against the wide, bumpy trunk to rest his back. The place didn't feel very haunted. There was a peaceful, sleepy atmosphere lulling his anxiety away, and his sigh was the only thing that stirred the air. "So… even though everyone's gone, don't be lonely. You've done well all these years. You should finally move on, too. I'll look after the clan, so you can be at peace now knowing that we'll be fine. All right?"
Minutes passed, sliding together in a fluid sense of time. There was no sun to keep track of how long he waited, and the mist continued to swirl, obscuring the forest beyond. Eventually, a muted tap-tap sounded from above, multiplying into a chain of soft pitter-patter as rain fell from the heavens. It was a light shower that only sprinkled the top of the great tree, and Eijun was content to wait where he was, sword resting across his lap, listening to the whisper of sheltering leaves.
Kazuya never fell asleep easily next to strangers and was still awake when he heard Sawamura head out. He thought about joining him but decided against it; even Sawamura might want to be alone sometimes, especially after seeing what had become of his village. It looked like it had been a small, peaceful community, and self-sufficient judging by the overgrown fields and empty livestock pens. Considering how much the oni tried to avoid humankind, that wasn't surprising. Yase was bound to be the same.
Kazuya had only ever lived in cities, and while he wasn't particularly fond of crowds, they were easy enough to deal with. Better to be immersed in a sea of people than to risk being left alone again. That was what he'd believed for a long while. Even at Seidou, and even when the Shinsengumi was first formed, he'd thought that way. Never did he imagine he would end up like this.
It would be different, staying with Sawamura, but Kazuya didn't think it would be a bad change.
He drifted into a dreamless sleep. When he awoke, the storehouse they used for shelter was sunk in a deep darkness. A cool slip of fresh air indicated the doors were open, their outlines just barely visible, and someone was breathing fitfully—Seto, Kazuya identified, who was still recovering from being wounded with silver. Having human or oni origins didn't seem to matter once one had become a rasetsu.
And to think the old man wanted to use the ochimizu to help the oni. Kazuya scoffed to himself, then quieted. That was in the past. There was more than enough to worry about in the present.
Seto appeared to be sleeping—not peacefully, but all he could do was rest and wait for his body to heal. Kazuya was mildly surprised to not find Okumura hovering nearby. None of the oni were around, in fact.
The process of getting up agitated the stubborn blackness that clung to the inside of Kazuya's chest, and he muffled his coughing into the palm of his hand. It wasn't too bad today—no blood came up—and the weakness passed quickly. It always did now that he was a rasetsu.
Outside, night had fallen, but there were no stars or moon to be seen. The only light for miles came from the glow of fire in the still-usable cook stove, marking where a kitchen used to be. A sole figure sat before it.
"Here," said Sawamura's grandfather when Kazuya drew near, and he was offered a steaming drink in a chipped cup. Tea, he assumed at first, but the strong herbal aroma made him hesitate when bringing the cup to his lips. As expected, the taste was bitter, and he choked down the first swallow.
"Um… thank you."
"That ought to help with the cough, but I'm afraid a cure for your illness is beyond my abilities."
Kazuya froze, the liquid in the cup gleaming in the firelight, amber-colored. His fingers tightened around glazed ceramic, and he cleared his throat roughly. "I see. Sawa—your grandson must have told you."
"I heard from Wakana. Eijun's disappeared somewhere—it's nothing to worry about, he did this all the time as a child and never got lost. That boy hasn't changed a bit…" The elder sighed, shaking his head. He wasn't the same old man who had approached the Shinsengumi under the shogunate's orders. Cheerful and eccentric, the doctor had offered a miraculous solution to their small numbers.
None of the captains had worked closely with him, and Kazuya couldn't say they ever had a real conversation beyond an exchange of greetings the few times their paths had crossed, but when he met the grandson he'd been able to sense a family resemblance. They were rather distinct individuals, with bright, boisterous personalities.
Their respective ordeals had sobered them—maybe not as grievously in the grandson's case, who was nothing if not optimistic and stout of heart, but the elder now looked to be ancient and world-weary beyond his already considerable years.
Still, his gaze was shrewd when he turned his eye on Kazuya. "I'm sure you've noticed that your rasetsu healing ability has been mitigating the disease's symptoms. Have the flare-ups gotten worse or more frequent?"
"…Not really," he answered with a sinking feeling. He knew what it probably meant if that was the case. It wasn't something he wanted to think about after coming this far.
As a doctor, the old man was merciless. "Well, as long as you're like this your body won't break down because of the consumption. You can be a swordsman until the end. But time will be limited. I can't predict how long you have, but when you don't heal as well or as quickly, that will be your warning sign."
