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Someday Our Flame Will Reach the Heavens

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 


 

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

"Nikkari Aoe."

"Ah, right."

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

Chapter Text

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

“What is your name?”

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

 

“Who was your master?”

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

 

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

“What is it?” he demanded.

 

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

 

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

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

“…Kunihiro?”

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

 

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

 

“Your new master,” came the reply.

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 


 

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

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

 

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

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

 

“General?”

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

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

“Er…yeah.”

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

“Yes, Master.”

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

“We’re heading off, General.”

“Thank you, Yagen-kun.”

 

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

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

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

 

“O-oi, I’m not being babied—”

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

Then it hit him.

 

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

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

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

 

“Your annoying face.”

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

 

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

“It matters to me,” Izuminokami protested.

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 


 

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

Izuminokami grunted. “He pisses me off.”

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

“Can he really?” Izuminokami wondered aloud.

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

 

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

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

 

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

“And apologise.”

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

 

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

 

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

Chapter Text

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

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

 

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

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

 


 

"Do you ever feel lonely?"

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

It's interesting, hearing words like this.

 

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

"Thanks for that," the Saniwa muttered.

 

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

 


 

 

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

 

"Yamanbagiri."

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 


 

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

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

 

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

 

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

"How is he?" Yagen blurted out.

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 


 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

Chapter Text

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

 

“Ohh, Mutsunokami-dono, good morning!”

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

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

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

“And you with your duties!”

 

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

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

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

“That’s true, too!”

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

“No. You sound like Kunihiro.”

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

“…No.”

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

 

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

 

“Oh? So ya noticed?”

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

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

 

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

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

“About that. It was…weird.”

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

“Hey!”

 

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

 

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

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

A pause. “No,” he admitted.

 

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

 


 

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

“Bullshit. I was first.”

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

“Yeah I will. Watch me.”

 

And just like that, they were off.

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

“Wha—”

Splash.

 

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

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

You pushed me in!

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

Chapter Text

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

 

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

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

Simple as that.

 


 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 


 

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

 

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

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

 

And at the same time it was frustrating.

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

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

 

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

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

And Izuminokami was always the last to join the fight.

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

 

Hijikata-san would’ve been disappointed in him.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

“I'm sor—”

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 


 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

"What?"

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

"How long is that going to take?"

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

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

 

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

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

Chapter Text

Izuminokami, it seemed, took his words to heart.

 

He had been working hard since then, diligently carrying out the chores he was assigned to, shovelling down food at meals and promptly going back to the training hall. This fervour surprised even his Shinsengumi teammates, with the exception of Horikawa who understood how he felt about it, and of course Mutsunokami as well.

 

A week after the Sekigahara sortie, Izuminokami came to Mutsunokami by himself. “Spar with me.”

 

Mutsunokami blinked. “With me?”

 

“You’re the strongest fighter in the whole Citadel. You were here first and you’ve been here the longest, so you’ve been in the most battles too. It’s not just your skill, you’ve accumulated the most experience on what to expect and what to do in different situations.” The words rushed from Izuminokami so fast that Mutsunokami wondered if he’d practiced it all before coming here. “So, that would make you the best person for me to train with.”

 

He looked so serious that Mutsunokami couldn’t help but grin, crossing his arms over his chest and leaning against the door to survey Izuminokami with amusement. “Alright, I’ll train with ya, and teach ya everything I know. On one condition: ya do my chores. All of it. Horse duty, fieldwork, even kitchen duty. Teaching is tough work, ya know!”

 

Izuminokami blinked, clearly unprepared for the price to pay. “What? For how long?”

“Till ya learn everything and your training from me stops, so ya’d better learn fast.”

“Well, what the hell are we waiting for then?” Izuminokami demanded. “We don’t have all day!”

 

Possibly spooked by the prospect of having to clean up twice the amount of horse dung, Izuminokami ran off in the direction of the training hall, practically skidding on the engawa in his haste. Chuckling, Mutsunokami shook his head and set off after him, unable to stop himself from grinning.

 


 

 

He did learn fast, though.

 

Mutsunokami had been used to sparring leisurely with others, just enough to work up a sweat but not enough to actually tire himself out. With Izuminokami, however, the younger warrior barely held back at all and Mutsunokami had to step up his game to keep in pace with him.

Most of the guys here get a lot better after weeks to get used to their human bodies, when they figure out how their limbs work and how to act on senses and instinct, and the memory of the experience they once accumulated as objects by their masters’ sides returns to them. Every person here gets markedly better then.

 

But he’s good. Really good. Izuminokami fought aggressively, playing no heed to the rules about no using grappling or blinding techniques, though Mutsunokami thought that the latter was simply an accident since he didn’t have any sand or dirt at his disposal so he compensated by whacking him with his long hair, tied up in a ponytail, whenever he spun around to block. It was like all the pent-up energy and frustration that Izuminokami had kept hidden was finally showing itself.

Sometimes he did use dirt, when they sparred at the dusty gardens outside the training hall rather than inside on the wooden floors, and many afternoons were spent where Mutsunokami had to wash sand out of his eyes while Izuminokami apologised profusely.

 

Refusing to just let him win, and staying true to their agreement, Mutsunokami fought back just as aggressively, yelling out the things that Izuminokami has done wrong, what he could have done instead. A single step back to avoid a hit and reposition, remembering to watch for his own blind spots, utilising the environment around him to use to his advantage.

 

At one point Izuminokami had an opening so glaringly obvious that Mutsunokami jabbed him there with the wooden sword, making him yelp and double over in pain as Mutsunokami stood triumphantly over him.

 

“Ya had enough?” he asked with a grin, even though he, too, was panting hard, his chest rising and falling as he fought to catch his breath.

“Next time…” Izuminokami wheezed, clutching the side of his stomach. “Just tell me…instead of stabbing me…”

“That was just a poke!”

 

He’s still lying on the ground groaning. Mutsunokami rolled his eyes. “Let’s take a break,” he suggested, his breathing now more even as he flopped down on the hard wooden floor, cross-legged next to Izuminokami.

 

Wearily Izuminokami peered at him, his cheek squashed against the floor and his hair in disarray over his eyes. “You’re way better than I expected,” he mumbled.

At that, Mutsunokami let out a barking laugh, so loud that Izuminokami visibly flinched. “What! Weren’t ya just sayin’ that I was the strongest fighter in the Citadel? Or were ya pullin’ my leg?”

“I wasn’t lying!” Defiantly Izuminokami sat up to face him. “I’ve fought alongside with you before, but it’s a different story fighting against you. And so far I’ve fought against everyone else in the Citadel, even Yagen. But not you. I knew you’d be strong, but I didn’t think you’d be this good.”

“Heh, give it a few more minutes and I woulda destroyed ya. You're full of openings and after a while your attack patterns are easy to read. You're gonna be doing my chores for a long time if ya don’t do something about them sharpish.”

 

“Those tactics worked when Hijikata-san did them.”

“Well, if I had my gun, ya’d be dead.” Mutsunokami pointed accusingly at him. “What did I say about stayin’ in the past, huh?”

Izuminokami raised his hands in surrender. “Alright, alright! Habits are hard to shake off, okay? But you’ve stuck around for this long, so your strategies must work, too,” he added hastily, when Mutsunokami narrowed his eyes at him. “I won’t let it end like the last time.”

 

At that, Mutsunokami grinned. “Which last time? The farming match or the horseback race? Just so ya know, I still won that one. And all the other matches we had in chores.” He started counting off his fingers. “I beat ya in shooting practice with Horikawa as a judge last week. The other day I folded all my laundry faster than ya did. Last night at dinner I ate three more bowls of rice—”

Izuminokami glowered at him. “Fuck you, that was not a match. And I don’t have three stomachs for eating rice. Okay, yeah, you won the laundry match fair and square. But the shooting practice was bullshit and you know it.”

“Eh? How?”

“Are you kidding me? You and your former master used guns before! That was the first time I’d even held a bow and arrow!” Izuminokami reached over and jabbed him in the chest. “And for the record, I wasn’t talking about any of our matches. I was talking about the sortie last week. At Sekigahara.”

 

“Oh.” Mutsunokami eyed Izuminokami. “You’re really desperate to get stronger, aren’t ya?”

 

“Well of course!” Izuminokami sounded indignant, and fierce, his eyes blazing. They aren’t really the same colour as Horikawa’s, Mutsunokami noted, not quite the same cyan. A blue-green shade, like the ocean.

 

Then he hurriedly chided himself for having noticed such an intimate thing. Izuminokami was still talking. “…Hijikata-san’s sword, after all. I have to live up to his name. And I gotta live up to our current master’s expectations too, don’t I?”

Proudly Mutsunokami puffed out his chest. “Well, that’s why I’ve been here the longest, ya know? Cuz Master knew I’d be strong. And of course, here you are, requesting my help in improving your skills, right?”

“I thought you said I was the one Master had been waiting for,” Izuminokami shot back. “Plus, what happened to your “age of the gun” prattle? Thought you didn’t like using a sword.”

“Well if my guns ain’t workin’, then I gotta use a sword just like everyone else, don’t I?” Mutsunokami replied pompously. “Besides…” His voice softened, his gaze faraway all of a sudden. “I need to become stronger, too. So I can make things right this time.”

 

Izuminokami frowned, leaning forward. “What do you mean?”

Mutsunokami paused, uncertainty in his face, and Izuminokami pressed, “C’mon. What do you mean by that?”

 

“Well…you’re a Shinsengumi sword, yeah? Hijikata Toushizou and all that. You’ve been on the battlefield since you were forged. So it means you would’ve killed a lot of people.” Izuminokami shifted uncomfortably at that, and Mutsunokami waved him off dismissively, continuing on. “Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Those things had to be done for what your master believed in. And to protect the people you loved.”

“What…what are you trying to say?”

 

Mutsunokami sighed. “Ryouma - my old master - he’s never used me to take a life before. He carried me around a lot as a protective sword, and also because I was famous back in his hometown so he liked showin’ me off. And then on the night he got attacked, he was going to use me to protect himself. I think he would have killed them if he got the chance.”

Spellbound, Izuminokami breathed, “If?”

 

“The assassins got him first,” Mutsunokami replied simply. “They cut him down when they saw him reaching for me, and they broke my sheath, too. There was a skirmish, but it was so fast, and it was over before I knew it.” When Izuminokami leaned in closer, Mutsunokami only smiled. “I’ll tell you more about it some other time.”

Looking visibly disappointed, Izuminokami sat back on his heels. “And then?”

“When I was reforged here thanks to the Saniwa, I asked her what happened at the assassination.”

“Kondo-san was blamed…” Izuminokami mumbled.

“Falsely accused, she said.” Mutsunokami shrugged with a rueful smile. “And she also told me that if Ryouma had used his gun instead of me, he might have lived.”

 

Izuminokami stopped, his mouth slightly open in surprise. He probably hadn’t expected this kind of storytime in the middle of sparring practice, and Mutsunokami didn’t blame him. But for all the months he’d been here, Izuminokami had been the first one other than the Saniwa to talk to him like this, and ask him about himself. He couldn’t help it, so he continued, “So that’s my dark tragic past, I guess. Spent years by my master’s side, happy to just be his protective talisman, and then I broke. I couldn’t protect him when he needed me the most.” His hand went to the sword by his side as he spoke, his fingers running over the dark blue tsuka cord on the hilt. “So I figured that in this life, even if I break and die, I want to be able to protect someone I care about.”

 

Izuminokami said nothing in response, apparently still at a loss for words, and Mutsunokami suddenly remembered a conversation he’d had with Horikawa, weeks before Izuminokami had arrived at the Citadel.

“You’re just like Kane-san,” he’d said.

What exactly had he meant by that?

 

Quickly Mutsunokami stood up, brushing imaginary dust off himself in an attempt to diffuse the tension. “Well, anyway, I’m beat. I’ll spar with ya again later today, but right now I need a bath. I’ll catch ya at lunch.”

 

He left the hall as fast as he could, not looking back to see if Izuminokami was still sitting in the middle of the room, staring into empty space, and not knowing that he had a thousand words left unspoken, a hundred thoughts left unheard.

 


 

 

That night Mutsunokami knocked on the Saniwa’s door quietly, calling out, “Master? You called for me?”

“Mutsunokami-kun. Come in.”

 

He entered the room and folded himself into a seiza position, noting the grave expression on his Master’s veilless face. “What happened?”

“There’s been another incident,” she said.

 

Mutsunokami inhaled, sharply.

The Saniwa wrung her hands. “I didn’t think there’d be another one so soon. The last one was, if I remember correctly—”

“The night Izuminokami arrived. We missed his arrival dinner, remember?”

“Yes, of course.” She sounded distracted. “That was…” She trailed off, not finishing her sentence. She didn’t need to. Mutsunokami recalled what had happened, clearly. They’d been summoned to attend a conference with the government, who informed them of the issue that a neighbouring Citadel had had to deal with. A team had encountered a drastic historical change in a certain time period. Their Captain had been forced to kill his own former master.

More and more of such events had been popping up, and due to the ambiguity of history during those periods, the sages across the country had had no choice but to send the sword warrior involved to finish the job personally.

 

“I had prayed,” the Saniwa said quietly. “That such incidents would never be assigned to us. But we don’t have a choice. He is the only one who was there when it happened. So he must go, and make sure that his master dies.”

 

Mutsunokami looked at her bleakly. “It’ll break him.”

“I won’t let it happen.”

“There must be some other way.”

“There isn’t.”

 

Something terrible was happening in the past. The Time Retrograde Army were up to something, and despite the Saniwa’s prayers, it seemed that they would not stop until the forces that opposed them, the sword warriors, were broken.

 

He hated it. Hated that they were driven into a corner like this, that they were forced to send swords back in time to relive their worst memories.

But he couldn’t think of any other way. Not unless he was strong enough to do it for them.

 

Mutsunokami stood up. “I’ll go get Imanotsurugi.”

Chapter Text

“Well done, Izuminokami.” The Saniwa nodded at him approvingly as the team stepped off the pedestal, the rest of the team making their way across the courtyard to the rooms. “You’re coming along in leaps and bounds.”

 

“All that training with me paid off, eh?” Mutsunokami teased, nudging Izuminokami playfully on the shoulder.

Izuminokami grinned back at him. “You bet.”

 

He’d lost count of the number of sorties he’d been on since arriving at the Citadel, and even more so the number of battles where he fought alongside this unlikely ally. Despite their initial differences, Izuminokami had grown to warm up to Mutsunokami, putting their pasts as Shinsengumi and anti-shogunate swords behind them.

And it’s…fun, being friends with this guy. It wasn’t the same as being with Kunihiro or Yasusada or Kiyomitsu. With them, they were like family. They already knew everything about each other, every individual little quirk, their likes and dislikes. With Mutsunokami, it was like an adventure, learning something new about him every day.

 

For starters, he wasn’t ticklish while Izuminokami was, which went very badly in his favour that afternoon when Kasen was convinced that his younger brother was being murdered due to the unearthly screeches that echoed through the whole Citadel.

Mutsunokami also discovered his soft spot for beetles, and while he’d laughed at him then, had been willing to go bug-hunting with him in the summer. In return Izuminokami had braved the Saniwa’s wrath to take him and the three other Shinsengumi swords to the ocean. Or, at least, as close to the ocean as they could get, anyway. They got as far to the hills before Hasebe and Hachisuka caught up to them and dragged them back to the Citadel.

 

Their training sessions together have become a habit now, and since the first time, they’ve talked in between breaks, lying on their backs on the wooden floor, about nothing and everything.

Izuminokami had long gotten used to Mutsunokami’s presence, constantly by his side almost as much as Kunihiro, the way his loud and boisterous laughter always threatened to bust his eardrums, or the way he always smelled like earth and ocean both at once, and the reassuring warmth of his back against his own when they fought alongside each other.

 

A small grey blur in the corner of Izuminokami’s vision caught his attention, and he glanced around to see Imanotsurugi stepping off the pedestal alongside them. “Hey, Imanotsurugi!” he called, waving at him. “Good work today!”

To his surprise Imanotsurugi only gave him a hollow smile, one that lacked his usual energy. “You too, Izuminokami-san.” And before any of them could say anything, he’d hurried across the courtyard to enter the Citadel, not looking back at them.

 

Izuminokami frowned, lowering his arm. He nudged Mutsunokami next to him. “He’s been a bit out of it since the Master sent him on that solo mission the other day.”

Mutsunokami gave an noncommittal grunt, which was uncharacteristic of him. “Maybe he’s just tired.”

Unconvinced, Izuminokami glanced at him. “Aren’t you worried about Imanotsurugi? And you usually know what’s going on around the Citadel, don’t you?”

 

Mutsunokami only shook his head as the Saniwa turned back to them, all smiles and politeness. “You got back just in time too, Izuminokami-kun. Your captain has just joined us from the forge.”

 

Izuminokami froze in his tracks, all thoughts of Imanotsurugi forgotten. “Nagasone-san? He’s here?”

“He will still be in the smithing room, calibrating to his human body and his senses, if you’d like to go see him.”

“D-do the others know? Kunihiro, and the rest?”

“Yes. In fact, I’m sure they’re with Nagasone-kun now.”

 

Izuminokami gave a joyful laugh, and spun to face Mutsunokami, oblivious to the way the other sword suddenly stood stiffly, an unreadable expression on his face. “Mutsunokami! Did you hear that? Nagasone-san’s finally arrived! I gotta go see him - what are you waiting for?”

Mutsunokami’s chuckle was forced. “Eh, I think I’ll, uh, pass on this one…”

“What are you talking about?” Izuminokami said impatiently, and the Saniwa started to interrupt, “Izuminokami-kun, I think—”

“Quit being such a wet blanket.” He reached out and grabbed Mutsunokami’s wrist. “Come on, let’s go!”

And without so much as looking back at the helpless Saniwa or his reluctant companion, Izuminokami sped off in the direction of the smithing room, pulling Mutsunokami along behind him.

 


 

 

They heard voices even before they reached the room, and Izuminokami’s heart leapt at the sound of a familiar gravelly voice, gruff but good-natured.

Elated, Izuminokami let go of Mutsunokami and hurried forward, throwing the shoji door open. “Nagasone-san!”

 

There he was, and even though Izuminokami had never seen him in his human form before, he had that charismatic air about him that his former master also held, the signature haori, though not blue and white like his own, and a tall sturdy build befitting of the commander of the Shinsengumi.