"I figured," Kazuya said, and try as he might he couldn't keep the old, rotten bitterness out of his words. "And if you make me human again I'll just be back where I started, wasting away from the inside."
"You'll probably live a bit longer, holding onto your life rather than burning it away."
Small comfort, that. He'd already experienced it once, and it had been unbearable to the point where if Sawamura hadn't given him the option Kazuya would have demanded the ochimizu himself. Not that being a rasetsu was a better fate. The awful truth was it was a tiny bit worse.
And the truth was also that between fighting to live and fighting to die, well… if he'd planned to die in battle, he would have stayed with the Shinsengumi.
"This is still just speculation, mind. It's not like I have a cure on hand. But I've an idea of how to go about it…" Grunting with the effort, the elder rose up to stand, working out the kinks in his joints with audible clicks and cracks. "Yosh," he said when he was done, and there was something of his former sprightliness in his posture when he straightened, a spark of challenge in his eye. "So what do you say? There's no time like the present, and if you've made up your mind we can begin the treatment now."
Geez… the family resemblance really comes out in moments like this. Kazuya glanced down at the cup in his hands and braced himself for the taste before downing the contents. He shuddered—it was worse than anything Takigawa had forced down his throat—but maybe there was some truth to "the worse the taste, the better the medicine."
"All right," he said, wiping his mouth and replacing his grimace with a half smile. "Let's give it a try."
"Did you find anything?"
"No," Okumura reported. "I couldn't find any sign of him."
Wakana clicked her tongue and tucked her hand under her chin, mentally crossing off another location on her list of Eijun's favorite spots. "Where did that idiot wander off to? He's not a child anymore, seriously…"
Okumura said nothing, but that was typical of him, and he hadn't protested when she enlisted his to help search for Eijun, even though it meant leaving his friend's side. He'd been like that as a child, too—quiet, but by no means shy; competitive to a fault; quick to learn and obedient to the demands of his duty. He was trained the same as Wakana, and if he'd been a few years older, he might've been assigned to be Eijun's bodyguard instead of her. It was hard to imagine what that would have been like.
Fate may have made them enemies for a time, but she didn't think he was a threat anymore. He certainly wasn't friendly with any of them, but it was enough that he was skilled and willing to cooperate—and his loyalty to his friend was useful, both as leverage and proof of character.
"There's one other place we can try," Wakana said, bringing herself back to the matter at hand. "Do you remember how to get to the old cherry tree?"
"Isn't it just around…?" He trailed off, glancing uncertainly at his surroundings as if something wasn't quite right.
Are we both misremembering? Wakana crossed her arms and suppressed a shiver. She'd visited the tree a handful of times in the past, and it wasn't hard to find. She remembered it being a relaxing place where she could forget about training and the stress of watching over her important charge for a while. Eijun had never been very fond of the tree though; he'd had nightmares for days after visiting it once, and to Wakana's knowledge he'd never gone again.
"Let's look for it," she said firmly, casting a critical eye up towards the opaque clouds blocking out the heavens. If only there was some light to see by, something to chase away the shadows of doubt creeping into her mind.
An earlier rainfall had left the earth damp and impressionable, but their searching uncovered no tracks, and Eijun had no reason to hide his trail. Of the tree there was no trace; every time they thought they were heading in the right direction it turned out to be wrong.
Okumura came to a stop. "This is no use, let's go back."
"You can go. I'll keep looking."
He didn't argue, but he did pause to say, "Something isn't right. I'm going back because I'm worried about Taku and Sawamura-san, but Aotsuki-san should be careful as well."
That wasn't his usual cold response, and it tripped her off-guard. "Yes," she replied hurriedly, "of course. You, too." Perhaps her estimation of him had been a little off, or perhaps being back at the village brought old memories closer to the surface. They'd trained together for a while, long ago. Not as friends, but comrades maybe, or something similar. If a vestige of that remained… she was a bit glad.
"Then I'll take my leave."
Wakana stood stunned in the wake of his polite exit. Well. It's good to know he's retained some manners at least. And he's reliable, that's a relief.
Despite being on her own in the darkness, a measure of calm had returned to her. She closed her eyes and saw the cherry tree in her mind, its figure slightly warped from the lightning that had splintered it in ages past, but flowering and full of life year after year. She'd dreamed inside its cozy embrace when she was little, though all she remembered were snatches of contentment: a cloudless sunny sky against an unfamiliar horizon, her hands dusty with rice flour instead of wet with blood, the sound of warm laughter that felt like home.