A small crowd surrounded him, comprised of Kunihiro, Yamatonokami, Kashuu, even Urashima - it didn’t escape Izuminokami’s notice that Hachisuka was absent - but even so, Nagasone took one look at him, and his expression broke into a grin. “Well, I’ll be,” he rumbled. “Izuminokami Kanesada, I take it?”

 

“You bet,” Izuminokami responded, striding forward. “Took you long enough to get here. We’ve been waiting for you for ages!”

“Yeah, these guys have reminding me of the fact before I opened my eyes.” Nagasone didn’t sound too angry, though, his amber eyes glittering.

Urashima clapped gleefully. “Nagasone-nii-chan, now that you’re here, it means all three of us Kotetsu brothers are at the Citadel now! We’re finally all together!”

Nagasone ruffled his younger brother’s hair affectionately. “Yep. Though you’re gonna have to talk Hachisuka around, don’t you think?”

 

“Woah, at least you’re up to speed on your history, eh?” Kashuu remarked. He crossed his arms, grinning at Izuminokami. “This guy here was completely out of it when he arrived. Took him days to even get used to his body, like moving around and eating and changing his clothes.”

“It’s not his fault,” Kunihiro cut in defensively. “Even Master said so that manifestations were different based on whether they came from the forge or not, that’s why Kane-san had trouble at first.”

 

“Horikawa practically had to baby him,” Kashuu told Nagasone, as if Horikawa hadn’t spoken.

“He still does,” Yamatonokami snickered, and he shared a high-five with Kiyomitsu as Izuminokami’s face reddened.

“O-oi! I do not—”

“Who’s that?” Nagasone asked suddenly, his gaze sliding past Izuminokami to a point behind him. Izuminokami turned around, suddenly remembering, and saw Mutsunokami standing awkwardly at the door of the smithing room, looking as though he’d rather be somewhere else.

 

“Oh, that’s…”

He trailed off as he felt Kunihiro tug at his sleeve, and when he looked down at his partner, he looked stricken. “Kane-san, why did you bring Mutsunokami-san here? You know better than that!”

 

“What?” Izuminokami asked stupidly.

Kunihiro drew in a breath. “They’re—”

He didn’t get to finish, either. In a blur of black and white, Nagasone had taken long strides forward, and before any of them could stop him, came face to face with Mutsunokami and grabbed a fistful of his kimono, tugging him roughly towards him. “And what,” Nagasone growled. “the hell are you doing here?”

 

Mutsunokami met his gaze evenly, defiance in his eyes. “I could ask the same of ya.”

There are startled cries of “Nagasone-san!” and “Nagasone-nii-chan!” but Izuminokami barely heard them, as memories and information flooded him. He remembered this - it was the same for him, too, the first time he’d seen Mutsunokami back then at the training hall, where simply looking at him created the image of his former master behind him - and, he remembered this as well, it was Sakamoto Ryouma whom Kondo Isami had been accused of assassinating, he was the reason Kondo-san was—

 

Izuminokami’s legs propelled him forward, and in a second he had pushed himself between the two of them, roughly pushing Mutsunokami behind him as he faced Nagasone with a strained smile. “Hey, you probably haven’t had the time to look around yet, right? Urashima, Kunihiro, maybe you could…”

 

“Don’t get in my way, Izuminokami.” Nagasone’s voice was low.

“Look, just calm down—”

“Why are you defending him?” the taller man barked at him, and Izuminokami almost staggered back from the intensity of the anger in his voice.

“He’s my friend!” Izuminokami yelled back.

“Bullshit,” Nagasone spat. “Have you forgotten everything? If not for people like his master, ours wouldn’t have suffered! Kondo wouldn’t have died for that! Have you forgotten what we and our masters fought for?”

“That’s all in the past—”

Nagasone’s voice rose. “Have you forgotten all about loyalty?”

 

Izuminokami felt a chill run down his spine, and instinctively his hand lifted to clutch at the haori around his shoulders, the fabric bunching in his fist. “No—no, of course I haven’t—”

“Then stand aside and let me cut this man down, or I swear you’re next.”

 

“Nagasone Kotetsu.”

The Saniwa’s voice cut through the deafening silence that followed, and she strode into the smithing room, past Izuminokami to face the taller man. “That’s enough. No one here will be acting on the interests of their former masters. I see that I have much to tell you about the world now - and to remind you who you currently serve.”

“But—”

“We will discuss this in private.” Her tone was icy. “Come to my study. Now.”

Slowly Nagasone took a step back from Izuminokami, and when the Saniwa turned and left the room, he followed, though not without giving Mutsunokami a sideways glare and a soft “hmph” under his breath as he swept after her.

 

Without Nagasone’s imposing presence, the room seemed emptier, and numbly Izuminokami became aware of Kunihiro’s hand on his arm, shaking him. “Kane-san?”

“I…it’s gone all wrong,” he mumbled. “It wasn’t supposed to be like this. I forgot…”

“It’s not your fault,” Kunihiro insisted.

Izuminokami took a deep breath, and turned around, only to see that the doorway of the room was empty. “Where’s Mutsunokami?”

 

“He left when the Saniwa did,” Kashuu answered. His scarlet gaze was stern as he surveyed Izuminokami. “I don’t think he took that whole exchange very well. What will you do?”

 

Izuminokami thought about all the time he and Mutsunokami have spent together. All the days talking, eating, hanging out, fighting alongside one another. Despite their pasts - Nagasone-san had been right, he had forgotten - they’d bonded. He thought about how he’d automatically called Mutsunokami his friend, how easily the words had slipped out. It had come so naturally to him.

It was naïve of him to have forgotten that he’d been the same when he arrived, where Yagen had to stop him from picking a fight with Mutsunokami, and Kunihiro had forced him to go apologise.

 

“I’ll just…talk to him, I guess.”

 

Kunihiro hummed thoughtfully, and said, “Before you do, come with me to the kitchen, will you? There’s something I think you ought to take with you to Mutsunokami-san. He’ll appreciate having you to talk to him.”

 


 

 

Balancing a tray on one hand, Izuminokami shifted uneasily in front of Mutsunokami’s door, wondering if he should knock or call out to him or whether this was a good idea at all. He’d changed out of his battle clothes into his everyday ones and gotten a plateful of ice cream daifuku (silently he thanked the Saniwa for being so fond of the cold dessert that there was always a stock of it in the refrigerator, and Mutsunokami for practically being in love with it), in hopes that Mutsunokami may have calmed down during this time.

Hesitantly he raised a fist, prepared to knock, when a voice came from within the room: “I know yer out there, Izuminokami. Been standin’ there long enough.”

 

Inwardly kicking himself, Izuminokami pulled the shoji door open meekly, peering in. “How’d you know it was me?”

Mutsunokami was sitting cross-legged by the open window, the only light in the room being the small candle on the desk. “I recognised yer footsteps. When ya’ve been in the Citadel as long as I have, ya start knowing who’s coming and going from the sounds on the floor.”

He paused and added, “Plus I heard ya swearin’ in the hallway when ya came around the corner. I did tell ya about the loose floorboard near the wall.”

“Yeah, I tripped, so what?” Izuminokami looked so indignant that Mutsunokami burst into laughter.

“Sure, sure. Come on in.”

 

Izuminokami closed the shoji door quietly behind him, and made his way forward to where Mutsunokami sat, sinking into a low crouch next to him. “I brought you something to eat. I know it’s almost dinnertime, but…”

Mutsunokami looked at the tray and chuckled. “It’s always a good time for ice cream. That’s what Master said when Hasebe scolded her for always makin’ this stuff.”

Izuminokami didn’t speak right away, taking his time to sit across from Mutsunokami and watch him bite into a daifuku before finally gathering the courage to speak. “I’m sorry about what Nagasone-san said. I…forgot he’d still be angry about it.”

Mutsunokami waved him off. “Nah, it’s not yer fault.”

“I should have known. I should have remembered.”

 

“Yeah, how could ya have forgotten?” Mutsunokami’s drawl was sarcastic. “Y’know, yer former master’s captain being executed for assassinating my former master? It’s a huge deal.”

“Quit joking around. It’s not funny.”

Mutsunokami shrugged. “Never said it was. To be honest, I’m not mad at the guy. A lot of guys here have unpleasant memories from before they were brought to life by Master, and it takes time for those wounds to heal. It just means more to ya because of your loyalty to the Shinsengumi. Besides, if I can get along with ya well enough, I bet I can get along with Nagasone just fine.”

 

“W-what’s that supposed to mean?” Izuminokami protested indignantly, and Mutsunokami laughed.

“Nothin’, nothin’! All you Shinsengumi swords like to be all high and mighty half the time, don’tcha? But underneath you’re all softies, really. You especially.”

“Wha—” Izuminokami spluttered incomprehensibly and Mutsunokami grinned triumphantly at his lack of composure. “Tha-that’s not…I’m cool and strong, y’know!”

“Right, right, of course ya are.” Mutsunokami’s eyes were twinkling, and perhaps realising that he was making fun of him, Izuminokami turned away with a huff.