An echo of the dream came and went, carried on a sweet-scented breeze. When Wakana opened her eyes a rush of petals filled her vision, pink and swirling, like soft wingbeats fluttering against her face. They flowed past her in a storm of blossoms that vanished as suddenly as they'd appeared, and before her stood the tall, dark form of the tree, its branches bare, and then leafy, and then Eijun was rising to his feet under them with a look of puzzlement on his face.
He stared up at the sky, mouth falling open, and when he whipped his head around he shouted upon seeing her. "Wakana?! How long—did something happen?!"
"No, everyone was fine when I left, and Okumura's gone to check on them. We've been looking for you for a while." She took a hesitant step closer, trying to quell the anxious knot forming in her gut, but the sight of Eijun paling in shock yanked hard on her instincts. When he took off at a run she followed right behind without questioning.
"The ochimizu was too potent from the start," the elder Sawamura explained, leading the way through the outskirts of the village. The clouds piled in the sky were starting to thin, and the ghostly light that filtered through them turned all it touched into an ashen wasteland. The dark edge of the forest loomed up ahead. "It's the foreign substances that cause the side effects, you know. They were necessary for the mixture to work so I had to include them in the recipe, diluting them as much as possible without rendering them ineffective."
That was what Chris had concluded about the ochimizu as well, spending all that time after the doctor's disappearance trying to find the right balance that would reap the benefits at the lowest possible cost (which hadn't been low enough). "I heard," Kazuya began, measured and restrained, "that the rasetsu of the imperial army aren't weakened during the day."
The elder nodded jerkily. "That's right. I continued working on the formula for the Choshu."
"Won't they continue with the research on their own?"
"They'll need another oni if they want to make any real advances with it," he stated, pride lending certainty to his words. "Human knowledge will only take them so far."
That was something the Shinsengumi knew from experience. Kazuya made a noise of agreement and tamped down on the urge to say anything else because lashing out in anger would be counterproductive.
"…Anyway," the elder said after a wide pause, Kazuya's terse response and the way the atmosphere stretched taut not going unnoticed, "as with any medicine, I should think that a cure is possible if we focus on neutralizing the harmful parts of the ochimizu. You already know that imbibing oni blood can help treat the symptoms, but the underlying cause—the imported stuff—is the real problem."
"What do you plan to do?"
The forest stretched out all around them, unfamiliar and full of shadows, but the elder kept on walking with a confident stride. "This may sound old fashioned, but there's a spring our clan traditionally used for purification rituals. In terms of flushing out foreign influences, I believe it's best to start with the simplest and most natural of remedies. You're not averse to getting a little wet, are you?"
"…Not in general," Kazuya managed to say, because on a mountain in the dead of night added much to his apprehension of the idea.
The old man threw his head back and laughed, loud and full, sounding much like his carefree grandson. "Don't worry, you won't need to strip and bathe! Although who knows? That might help." Still cackling, his feet crunched over a bed of dead leaves as the trees gave way to tall, swaying stalks of bamboo. Light and shadow chased each other as the moon peeked out from behind the clouds only to hide its face again, and aside from the wind rustling through thin-bladed leaves, the forest had fallen quiet.
Kazuya paused, straining to listen. There should be a low buzz of insects at least, or croaking frogs, but his ears picked up nothing.
"Truthfully," the elder went on, seemingly unaware of the eerie silence that had settled over them, "I've already started treating Seto with the spring water, though it's too soon to tell whether it's working. The bloodlust hasn't overtaken him recently, so that could be a good sign."
"Sawamura-sensei," Kazuya said, hushed and urgent.
"What? Oh, yes." He waved a dismissive hand. "So they've come at last."
"You were expecting an attack?" His sword slid free of its scabbard, a trusted partner in his grip. He removed his wakizashi, too, and handed it to the unarmed elder, who accepted the weapon with nonchalance. A few practice strokes through the air spoke of experience.
"I thought they might come looking, and I'd rather they find us here than at Yase."
"You could have mentioned that sooner!" Crackling in the underbrush heralded the appearance of several dark shapes flitting between poles of bamboo. White-haired and red-eyed, they rushed forward. Kazuya met them with a surge of power and the piercing ring of steel echoed down the mountainside.
Blades clashed, and a dull thunk sounded when a sword got caught in a thick bamboo shaft. A sharp cut through the air and a wet splatter followed, the elder's cantankerous voice calling out, "My idiot grandson wandered off before I could bring it up!"
There was no time to argue further, they were outnumbered by a wide margin. The rasetsu wore imperial uniforms. Had they followed their trail? Or had the shogunate bargained and given up the village's location?
Doesn't matter. They're the same to me now. Kazuya turned away an opponent's blade and followed up with a stab through the collarbone. That wasn't going to stop a rasetsu, so he angled his sword downward as he withdrew it, carving through the heart. As he turned, a slash aimed at his back took him across the arm.
Blood soaked his sleeve. The smell of it thickened the air and he could almost taste it, open-mouthed and panting. Rational thought struggled to stay afloat, insisting he had to end this fight quickly to keep hold of his senses and preserve the life he had left. He'd made a promise to himself and to Sawamura.
He wasn't going to die as anything but himself, human and weak and pitiful perhaps, and burdensome almost certainly, but wanted and held onto despite being so lacking. If he couldn't hold a sword after this, that was fine. Swords were made for severing and taking away: his poor mother, found lifeless on the street; his father walking away for the final time; the Shinsengumi charging into a battle that may be their last.
Enough. Kazuya had had enough of living only to lose things. He wasn't going to lose here, either.
His sword hewed through flesh and bone, splattering blood over his hands. The wetness clung to his skin and clothes. It dripped down the side of his face.
He brought a hand up to rub away the temptation, but the slick, warm smoothness under his fingers fired a terrible craving in the pit of his stomach. It gave way to a guttural sound dragging free from his throat. Kazuya's fingers came away trembling, smeared dark and shiny under a glimpse of moonlight before the forest was plunged back into shrouded blackness.
A blade came swinging at him in the dark. The soft, deadly whisper of it was interrupted by a harsh clang, and then a piercing, snapping crack that rang in Kazuya's ears. Eyes wide, he watched as a jagged length of metal spun through the air and buried point-down in the earth. A spray of blood followed. The broken edge of the wakizashi clutched in a tight-fisted hand flashed up, and the enemy rasetsu fell.
A beat later, the old man fell, too.
An enemy lunged forward and Kazuya lashed out blindly, striking deep, but he couldn't tell if it was a killing blow. More of the rasetsu converged on him, and he fended them off while trying desperately to see if the elder was all right. He should be healing. He had to be healing. Most wounds wouldn't faze an oni, Kazuya had seen Sawamura keep going after being shot and stabbed like it was nothing, so it would only take a few minutes, maybe longer because the old man didn't have youth on his side anymore, but he was the only blood relative Sawamura had left in this world, and he—
—Just what had he been thinking, stepping in the way like that? It was Kazuya's own fault for faltering. If he hadn't—if he'd just been able to resist in that one moment…!
His breath suddenly collapsed as something cold slid between his ribs. Kazuya looked down, and the curved tip of a sword was protruding from his chest. It had missed his heart. He grasped the blade to keep it from finding its target, and more of his blood squeezed out to coat the silvery metal. Blood crested up his throat and spilled out of his mouth as he coughed and wheezed.
Drawing a thin, wet breath, Kazuya threw himself from the path of another swing. He slid free of impalement at the same time, but staggered and barely stayed on his feet while bumping into broad stems of bamboo. Bracing himself, his searching gaze fell on the old man's body lying motionless on the ground. His eyes were open and unfocused. The gash splitting his torso showed no signs of closing.
A hot, rising tide gave Kazuya the strength to stand and rush at the remaining rasetsu. He met them head-on, snarling, feet sliding over a bed of leaves that had become slick with blood. He left openings in his attacks and didn't care. Steel sliced into him over and over, and he slashed and sundered through his opponents, blood flowing freely, entire streams and rivers of it that closed and opened with each new cut of a blade.
He almost lost himself in the maelstrom of violence.
"What?" Kazuya answered involuntarily, frowning, and some of the haze cleared. He panted and shook sweat-drenched, blood-soaked hair from his eyes. "…Sawamura?"
There was a blur, and a fresh wind that stirred the forest of bamboo, and all around the enemy rasetsu were stuck down, almost simultaneously. Before the last one hit the ground Kazuya was grabbed and knocked over in a circle of tight, squeezing arms, a warm weight pressing on top of him, and a loud, pounding beat filled his chest. He unclenched his fingers from the sticky hilt of his sword and lifted his hand, but then paused with it hovering over the clean expanse of Sawamura's back. Heat radiated off him, but it was a comfort Kazuya shied away from.
"What's wrong? Are you okay?" Sawamura drew back, but only far enough so they were face to face and nose to nose. His eyes were huge and concerned. "Do you need blood?"
"No," Kazuya choked out. That was the last thing he needed. He squirmed under the closeness and directness of Sawamura's gaze. "But I… your grandfather, he…"
"Eijun," Aotsuki said quietly, and her tone finally drew Sawamura's attention.
It was a while before he said anything. The long, empty minutes allowed Kazuya's wounds to heal, and he sat stiffly on the ground, facing away from the others. His sword lay in front of him, gleaming wet and gruesome. He didn't reach for it just yet. Every part of him ached with exhaustion, all the way down to his guilt-laden soul.