 

Neither of them said anything for a while after that, where Mutsunokami munched at the ice cream daifuku, his face creased in thought, and Izuminokami sipped at his tea, finding comfort in the short silence between them. Even though they usually had their playful banter, Izuminokami liked these moments, where they simply enjoyed each other’s company.

 

“Well, anyway.” Mutsunokami coughed delicately, setting down the empty plate on the tray. “That sortie tired me out, so I think I’ll take a kip before meal time.”

The dismissal was obvious, and Izuminokami dipped his head and rose, taking the tray and cups with him. “I’ll see you later, then? At dinner?” he asked, hopefully. They could sit together at the table just as they had for the past few months, talking and drinking, making up stupid challenges during chore duties, just like normal times.

 

To his surprise Mutsunokami smiled. “Eh, if Nagasone will be with ya then maybe I’ll keep my distance.”

The disappointment must have been clear on his face, because then Mutsunokami threw his head back, barking out a hearty laugh. “Ya look like a lost puppy! It’s only for a while! Until he stews things over, anyway.”

“I thought I lost you as a friend!” Izuminokami retorted hotly, feeling his face flame. God, he hated it when Kunihiro was right.

 

“Nah, I ain’t gonna ditch ya over something like that. Don’t worry about it. I’ll see ya for tomorrow’s sortie, anyway. Okehazama, right?”

“Y-yeah.” Izuminokami turned away, his long hair hiding his face, and he was at the door when he stopped again. “You know, I don’t think Nagasone-san really hates you. Not you in particular, anyway. He just hates your master…and what he represented for the Shinsengumi.”

 

Mutsunokami laughed hollowly. “I don’t blame him, really. If I knew that someone in this Citadel had been the reason for Ryouma’s death, I probably wouldn’t forgive ‘em right away, either.”

“…Me neither.”

 

With that, Izuminokami left the room, letting the door slide shut behind him, his heart lighter than it had been before he went in.

Chapter Text

The next day Mutsunokami was immediately let down by the Saniwa’s change in the First Unit lineup.

“Izuminokami-kun will take Mutsunokami-kun’s place as Captain of the Unit, and Nagasone-kun will join them to Okehazama so that he can gain experience on the battlefield. Next, for today’s expeditions……”

 

Mutsunokami barely heard the rest of her words as she continued outlining the day’s schedule, a low murmur rising from the group of swords gathered at the courtyard. Okehazama was a new time period that their Citadel had only recently gotten permission to access, and that meant that this sortie might take more than a day, possibly up to a week.

 

As if reading his mind, Izuminokami turned to him, a slightly wistful expression on his face. “It’s too bad about that,” he remarked. “I guess Master thinks it’s best for you and Nagasone-san to keep some distance for now.”

 

Mutsunokami found his voice after a moment. “Er, yeah! Of course. Pssh, now ya can show off yer skills to him, can’t ya? Don’t make me look bad when I’ve been the one training ya!”

“You just helped a little,” Izuminokami retorted, miffed for a moment, then his gaze softened. “Well, even so, I’m grateful.”

 

Mutsunokami opened his mouth to reply, only to be cut off by Nagasone’s roar from somewhere among the group. “Oi! Izuminokami! Where are you? You’re Captain of the First Unit now, aren’t you? Let’s get this show on the road!”

“I’m coming!” Izuminokami cast a glance at Mutsunokami, hesitating. “I’ll, uh. I’ll be a few days, I guess. I’ll train with you again when I come back, I promise.”

“Y-yeah. I’m holding ya to that.”

 

He couldn’t describe the feeling in his chest, a strange hollowness that seemed to pull at him as he watched Izuminokami walk away, rejoining his Shinsengumi teammates, looking completely at home among them.

Well. It wasn’t like Mutsunokami didn’t have anything else to do. Just because he hung out with Izuminokami every day at every waking moment since he arrived at the Citadel. Before he got here Mutsunokami was spending plenty of time doing other stuff and hanging out with other swords, anyway. Besides, it was only going to be a few days.

 

He could go a few days without him.

 


 

 

Yet Mutsunokami couldn’t help being restless.

 

Within hours of the First Unit’s departure - Mutsunokami had seen them off, out of courtesy of course, since he was attendant, that’s all it was - he’d gone to try and find various things to do to keep himself distracted. He’d done the laundry (hung up exactly 4 blankets before Kasen told him to get out of the way), he’d tended to his horse (snuck it a few sugar cubes before Ichigo came by to take his brothers horse-riding and so he had to leave), and cleaned his room. He’d even polished his prized bottled ships, rearranged the ornaments on his shelves, and reorganised the records of the reports he’d written for the Saniwa.

He returned to the normal routine he used to have. He went about his daily duties, joking around with the other swords, sparring with them, and every mealtime he sat with a different group, sharing gossip with them.

 

But it felt strange, foreign even, and Mutsunokami longed to fall back into the schedule that he shared with Izuminokami, where they ate together, trained together, and talked together, even as they did chores together, for the past three months.

 

On the sunset of the third day, Mutsunokami was undeniably miserable, retreating to his old haunt on the roof of the Citadel, where he laid spread-eagled, the cobbled tiles digging into his back, staring at nothing in particular. He listened to conversations that floated by beneath him, heard the birds sing and the crickets chirp and the shouts of others in training. He willed sleep to come, but it didn’t, and so he counted the butterflies that flew by.

He was seriously considering asking the Saniwa to actually send him somewhere, anywhere, because fighting might be the only thing he hadn’t yet tried to keep his mind occupied, when he heard his Master’s voice calling for him from the courtyard.

 

“Mutsunokami-kun?” She sounded annoyed. “Are you on the roof again?”

Mutsunokami briefly weighed the pros and cons of ignoring her, then thought better of it. “Yeah, I’m here.”

“For goodness’ sake, you never listen when I tell you not to go up there. Alright, I’m coming up. Stay where you are.”

 

Not like there was anywhere else to go, Mutsunokami thought.

 

Moments later he felt rather than heard his Master’s footsteps on the roof tiles, making their way towards him. There was a rustle and she sat down next to him. “I wish you wouldn’t hide up here. I was looking for you everywhere.”

“Well, ya’ve found me,” he answered dully. “What'd ya want?”

“I came here to talk to you about Imanotsurugi-kun.”

 

Mutsunokami’s heart skipped a beat. He sat up. “How’s he doing?”

The Saniwa shook her head. “Not well. He’s been out of sorts since the mission to Hiraizumi, and the others have noticed, as well. He hasn’t told anyone what’s happened, though. I’m sure of it.”

Mutsunokami thought back when Imanotsurugi had returned, alone, from Hiraizumi; the way he drooped like a wilted flower. “Is it wise to make him keep it a secret? Might be better for him if he could talk to someone about it.”

“And cause panic in the whole Citadel?” she sighed. “I’d like for the whole issue to be resolved before I take any drastic steps. I’ve been writing letters to the government, asking them to withdraw those ridiculous requests, and investigating into the Time Retrograde Army to try and tackle the problem from there. I don’t want my swords breaking because of this, physically or otherwise.”

 

“Then what about Imanotsurugi?” Mutsunokami asked quietly.

 

The Saniwa laced her hands on her lap, fingers intertwined. “I’m going to talk to him. Help him relieve his burden. That’s the only thing I can think of that will help him for now.”

“Do your best, I suppose.” He gave her a sideways glance. “Just so ya know, you’re not the best person for him to talk to, Iwatooshi is. Ya might not be able to help much. You’re not tuned to Imanotsurugi the same way. It’s like tellin’ Horikawa to talk to me instead of to Izuminokami.”

She smiled. “I know. I do know you all better than you know yourselves, you know. Some days it makes me feel like a parent, like you’re all my kids.”

“Yeah?” Mutsunokami broke into a grin.

“Yep.” The Saniwa looked at him, a twinkle in her eye. “Also, interesting of you to bring up Izuminokami-kun just now.”

 

“…Eh?”

“Well, you’re only up here because you’re sulking, aren’t you?”

“I’m not sulking!”

 

The Saniwa raised an eyebrow at him. “You’re being moody, you’re not cracking jokes like you usually do, and you’re ignoring quite a lot of people. You’re definitely sulking.” When he didn’t answer her, she nudged his shoulder. “It’s about Izuminokami-kun, isn’t it?”

 

“…How’d ya know?”

“I do pay attention to you all,” she replied dryly. “I saw the expression on your face when I took you off the First Unit roster. And your training sessions with him don’t go unnoticed, either. The two of you are supposed to be rivals, and yet you’re spending quite some time together.”

 

Mutsunokami said nothing, and after a moment the Saniwa said quietly, “You like him, don’t you?”

 

He choked. “Wha—of course not! We’re—we’re just friends!”

“You’re blushing,” the Saniwa pointed out.

“Am not!” His heartbeat was quickening too much for his liking, so he stood up abruptly, turning away from his Master. These human bodies sure were annoying, betraying his emotions with actions. “What makes ya think I—”

 

“Before you ask, no, it’s not immediately obvious,” she interrupted, halting his incoherent spluttering. “I was merely curious because you weren’t at each other’s throats anymore. Then I started paying attention, is all. You’re restless because you’re pining for him.”

 

Dazed, Mutsunokami sat back down. “I-is that what this is, then?” His hand rose to touch lightly at his chest. “That’s what I’m feeling?”