"Geez, Gramps…" A thick, conspicuous snuffling sound could be heard. "I can't even remember the last time I saw him holding a sword."
"I should have given Shotsuren back to him. It belongs to your family to begin with, so it wasn't right for me to hold onto it."
"No," Sawamura said, and when Kazuya glanced over he was tilting his face up towards the sky, but that didn't stop the tears from falling. "I gave it to you, and Gramps was all right with that. Besides, it probably wouldn't have made a difference."
Kazuya slowly, painfully dragged himself onto his feet. He was a sodden mess and a bedraggled sight as he bowed his head. "It was because he was protecting me. He died in place of me."
"Of course he did." Sawamura's laugh was watery, and he spent a long time wiping his face. When he was done, though, he was softly smiling. "I would have done the same."
"Don't." The word flew from Kazuya's lips and his hand darted after it—not to try and take it back, but to grasp around Sawamura's wrist. "Don't ever do that," Kazuya pleaded in a small voice.
"Okay," Sawamura said, easy and earnest. "I won't."
The shadows around them began to recede as the cloud cover thinned and a luminous moon filled the sky, making it easy to see the dark shape moving swiftly towards them. Pale hair gleamed but there was no cause for alarm, as it was Okumura's tightly drawn face that came into view. His friend was at his side, looking like he shouldn't be up and moving unless it was absolutely necessary, and dread scaled up Kazuya's spine.
Okumura took in the macabre aftermath of the battle, lingering for a fraction longer on the elder's prone form. His troubled gaze hardened as he reported, "There are more coming, with human soldiers among them. We should assume they have silver."
"If we're lucky maybe they'll hit some of their own rasetsu when shooting at us," Seto muttered bitterly.
Kazuya could commiserate. He also added, "I'm sure they wouldn't think twice about doing just that since the silver is for their own protection, too. A rasetsu gone mad is no longer an ally." He bent down to retrieve his sword. It fit in his hand like usual and became an extension of his body with no effort, and he wiped the blade on a marginally less stained part of his sleeve. Assessing the length of bare steel, its edge was looking worse for wear, but it was still usable. It would have to be. Once more—or however many times it takes.
"How many are there?" Sawamura asked.
He received an answer all too soon in the sound of voices raised in a cry, distant but coming closer. The enemy had picked up their trail.
"We need to run!" Aotsuki hissed, but Sawamura didn’t budge. He turned to face the noise carried on the wind.
"They'll keep following us if we run now," he said, shockingly calm, and maybe there'd been no need for the elder to share his plans after all. "Since they're not going to leave us alone, don't you think it's about time we reminded them why the oni used to be feared?"
"A show of bravado isn't going to help!"
"It's not bravado if it's true. I'm the head of the clan now, and I'm not going to run away. I'm not that helpless. I won't try and appease anyone, either. Sorry, but I'm going to be selfish… I'm going to protect everyone and fight."
"I thought I told you," Okumura cut in, "to not take responsibility for me. I can fight for myself." He unsheathed his short sword and pointedly did not look at Seto, whose smile crooked in understanding.
"Me too," he said, reaching into the folds of his clothes to pull out a handful of slim knives that slotted between dexterous fingers. He held them steady despite his condition.
The enemy was becoming visible in glimpses through the gaps of bamboo. There were two dozen of them, roughly, and including the ones already killed it seemed like an excessively large force to send after a few oni. But numbers had always been the human advantage. That was why they'd ceased fearing more powerful beings.
Kazuya shook his head, but not in defeat. A grin tugged his mouth. Wouldn't it be impressive, then, to beat the odds? Overwhelming numbers were no fun. It only took one to make an exception—an example to be remembered—and Kazuya had learned that at a young age with a practice sword in his hands and more willpower than his undersized body could contain.
"Sawamura is right; they're not going to stop until given a reason, and we have to fight if we want to live."
Aotsuki scowled at them, but all she said was, "Then you'd better live." The weapon that appeared in her hand was the smaller twin to Sawamura's handsome blade, shining with a fierce light.
But even that was eclipsed by the expression that lit Sawamura's face. His grin was a flash of white, facing the oncoming danger with reckless passion ready to be released, and the brilliance inside him flowed outward in the ribboning, silvery length of his hair. Scarlet lines boldly marked him around his eyes and down his neck, disappearing under his collar, extending along his arms and fingers as he raised his sword high.
He was full of openings, as always. But those openings did him no harm. He let people in like it was nothing, and then he made them want to stay. Sawamura Eijun was open and welcoming and clear-eyed, burning bright and nearly blinding when Kazuya got too close, but if he just shut his own eyes, he could trust to find Sawamura well within reach.
They stood shoulder to shoulder, and when Kazuya extended his sword at an angle Sawamura laid his overtop it, blades tapping together once to ring a single, clear note. It was an oath between warriors, friends, and partners, with the moon and the host of the heavens bearing witness. I'll make it through this. And so will you. That's what we've promised.
So don't die.
Chapter 10: Summer
This heart is not
A summer field,
How dense love's foliage
– Izumi Shikibu
Asada Hirofumi was an average young man, and a decent enough person he supposed. The neighbors often told his mother she had an upstanding son with a bright future ahead of him, being smart and well-read, and while he was reserved about the former, the latter was only natural when one's family owned a modest bookshop in Tokyo.
Some years had passed since the end of the war, but he was still getting used to the new name for the capital. It was one of many changes seeping into his everyday life. Not all of them were bad; the westernized texts his family had begun to print and stock were interesting to read (though it was a secret that his favorite stories were still the fantastical legends and heroic tales of old), and the nation's first railway was being built to make travel much easier. Rumor said that it would be up and running by the end of the year.
How quickly the world could change—and yet, in some ways Hirofumi wished it could change faster. Such a pity the railway wasn't completed yet. A very sad thing indeed. The midsummer heat was sweltering, the buzz of cicadas filled his head, and Hirofumi was miles away from civilization. It was quite possible he might die alone on this godforsaken mountain, and wouldn't that be ironic?
He was—contrary to what his parents told the registration office—a healthy twenty-year-old adult eligible for conscription according to the new law passed early in the year. The term "blood tax" wasn't literal (he was fairly certain), but in an effort to spare him from the mandatory service he was now, according to official record, sickly and convalescing with relatives in the countryside. It had seemed like the lesser of two evils at the time.
A canopy of lush, green trees provided shelter from the oppressive sun, but there was nothing to be done about the hot, muggy air, the biting insects, and the disquiet sense of being well and truly lost in the middle of nowhere. He'd been following the main road up until now, which was dusty and tiring but bearable, and the deeper it led into the wilderness, the smaller the path became. Now here he was, stumbling along what might be a trail of sorts, not another soul in sight.
Why, oh why, did his aunt and uncle have to live so far beyond the reaches of modern civilization? Hirofumi had been born and raised in Tokyo, but he'd never considered himself a particularly urban man. He liked his peace and quiet. A rural vacation had sounded rather pleasant when he agreed to go along with his parents' wishes. There might be less to do and fewer books to read, but he would have the time to collect stories from the countryside that might not have reached Tokyo yet, and maybe even publish them himself when he returned home.
Alas, the bright future the neighbors talked about was disappearing before his eyes—quite literally as his glasses fogged up and Hirofumi had to pause to wipe the lenses for the umpteenth time. While he was at it, he mopped his drenched brow with a damp handkerchief.
He'd sweated out all of his panic already. There was nothing left to do but trudge forward and hope that the trail led somewhere useful before he died of heat stroke, or starvation, or fell into a ditch and broke his leg. What if he was bitten by a snake? He heard that his uncle lost his foot to a pit viper. At this rate, Hirofumi wouldn't mind running into bandits or the rogue samurai that were rumored to be stirring up rebellion against the new government. The sight of another person, outlaw or not, would be most welcome.
Pushing his glasses back onto his nose, he blinked as the myriad green of the forest came into focus, and something he hadn't noticed before materialized in front of his wondering gaze.
He stepped off the path, and onto a rough, uneven stair that descended down the rocky hillside. The stone was covered in creeping grass and fuzzy moss that blended into the rest of the forest floor, but the deliberate shape of manmade steps was unmistakable. He was so exhausted and out of sorts he almost missed them completely. It was not a well-trod path—that much was certain—but it was a sign of travelers or inhabitants and right now Hirofumi would take whatever he could get in the midst of this ordeal.
The stairs went on and on, slippery and narrow under his tired, plodding feet. Squinting upwards, the blazing sun pierced through the gaps in the trees. He couldn't remember which way he was supposed to be heading. He wasn't carrying much food or water, either, and the idea of him fending for himself in the wild was laughable.
If, Hirofumi mused glumly to himself, he did perish out here, it wouldn't even make for an interesting story. Lost travelers were supposed to stumble across something unusual, something like an injured animal he could save that would then pay him back for his good deed, or a mysterious old woman living alone who turned out to be a man-eating oni (though on second thought, his story didn't need to be that interesting).
"It doesn't really matter, I suppose. They're just old legends after all."