The Saniwa glanced at him thoughtfully, a searching look on her face. “I think you’re lonely, and in a way, you’re also jealous because you’re not with him right now while others are. But yes. You miss him.”

Mutsunokami exhaled, slowly, willing his rapid heartbeat to slow down. Things were starting to come together in his head - how he looked forward to seeing Izuminokami, how he paid attention to his quirks and habits, how he knew the way his eyes were slightly different colours: turquoise on the surface, but more green when he was excited or angry, and more blue when he was upset. “I—shit. What do I do now, then?”

 

The Saniwa shrugged, smiling. “That’s up to you. If I could make a suggestion, though: when they come back, make up with Nagasone-kun first. It would mean a lot to Izuminokami-kun.”

“Geh!”

 

The Saniwa gave him a prompt whack at the back of his head. “That’s not the reaction you had when I told you to make up with Izuminokami-kun after he arrived. Guess you do have a weak spot for him after all.”

Mutsunokami grimaced. “We’re just friends,” he repeated.

 

The Saniwa only shook her head at him. “You know, I remember the first days of the Citadel as clearly as ever. When it was just you and Yagen-kun, and the two of you would make up the First Unit and go out to sorties while I stayed back here, trying to forge new allies for you to come back home to. My duty and responsibility was to the government and completing the requests they sent to fix time distortions, but I couldn’t help being worried whenever I watched you go. Just the pair of you, taking on the Time Retrograde Army.”

“Aw, c’mon—”

“I thought it would be better for you all if you had something to fight for that wasn’t just my orders. A purpose. Something for them to recognise the Citadel as home rather than just their master’s headquarters. Yagen-kun found that quite quickly, when his brothers arrived,” his Master remarked with a wry smile. “But you were an exception. You made friends with everyone, you polished your skills to become the best fighter here, and you dreamed of the future, but some days it was as though you were lacking something.”

 

Mutsunokami scratched his head. “What’re ya trying to say?”

“I might be wrong, but, well, just know that I’m glad Izuminokami-kun is here. And I’m glad that the two of you are close.” The Saniwa stood up, brushing down her robe. “I’m going to go talk to Imanotsurugi-kun then. I’ll keep you updated on the Retrograde Army’s actions. Get some rest, and maybe think over what Izuminokami-kun really means to you.”

 


 

 

That night, after a filling dinner, Mutsunokami retired to his room. He flopped down onto his futon, his head swimming with thoughts. His candle was burning low, and idly Mutsunokami thought to get up and extinguish it properly to go to bed, but sleep was overtaking him, and he closed his eyes, letting his dreams engulf him.

 

 

There was a fair wind and the ship sliced through the sea at a swift pace, moving with purpose at full sail. He stood at the helm proudly, hands on the wheel, his skin rough on the wooden handles.

 

In front of him the sea stretched endlessly, a mass of grey-green water upon which his ship sailed. For miles he could see nothing but sea and sky; a pale cloudless blue above a deep glittering emerald. He tore his gaze from the ocean and scanned the deck below him, where his crew were, some working on securing rope, some relaxing against the dark cannons that adorned the edge of the railing. Men carried crates and rolled barrels to and fro, and the low murmur of their chattering was barely audible over the crash of the waves and the cries of the seagulls circling above.

Leaving the wheel to his quartermaster, he bounded down across the deck, enjoying the feel of damp wood beneath his feet, and went up to the bowsprit, peering over the edge to watch in fascination as the seawater churned beneath the ship’s hull, foaming white against the dark wood, steady in its course.

 

He spread his arms wide, eyes closed. He felt the ocean spray scattering on his face, the wind whipping about his wild hair, and he let out an exhilarated laugh.

It felt as though he had been on a ship his whole life - born with his sea legs, he could haul in the mainsail and get up the rigging alongside his men just as well as they can, and of course the ship itself was a beauty, a vessel that was weatherly and sleek.

 

There was a cry from one of the shipmates, and Mutsunokami glanced towards the land that approached, lush trees beyond the white sand. The wind was beginning to calm, the rippling sound of his crew pulling from full sail to half sail, to better manoeuvre the vessel into the cove.

 

“Where are we?” he asked, and, inexplicably, his Master was next to him, looking almost like the angelic figurehead on the prow of his ship in her white robes and veil.

 

“Where you belong,” she said.

 

It was foreign and familiar all at once, and eagerly Mutsunokami ran to the edge of the deck, leaning over the railing to see the ship pushing into the calmer waves of the inlet, his heartbeat quickening. Though he loved the high seas, setting sail across the unpredictable waters in search of adventure and discovery, part of him yearned for the sanctuary of home on land, where life was warm and content.

 

“Look,” said the Saniwa, pointing. “You’re home.”

He saw a figure in the distance, waving at him, silhouetted against the sun, and he frowned, trying to identify the newcomer.

 

The gangboard was lowered with a gentle thump, connecting the path to the dock, and Mutsunokami made his way down to the beach, squinting against the sunlight in his eyes.

“Ryouma?” he called, uncertainly, taking a step forward for a closer look—

 

“Mutsunokami-san! Wake up!”

 

Mutsunokami jerked awake with a confused mumble, twisting restlessly in his blanket. He blinked groggily in the sunlight that streamed through the paper-thin shoji into his room, warming the end of the bed.

His dream vanished like mist in the dawn, and he rolled over on a cooler patch of the futon, burying his face into the pillow.

Who was that in his dream? He couldn’t see them clearly…

 

There was another round of knocking, the rapping sound insistent on the wood. “Wake up!”

 

“Uh?” He lifted his head, eyes still squeezed shut. “Whozzit?”

 

“Mutsunokami-san!” The voice was unmistakably Gokotai’s.

Instinctively he sat up, more alert, energy buzzing through him. “What’s up? Is something wrong?”

 

“It’s the First Unit!” Gokotai sounded breathless. “They’re back!”

Chapter Text

Everybody in the Citadel knew that, to some extent, Izuminokami Kanesada was a complete dunce, and that Horikawa Kunihiro was a godsend to be able to put up with him.

That didn’t mean that Horikawa didn’t have to face a multitude of problems concerning his partner, though.

 

And now Horikawa had a new problem.

 

Okay, he always had a problem to solve, like waking up in time to do some laundry before Izuminokami got up, or helping Izuminokami brush out his hair before kitchen duty at breakfast, or getting Izuminokami ready for sorties before handling himself. Not that these were actually problems, just small obstacles and tasks that he surpassed every day, because that was his job. As Izuminokami Kanesada’s partner and assistant.

 

Except this time it was a pretty big problem, and it took the shape of one Mutsunokami Yoshiyuki.

 

Horikawa hadn’t really been too worried when Izuminokami manifested and promptly picked a fight with Mutsunokami. That was what Yasusada and Kiyomitsu had also done by reflex, and everyone, including Horikawa, had attributed it to their Shinsengumi roots and left it at that. Both of Okita’s swords ended up getting along well with Mutsunokami later anyway, so Horikawa was convinced the same would happen for Izuminokami.

It did, but not in the way that Horikawa had expected.

 

Horikawa had missed exactly one morning of daily chores, having been tasked to help Urashima find Kamekichi among the cabbage patches, and by the time Izuminokami had come back from horse duty with Mutsunokami, the two were soaked from head to toe and bickering, but laughing with one another like old friends.

When Horikawa asked just why the hell they were both sopping wet, Mutsunokami had only shrugged and given a vague reply of “stuff happened”. Izuminokami had immediately launched into a rant about how Mutsunokami had kicked him into the river because he was a sore loser, and that was why he fell in too so he deserved it, the bastard. That answered a lot of questions.

 

Normally Horikawa would have left it at that, but this kept happening. Not Mutsunokami pushing Izuminokami into rivers, but the two of them practically spending every waking moment together. That was when Horikawa began to pay attention to the signs.

 

Sure, friends could have training sessions together in exchange for chore duty favours. Sure, friends could have heart-to-heart talks during breaks in between folding laundry. And sure, friends could nick each other’s food for fun.

Not that that was a good thing, because Izuminokami hated stewed vegetables and Mutsunokami always ate them for him when they thought Horikawa wasn’t looking. Which was honestly a little offensive. He may be small but he’s not blind.

 

But then Mutsunokami was a little too friendly to just fit in the category of “enemies-in-the-past-life-and-now-reluctant-allies-slash-rivals”. He hung out with Izuminokami all the time, popping cheerfully into his room in the mornings, enthusiastic for the day’s chores and their habitual afternoon training sessions, and sat next to him at meals. He laughed at Izuminokami’s haikus (which Horikawa thought were genius) but helped him improve them, and drew silly pictures to go with them and made Izuminokami laugh, too. He brought sake and dessert every other night to Izuminokami’s room (honestly, how many ice cream mochi can that man eat in one sitting?) when the other was working on a report or a poem at the desk, and lazed around gossiping, or lying on his side picking at his ear or scratching his stomach, or falling asleep leaning against Izuminokami’s back until Horikawa or Kasen came in and shooed him out.

 

And therein lies the problem.

 

“Enemies-in-the-past-life-and-now-reluctant-allies-slash-rivals” didn’t do that. Friends did that, sure, but Mutsunokami didn’t do that with every other sword that he was friendly with in the Citadel. After weeks of observation, Horikawa then came to the conclusion that “Mutsunokami likes Kane-san”.