He picked his way down the steps until at last they flattened into soft ground. The trail here widened slightly, dark earth cutting a clear path through the undergrowth, and hope began to beat in Hirofumi's chest. His pace quickened. A new sound reached his ears, the hiss and burble of water rushing nearby, and he sought it out with a feverish urge that had him stumbling over his own feet. He braced a hand against a tree to catch his breath, and when he raised his head, sunlight glimmered off the rippling surface of a small, turquoise pool.
It was fed by a waterfall that gushed frothy and white from between the rocks, and drained away in a narrow stream winding into the depths of the forest. Flat, mossy banks encircled the pool. Hirofumi drew near on his hands and knees, peering over the edge, and his huffing and puffing reflection stared back. He broke into a timid smile.
Folding his glasses away, he plunged his hands into the water and generously splashed his face. It was cold enough to shock despite the sun beating down all day, and he gasped aloud, but relief from the suffocating heat soon washed over him and soothed his aches and pains. He was soaked through by the time he was done, but he felt better than he had in days.
Drinking from his cupped hands, the water was clear and sweet-tasting. He refilled his flask, holding it under the surface, but it slipped and bobbed away when a voice called out to him.
"Well, well. What do we have here?"
Hirofumi tried to grab his flask before it floated out of reach, almost falling in while he flailed around unsuccessfully. "I—I beg your pardon—!"
A stranger's hand scooped up the wayward item, capping it, and tossing it across the pool where the flask bounced off Hirofumi's chest. He fumbled to catch it and shove his glasses onto his face at the same time. "Ah, thank you very much!"
The man standing on the opposite bank wore only a light yukata and carried nothing with him, as if he'd merely been on a stroll. Humor tilted his mouth, good-natured and friendly, but his eyes were thoughtful as he regarded Hirofumi with a hand resting on his hip, fingers tapping. "You look like you've come a long way. What brings you here?"
"I've come to visit my relatives in Shinwa village. Perhaps, are you from…?"
But the man shook his head. "If that's where you're heading, you'll need to go back the way you came."
"Oh, I see. Thank you." He gathered his belongings while a nervous energy jumped through him. It was good to see and speak with another human being again, but his shoulders hunched with the feeling his every move was being watched. "Then, I'll be going…"
"Stay on the right path this time. It won't be good if you wander off again."
"Eh?" Before Hirofumi could ask what the ominous words meant, a great, crashing ruckus exploded somewhere nearby. His legs buckled and he dropped, kicking frantically at the grass to scramble backwards on all fours. When he bumped into a tree his body stiffened in terror as the noise grew louder. The greenery in the distance violently shook, branches whipped out of the way by an unseen force that was fast approaching.
"I'd leave now if I were you." The man grinned, and for a chilling instant his humanity stripped away to reveal ghost-white hair and hungry, blood-rimmed eyes. He took a step towards Hirofumi, vanishing in a blink, only to reappear right beside him. "On second thought, if you want to stay…"
"N-no!" Hirofumi's glasses slipped down his nose and his limbs made automatic, jerky motions as he tried to crawl out of reach. Cold sweat poured down his forehead. His heart throbbed in his throat and he finally got his feet under him, pushing into a panicked flight while mocking laughter rang out from behind.
He ran down the path and up the stairs, stumbling and falling and scraping his hands and knees, and he kept on running and running until his body gave out and he collapsed in the middle of a road. The sun burned down on him while he coughed and wheezed, stirring up the dust. His eyes teared up. He couldn't move a muscle, but there were footprints pressed into the packed dirt under his cheek, and some time later a fellow traveler came across him.
"Didn't you know?" the ruddy-faced man chuckled, walking along at a leisurely pace. "This area is famous for tales like that. If your family is from Shinwa village I bet you've heard them before. The heat must've gotten to you and you had a strange dream, that's all."
"I… I'm not sure that's it…" Weakly, Hirofumi grasped onto the brim of the wide hat the kind man had lent to him, holding it in place.
"Hmm. In any case, you should take care not to leave the path again. That's just common sense. And if there really are such things as oni and youkai… well, I wouldn't want to get on their bad side."
"Yes," Hirofumi agreed, pulling the hat lower over his face and huddling his shoulders. The memory of that monstrous appearance remained stark in his mind. "Yes, that's very true."
Kazuya's laughter trailed into a sigh of relief as the young man bolted off like a terrified rabbit. A good scare ought to keep him away. He obviously wasn't a threat—not an intentional one at least. As long as he didn't come back or bring anyone with him, all would be well… probably.
An ordinary human shouldn't have been able to find this place… Kazuya lowered himself to the ground—carefully, straining to stay in control when all his body wanted to do was flop over in trembling exhaustion. He eased his back against the tree trunk the young man had cowered by and settled comfortably with his legs stretched out, hand closing around the air by his hip to adjust the position of a sword that wasn't there.
Practice swords were all he handled these days from teaching kenjutsu, and since it would look rather silly to carry one of those around with him, he was learning to go without. Being unarmed made him uneasy, but it didn't chafe as much as he thought it would. Yase village had been left in peace for years now. Even if fighting became necessary in the future, Kazuya's days as a warrior were soon coming to an end. Luckily he didn't need to be strong in order to teach, though it irked him when he couldn't just wipe the floor with his more bothersome pupils.
He'd pushed himself a bit with the theatrics today. It had been months since he last drew on his dwindling rasetsu strength, much diminished thanks to the purifying spring water of Yase. The side effects were far less severe as well, and under the harsh summer sun Kazuya only felt slightly drowsy, his eyes lidding halfway shut. He didn't need to drink blood anymore, either. And he didn't heal quickly.
His hand came up to rest over his chest, rising and falling with each inhale-exhale of breath. He was in quite good shape considering how long he'd been sick. The remnant traces of the ochimizu were to thank for that, but even while his body weakened, contrary to how the disease was named Kazuya didn't feel like he was being consumed. When the day came that he could no longer hold a wooden practice sword, he didn't fear being left with nothing.
The rustling and crackling that had startled the human brought a lopsided smile to Kazuya's lips as Eijun emerged from the brush with leaves stuck in his hair and a flush adding color to his tanned face. Hidden behind the surrounding trees, a chorus of young voices laughed and shrieked while trampling through the undergrowth. That explained the noise; not even Eijun made that much of a commotion by himself.
"Are the kids tiring you out again?"
"Who's tired? You're the one who looks exhausted!" Eijun scanned Kazuya from head to toe with a frown, fists planted on his hips, and Kazuya put on his most innocent face. All that did was deepen Eijun's suspicion. "Was someone else here just now?"
"A relative of yours, I think."
Confusion puckered Eijun's brow, and when Kazuya deemed him adequately distracted he clarified, "A human with some oni blood mixed in, probably from a Yase ancestor a long time ago. He wandered past the wards without noticing and that's the only explanation that makes sense."
"Oh. Huh. I guess there are people like that out there. What'd you do, scare him off?"
"With your help, and the kids are as loud as you are." Kazuya could still hear them, chasing each other round and round with the limitless energy of the young. It sounded like they were playing onigokko. They were a mixed bunch brought together by the intermingling of the Sawamura, Narumiya, and Todoroki clans, and one of them, a little girl who'd just turned four, took after Aotsuki in face and coloring. What was funny was that her personality resembled neither parent's. "Okumura is going to say you're a bad influence on his daughter again."
Eijun bristled. "I wasn't doing anything wrong!"
Kazuya smiled to himself, because some things never changed. Eijun and Okumura were practically family now—and that meant they would lay down their lives for one another if ever the need arose—yet a truce between them remained impossible. "I didn't say you were," he said, and tilted his head to note the receding laughter of the children taking their rambunctious game of tag elsewhere. Eijun didn't seem inclined to follow them, but there was no need to worry; oni children were hardier than humans. They could be left to play unsupervised as long as they stayed within the wards, and the direction they were headed led back towards the village. Kazuya relaxed by the sunlit pool and lifted a hand to beckon. "Come here."
Eijun acquiesced, still wearing a disgruntled pout. He settled in the grass by Kazuya's side and was pacified when fingers combed soothingly through his hair, removing the debris picked up from his romp through the forest. Warm ochre eyes drifted closed. Around them, a languid summer haze coalesced.
"Don't do it again," Eijun murmured, nudging his head into the caress of Kazuya's open hand.
"What did I do?"
Sighing, Eijun peeled his eyes open and took Kazuya's face in his hands, fixing him with a blunt stare. "This isn't the sort of face that scares people away. In fact it's the opposite—which is annoying, I'll have you know! But what's more annoying is you tiring yourself out over some random human. I could have taken care of it."
"Mm," Kazuya said noncommittally, only half-listening. So he hadn't fooled Eijun after all. Oh well. He placed his hands overtop Eijun's, cradling them against his cheeks.
"I'm serious! You don't need to push yourself."
"Okay. I won't."
"You always say that but—oomph!" Kazuya reached for Eijun and pulled him close, meeting inelegantly in the middle, his mouth smiling while Eijun squawked, huffed, and then kissed him back proper. Kazuya's arms dropped to wrap around his waist.
"Caught the oni," he said with an uptick in his grin, holding Eijun comfortable and sure in his lap. He wasn't going anywhere. Not anytime soon.
Eijun's teeth grazed his lip, berating, "That's not how you play the game. The oni catches you."
"I guess you've got me then."
"I definitely do."