 

See, a lot of people liked Izuminokami. Horikawa didn’t blame them. He was cool and strong and he’s his partner, so that’s to be expected. The tantous liked him and called him Izumin and braided his hair when they thought he wouldn’t notice (he did). The other wakizashis teased Horikawa about looking after Izuminokami all the time, but he knew they admired his skills all the same. Everyone else respected him because despite his occasional blunders and slowness when it came to social cues and jokes (Tsurumaru-san had a LOT of fun making sexual innuendos the other day and was pleasantly surprised to find that Izuminokami needed help understanding them), Izuminokami was a good fighter and the Master favoured him.

 

But this was a different kind of like. Horikawa saw it in the way Mutsunokami acted: how he put in an extra effort for him, from improving his swordplay to studying at the library with him to catch up on history, from teaching him to use a bow and arrow (Izuminokami still refused to use a gun, and besides, he argued that there was only one and it was Mutsunokami’s) to going beetle-hunting with him. And the way he looked at Izuminokami like he was the brightest thing he’d ever seen in his life.

 

That wasn’t the main problem. Relationships weren’t uncommon in the Citadel, what with Yasusada and Kiyomitsu, and Ishikirimaru and Nikkari. The problem was that Izuminokami didn’t seem to notice that Mutsunokami liked him.

 

So yes, Izuminokami was a bit of a dunce. Especially when it came to relationships, and as Kasen once eloquently put it, he had zero understanding of romantic knowledge, attributing to his perpetual ignorance of Mutsunokami’s feelings towards him.

 

It should have been painfully obvious whenever they were sent out on sortie together (note: it was always), that Mutsunokami would always fall into step next to him, opposite to Horikawa, that he always talked more enthusiastically with Izuminokami over everyone else. There were times that Horikawa noticed his occasional shy, stolen glances towards his partner, or even just times that they fought side by side and Mutsunokami would, without hesitation, throw himself into harm’s way to cover for and help Izuminokami.

Horikawa noticed these things because they were things that he would have done for Izuminokami, because he was his partner. But Mutsunokami wasn’t Kane-san’s partner. And the last time Horikawa checked, friends weren’t so fiercely protective of each other that they forgot that the other person was also an accomplished warrior and could handle themselves just fine, thank you very much. Even to the point of fussing over their injuries.

 

Horikawa was starting to get sick of it. It was annoying to see Mutsunokami trying so hard and Izuminokami not noticing it. He had to talk to him and make him see sense.

 


 

 

His opportunity came when the Master changed the First Unit’s lineup for the Okehazama mission and switched out Mutsunokami for Nagasone instead. Finally, a sortie without Mutsunokami sticking his nose in.

 

Except this wasn’t really something Horikawa knew how to bring up in the spur of the moment, like now, when they were camping out in the forest, waiting for the afternoon thunderstorm to pass and to keep an eye on Oda Nobunaga’s forces as they crept up on the Imagawa army. Izuminokami was busy detailing their plans for scouting and attacking to the rest of the team, looking like a real proper Captain instead of an oblivious guy that someone else was crushing on.

He couldn’t take it any longer. This problem was just going to get bigger. As soon as Izuminokami stopped talking Horikawa jumped up. “Izuminokami, let’s patrol the area together!”

 

They all stared at him. “In this weather?” Izuminokami asked, gesturing out to the pouring rain.

“Er…well, the Time Retrograde Army probably don’t mind getting wet, right? And we’d be in a bind if we were cornered now. Just a quick sweep of the perimeter, to make sure.” As long as I can talk to you properly, you big idiot.

 

Possibly alarmed at the prospect of having a conduct a thorough search of their surroundings in the rain and most likely getting his hair and clothes wet, Izuminokami looked helplessly at the rest of the team.

Everyone immediately averted their gaze, Taroutachi asking Nagasone in a loud voice how he was finding his new life as a human, Nagasone answering just as loudly, and Honebami looking entirely absorbed in polishing his sword.

“Bastards,” Izuminokami muttered, and Horikawa suppressed a smile as he stood up, grudgingly shuffling over to join him. “Come on, then, Kunihiro.”

 

It was slightly hilarious to see Izuminokami hesitating at the mouth of the campsite, squinting out at the rain as if it was poison. Then, gritting his teeth, he stomped out into the forest, boots flinging mud. Quickly Horikawa hurried after him, shivered a little as the rain hit him, too, and ducked under Izuminokami’s arm, holding his haori above him for cover.

“What the hell? You get an umbrella but I don’t?”

“It’s not like this will hold for long,” Horikawa pointed out.

Izuminokami growled. His hair was already completely soaked, his bangs falling all over his face like a wet curtain. It reminded Horikawa of the day Mutsunokami pushed Izuminokami into the river.

 

“Kane-san, there’s something I need to talk to you about.”

“Can this wait until after I’m dry again?”

Horikawa bit his lip. “No, it’s urgent.”

Izuminokami sighed. “Let’s at least find a tree to take cover for a minute.”

 

Once they did, under a large oak, Horikawa waited until Izuminokami was comfortable, which took a while since Izuminokami insisted on wringing the water out of his hair and for Horikawa to help him do it, because this patrol was his stupid idea. Horikawa felt that it was pointless since they’d have to go out in the rain again to go back to camp, but did it anyway because he asked.

 

“Well? What did you want to talk about?”

Horikawa sat down on an upturned root, giving Izuminokami a serious look. “You have a problem.”

 

“What? I do? Where?” Izuminokami glanced down at himself, possibly looking for a torn sleeve, or his armour hanging askew.

“At the Citadel.”

“The Citadel? Did I leave my candle lit when I left? Wait, that couldn’t have been it, it definitely wasn’t lit because it was morning when we left, so I would have extinguished it at night…”

“No, it’s not a thing. It’s a person.” Horikawa peered at him. “This really doesn’t ring any bells?”

Izuminokami frowned. “A person? Was it Nosada? I apologised about clogging up the drain with my hair already.”

“Not that person!” Gods help him. “Another person.”

 

At last Izuminokami’s expression cleared. “What, Mutsunokami? How’s he a problem?”

 

“Of course he’s a problem!” Horikawa wanted to tear out his hair. Okay, okay. Don’t get angry. “He’s your problem. When was the last time you had a sortie without him?”

“Uh, this one?”

“And before that?”

“I’ve had every sortie with him. That’s not a problem. That’s the Master’s orders. She told Mutsunokami to show me the ropes, remember?”

Horikawa rolled his eyes. “Okay, fine. When was the last time you had a meal without him?”

Izuminokami looked affronted. “Look, he’s the one who keeps challenging me to these stupid contests every mealtime. Who can eat the most bowls of rice, who can make a picture out of the vegetables, who can catapult food into their mouth with the highest arc—”

“Yeah, I remember the last one.” Horikawa grimaced. “Didn’t Tsurumaru-san start a food fight over it?”

 

They were both silent for a minute, thinking back on the chaos that had erupted that fateful autumn day.

“That was…”

“Disastrous,” Horikawa supplied.

“I was going to say fun.” Izuminokami shrugged. “So that’s Mutsunokami’s problem.”

 

“No it isn’t! It’s your problem! He’s only challenging you to those stupid contests, isn’t he?” Horikawa needed a new tactic to approach this. He racked his brain for ideas. And came up empty. There was no other way around it. “Kane-san, do you like Mutsunokami-san?”

 

“Like him?” Izuminokami made a face. “No. He’s annoying.”

Horikawa crossed his arms. “Okay, then why do you let him hang out with you all the time? He’s even in your room after dinner and bothering you until Kasen-san or I come in and tell him to get out.”

“Well, he comes in by himself,” Izuminokami said defensively. “And why should I shoo him out if he brings sake and dessert every time he does? He has the worst kicked puppy face whenever he has to leave. Besides, he falls asleep better in my room because it’s closer to the beach than his room is and the smell of the sea soothes him. And he’s not that bad company. He’s funny, and he helps with my training.”

“So you do like him.”

“No I don’t!”

 

Horikawa gave him a sweet smile. “You know what, just give me a second.” He stood up, picked up a tree branch, and chucked it as hard as he could into the distance with a cry of frustration. It hit a rock some metres away and the branch snapped in half, and Horikawa turned back to Izuminokami, the same smile on his face. “Okay, I’m good.”

“Kunihiro?” Izuminokami asked uncertainly. “Are you pissed at me?”

“Of course not, why would you think that?” Without giving him time to reply Horikawa pointed an accusing finger at him. “Kane-san, I’m sorry to tell you this, but Mutsunokami-san has a crush on you, and you also have a crush on him, no matter how much you try to deny it.”

 

What?”

“Yes.”

“No I don’t.”

“Mhmm.”

“No!”

 

“Didn’t you want to fight him the first time you saw him?” Horikawa asked.

“Well, yeah.”

“Why is that?”

“Because…our masters were enemies! But emphasis on “were”. You’re the one who told me not to fight him anymore.”

Horikawa rubbed at his temples. “Is that the only reason?”

“Yes!” Izuminokami insisted. “Wait, no. Also, the Shinsengumi code says not to engage in private fights. That’s why I let Mutsunokami go.”

 

“You said he had a kicked puppy face, right?” Horikawa challenged. “Did he have that expression when we left the Citadel to come here?”

Izuminokami paused. “Well, yeah.”

“And why is that?”

“…because he can’t come?”

“Yes, and that means…?” It was like talking to a child sometimes.

“That…he…really wanted to come and fight?”

“No, it’s because he misses you! Don’t you miss him right now?”

 

Izuminokami froze. “What? I—no. I mean, I do. But I’m just not used to…”

“Him not being next to you?” Horikawa finished for him.

There was a pregnant pause. Horikawa could practically see the cogs turning in Izuminokami’s head, and the moment that everything came together with a click and his expression cleared.

 

“Shit,” Izuminokami muttered. “Shit, you’re right. Kunihiro, you’re right! You’re a genius!”

 

Finally. “Well of course.” Horikawa smiled proudly. “I’m Kane-san’s partner and assistant, after all.”

 

“Now it all makes sense,” Izuminokami went on. He looked lost in thought, almost distracted. “How did I not notice this?”

Great. Good. Problem solved. Now that Izuminokami knew about this, he could deal with it properly. One fewer problem for Horikawa to solve. Hopefully. Izuminokami was still muttering under his breath so maybe he had a few things to sort out.

 

“Oh, the rain’s stopped!” Happily Horikawa bounded out from beneath the cover of the tree, grinning up at the clearing skies. “Kane-san, we can go back to the camp now!”

“Yeah, yeah.” Izuminokami stood up, brushing down his clothes. He was still smiling. “Around this time, Oda’s forces should be close to Imagawa’s camp. Let’s get this mission over with and go home.”

 

“Excited to see Mutsunokami-san?” Horikawa teased.

Izuminokami flicked him in the forehead. “Don’t you get smart with me. Though…” He paused, looking sheepish. “When I get back to the Citadel…what should I do? Should I say something? Or do something to let him know? I mean, I’ve never really done anything like this before, and…”

 

Ah, well, some things never changed.

“Don’t worry about it, Kane-san.” Horikawa patted him reassuringly on the shoulder. “Leave it to me. I’ll be the perfect logistical support.”

Chapter Text

“Alright everyone, good work!”

 

There was a chorus of agreement from his teammates, and Izuminokami looked over them proudly. “It’s been a tough few days, but when we get back to the Citadel, the sake’s on me.”

“Oh?” Taroutachi’s eyes gleamed. “That’s very generous of you.”

 

“You bet.” Izuminokami turned to Horikawa. “Could you gather up the troops? I’ve already contacted the Citadel and they’ll be ready to take us back anytime now.”

His partner nodded. “Sure. I’ll go with Honebami to check for any resources we can bring with us too. Kane-san—”

 

“Izuminokami.”

“Nagasone-san.” Izuminokami nodded towards him in acknowledgement, turning away from Horikawa before he could finish his sentence. “How are you doing?”

 

“A little tired, but nothing I can’t handle.”

“You know, when I first arrived, the Master didn’t let me go on sorties until a week later because I was so out of it,” Izuminokami explained, an embarrassed grin on his face. “But look at you, off with the First Unit on your second day! You’re way better off than I was.”

“To be frank, when the Master told me about the enemies we’d be fighting, I didn’t think it’d be this kind of enemy.” Nagasone gestured vaguely. “Demons who know swordfighting and flying skeletons? Who would’ve thought.”

Izuminokami shrugged. “That’s the kind of battles we have to fight for our current master. Sure beats killing real people, in my book.”

“Mm, you’re right. Moreover, I’m more impressed with you.” Nagasone clapped him on the shoulder with a jovial chuckle. “With what Horikawa had been telling me when I came out of the forge, I was expecting you to be like a newborn foal, all spindly-like and unsure of yourself. But,” His amber gaze grew warm. “It was like seeing Hijikata at work all over again.”

 

Izuminokami grinned bashfully, though his expression was proud. “Thanks.  I’ve just had good training, that’s all.”

At that, Nagasone’s smile seemed to fade a little. “Yeah, I heard from Kashuu before we got dispatched. You’ve been training with Mutsunokami, huh?”

 

Izuminokami shifted uncomfortably. They’d managed to avoid bringing this up in their conversations in the last few days of their sortie here in Okehazama, and Izuminokami had been grateful for the distraction, pleased to be able to throw himself into the thick of the battle. After having spoken to Horikawa, too, now he knew that the issue had still been heavy on Nagasone’s mind.

 

He took a deep breath. “Look, what happened when you first appeared - it was my fault, really, I just completely forgot about the past for a second. I was just so glad to find out that you were here, y’know? A-and I don’t know if the Master told you, but I picked a fight with Mutsunokami on my first day at the Citadel too!” he added quickly with a forced laugh. “But now we’ve made up and we’re—”

“Friends,” Nagasone finished for him, and Izuminokami’s words died in his throat. “That’s what you called him, when I asked you why you were defending him. You said he was your friend.”

 

There was no accusatory tone in his voice. He was simply stating the fact. Izuminokami swallowed. “Y-yeah. I did say that.”

 

Nagasone made a humming sound, eyeing him thoughtfully. “Alright.”

“Eh?”

“I said alright.” Nagasone smiled at his hopeful expression. “Now that doesn’t mean I accept him. Let’s just agree that I won’t try to punch him as soon as I see him. The Master did give me an earful the other day, you know. No guarantees on if he provokes me first, though.”

 

Relief washed over him. “He won’t! I mean.” Izuminokami cleared his throat, trying to look composed. “Wait till we get back to the Citadel, and you two can…talk it over. I’m sure it’ll all work out.”

Nagasone grinned at him. “Gotta be honest, can’t say I’m looking forward to that, but we’ll see.”

 

Izuminokami made a face and Nagasone laughed. “Come on, don’t be like that.”

“Kane-san!” Kunihiro called from the distance. “The Citadel is ready to take us back!”

“Alright!” Beckoning Nagasone forward, Izuminokami joined the rest of his team gathered at the foot of the hill. At Kunihiro’s shoulder hung a bag, bulky with coal and wood they’d found, and he gave Izuminokami a smile as he and Nagasone approached.

 

“How’d it go?” he asked in a low voice as he fell into step next to him.

“Good. I think it’ll be fine.” He raised his voice, addressing his teammates - Taroutachi, Honebami, Kunihiro and Nagasone. “We ready to go home?”

 

Above them, the sky flashed once, and with a distant rumble the familiar ring of golden light yawned open among the grey clouds, streaks of blue light blazing down in jagged forks.

Izuminokami closed his eyes as the light flooded them. There was a moment of weightlessness, warmth tingling throughout his entire body.

And then, darkness.

 


 

 

He heard the Citadel’s bell clanging in the distance, announcing their return, even before he opened his eyes. Izuminokami waited until the light had faded, and looked out across the courtyard, where pale morning sunlight now spilled across the grass. It had been nighttime when they left Okehazama, but as usual, time progressed differently here than in the past. He wondered how many days had gone by here.

 

There was a slide of a shoji door and Izuminokami glanced towards the direction of the sound hopefully - also acutely aware that Horikawa was eyeing him with some amusement - and tried not to look to disappointed as Kasen headed towards them, his gaze warm in his jade eyes as he approached the pedestal. “Welcome back, Izuminokami.”

“Hey, Nosada.” Izuminokami smiled at his elder brother. “You rang the bell, huh?”

“Yes. I was closest to it since I was admiring the flowers, and I saw the light come down…”

 

“Master usually comes to greet us when we come back,” he remarked, trying not to sound too obvious. “Who’s attendant today?”

 

Kasen’s lips pursed. “Oh, that’ll be—”

 

There was a resounding crash, startling everyone at the courtyard, and Izuminokami whipped around. “Mutsunokami?”

 

It was the person Izuminokami had been hoping to see, though not quite in the state that he was expecting.

Somehow Mutsunokami had managed to fall from the engawa down to the courtyard gardens in his haste, knocking down a potted plant in the middle of his unceremonious tumble which lay shattered next to him. His navy haori hung loosely from his shoulders and his hair was messier than usual as if he’d just woken up - he probably did, honestly - but his eyes were alight with laughter. He pushed himself up quickly from his half-crouch, beaming as he bounded forward to meet them.

 

If there was anybody that Izuminokami would have been embarrassed to admit to that Mutsunokami was his friend in that moment, the first would have been Nosada, who at times looked more like a disapproving father than his elder brother, and the second would have been Nagasone, whom Izuminokami respected like a commander. And both were currently present to witness Mutsunokami’s unsightly appearance.

Izuminokami wondered if there was a hole big enough for him to climb into and die.

 

“Well, if it isn’t the First Unit!” Mutsunokami declared, skidding to a halt in front of them, grinning broadly as if nothing had happened. “Welcome back, welcome back!”

 

Izuminokami found his voice, the exasperation evident in his tone. “Why are you so stupid? Did you not look where you were going?”

“Eh?”

“You broke an entire potted plant in that inelegant spectacle, you utter buffoon.” Kasen pointed at the aforementioned mess, looking displeased.

“Oh. Oh!” Mutsunokami gave a loud laugh, sheepish. “Haha, my bad! No worries, I’ll clean it up before the Master sees! It’s too early for her to be up and about anyway.”

 

This was not how Izuminokami had envisioned their reunion. He sighed and Horikawa smiled patiently. “Well, that’s Mutsunokami-san for you, I guess.”

 

“Mutsunokami Yoshiyuki.”

Nagasone took a step forward, and Izuminokami’s grin faded. He found himself automatically backing off as Nagasone towered over Mutsunokami. Next to him he saw Horikawa quickly shooing away a baffled Honebami and Taroutachi, urging them to leave the vicinity in case things got violent. Kasen stayed put by his side, his narrowed gaze moving between the two of them.

Mutsunokami looked up at Nagasone, a challenging glint in his eyes. “Yeah?”

 

Nagasone crossed his arms over his chest. “You’ve been friends with Izuminokami ever since he got here. Helping him around, training him.”

“Yeah, what about it?”

“Thought Sakamoto Ryouma hardly ever used you to kill people. Doubt your skills are any better than what he’s got from Hijikata.”

“What, yer still insultin’ me?" Mutsunokami exclaimed.

 

Izuminokami shifted his weight awkwardly from one foot to the other, and Horikawa nudged Nagasone. In response the taller man sighed, running a hand through his hair. “Fine. Just so you know, I still don’t like you. But I don’t doubt Izuminokami’s judge of character, so—”

He extended a hand towards him. Izuminokami held his breath as Mutsunokami looked down at it, then back at Nagasone again as he continued, “To be clear, this isn’t an apology. My former master was still executed after being blamed for assassinating yours, and nothing will change that - including us arguing and fighting about it.”

“No, I was wrong too,” Mutsunokami interrupted hurriedly. “Ya were just outta the forge and I’ve been here long enough to know that everybody gets here with the memories of their pasts still intact. I shouldn’t have egged ya on. So I’m sorry, too.”

 

Nagasone cleared his throat. “So, a truce?”

A grin spread over Mutsunokami’s face and he took Nagasone’s hand, shaking it firmly. “Yep. I’m good with that.”

 

Izuminokami exhaled in relief.

 

Next to him, Horikawa was mouthing something at Mutsunokami from behind Nagasone’s back.

Mutsunokami’s luminous eyes suddenly gleamed, his expression cheeky. “Man, with a grip like that, I’d destroy ya in arm-wrestling.”

Nagasone paused, and Izuminokami tore at his hair in frustration. “WHY WOULD YOU SAY THAT.”

 

Nagasone’s amber eyes had a feral glint in them. “That sounds like a challenge, Mutsunokami.”

 


 

 

“I still don’t know why you said that.”

“Hey, I was just trying to diffuse the tension!” Mutsunokami protested, rubbing ruefully at his right arm. “And I did beat him, twice!”

“Yeah, versus the other eighteen times he walloped you,” Izuminokami pointed out.

 

A few hours had passed since their return, and the two of them had returned to Izuminokami’s room (to be more precise, Izuminokami went back to his room to write the sortie report for the Saniwa, and Mutsunokami followed him). They had finished an eventful breakfast at the dining hall, where half the Citadel had crowded around Mutsunokami and Nagasone as their arm-wrestling competition went underway.

Hasebe had thrown a fit when they almost (key word: almost) broke the wooden table, and Kasen’s lecture on how the Citadel was filled with “unrefined ruffians” had fallen on deaf ears (aside from Sayo, the only one who listened) since everyone was busy placing bets on who would win each match.

Though the Saniwa later chided them for causing such a ruckus, Izuminokami could tell that she was secretly pleased that Mutsunokami and Nagasone had made up.

 

Though Izuminokami was fully aware that this was all Horikawa’s idea. “Perfect logistical support”, his ass.

Even so…maybe this could be his opportunity to set things straight.

 

Rummaging in his closet, Izuminokami found what he was looking for and drew it out. “Oh, here it is. Hey, catch.” He tossed it at Mutsunokami, who caught it with his other hand and peered at the bottle.

“What’s this?”

“Some kind of ointment that Nosada gave me. He makes it out of herbs and things, and it’s pretty nifty. You should put some on your arm.”

 

“Oh?” Mutsunokami sounded gratified. “Thanks a lot.”

He set the bottle down by his side and fiddled with the linen strips around his forearm, trying to unknot it with his left hand. Izuminokami watched him struggle with it for a few seconds, before clicking his tongue and shuffling over. “Let me.”

 

Sheepishly Mutsunokami offered his arm towards him, and deftly Izuminokami worked on unravelling the cloth, his brow creased in concentration. “I’m beginning to understand what Kunihiro must feel like all the time, patching me up and cleaning up after me. He’s kind of like a mom that way.”

“Ya only just realised?”

Izuminokami spluttered. “A-anyway. I can’t believe you’re this clumsy. It’s like you’ve been out of it as soon as I got back.”

“Ah…” For some reason the tips of Mutsunokami’s ears were pink. “I was just excited to see ya, that’s all.”

 

Izuminokami found that he couldn’t think of anything to reply to that, so he ducked his head and focused on the bandages on Mutsunokami’s arm instead, suddenly feeling warm around his ears.

Neither of them said anything for a while, and Izuminokami realised that he’d missed this, missed spending time with Mutsunokami, whether they traded jibes or sat in silence, as long as they enjoyed each other’s company. He wondered if Mutsunokami could tell that he was acting more different than usual.

 

“So…” Mutsunokami cleared his throat. “How, er, how are ya doing?”

Izuminokami raised an eyebrow. “How am I “doing”? Do you just want to hear the sortie report or something? If you do I’d rather you wait till I finish writing it then, instead of having me say it twice.”

“Not the report! Jeez, a guy can’t make conversation around here?” He looked affronted. “C’mon, it’s been a few days, is all. I’m just asking.”

 

“Nothing special.” Izuminokami shrugged, trying to sound casual. “Just so you know, I didn’t say anything to Nagasone. I thought he was still mad, so I kept my distance. I think Kunihiro might have talked to him, but he came to the decision to forgive you by himself.”

“That’s…nice of him.”

 

The bandages fell from Izuminokami’s hands, gathered in a small pile between them. Without looking at Mutsunokami directly, Izuminokami drew up his sleeves and pulled off his black gloves, folding them on his lap; he took the bottle from next to Mutsunokami and uncorked it, pouring a little onto his palm. He reached out and took Mutsunokami’s arm, rubbing the ointment on his wrist and down his forearm, spreading it evenly across his skin.

Mutsunokami shifted. “Ya sure know a lot about how to do this.”

“Nosada likes to talk a lot about it whenever he gives me a new bottle, showing me how to use it correctly and how I have to be presentable and elegant like he is.” Izuminokami secured the knot around the bandages, tapping it lightly and releasing Mutsunokami’s hand with a delicate cough. “Okay, you’re probably still sore, so keep the ointment on until it dries off. Don’t put your bandages back on till tonight. If you still hurt by tomorrow then you’ll have to put it on again.”

 

He realised after a moment that Mutsunokami was staring at him, a little open-mouthed, and the tips of his ears red. “What?” he snapped, unsettled. This was making him feel prickly all over. Knowing about Mutsunokami and knowing how to deal with it were two different things.

“N-nothing. It’s just…I coulda done it myself,” Mutsunokami replied meekly.

Izuminokami rolled his eyes, pretending to be dismissive. “Yeah, with your left hand? You’re more likely to waste all of it, and Nosada will have my head. Can’t you just say thank you like a normal person?”

“…Thanks.”

 

He was acting weird, too. Izuminokami shook his head, not knowing how to bring it up, and stoppered the bottle again, putting it away back into his drawer. “And you? What’d you do these days?”

“Chores. I kept myself busy. Was weird doing it with other people again.” Mutsunokami yawned, lying down on his back on the floor as Izuminokami bustled around the desk, taking out paper and his brush. He scratched idly at his stomach. “Yamanbagiri wasn’t really in the mood for a horse race, you know?”

Izuminokami laughed. The tight knot in his stomach was loosening a little, thankfully. “But it’s so easy to beat you.”

“Hey! My record isn’t so easily broken, ya know!”

“Speaking of breaking.” Izuminokami turned to look at him. “Did you ever clean up that plant you broke?”

 

Mutsunokami’s eyes widened. “Oh, crap!” He scrambled to his feet. “The Master’s gonna kill me. I’ll be right back!”

“What? Stop freeloading in my room!” Izuminokami barely finished his yell as Mutsunokami practically tumbled out to the engawa, haphazardly sliding the shoji door closed - he didn’t even close it properly, the slob - and his footsteps thumping down the corridor and disappearing into the distance.

 

Izuminokami shook his head with an amused chuckle, and returned to his work, picking up the brush and beginning to write.

 

Maybe he didn’t need to bring it up. Just staying like this was fine.

 


 

 

He was so absorbed in his work that he didn’t realise that over an hour had passed, until Horikawa knocked on the half-open door and informed him that it was noon.

“Already?” Izuminokami peered outside his window; the sun was high up in the sky, the air warm. “That was fast. Mutsunokami hasn’t even come back yet.”

“Perhaps he’s already at the dining hall?” Kunihiro suggested.

Izuminokami grunted. “Maybe. I’m gonna finish this report then meet you there, okay?”

“Alright. Come soon, or your food will get cold.” Horikawa closed the door, and Izuminokami frowned down at the report he was trying to conclude.

 

“Resources acquired…ah, Kunihiro was in charge of that, but none of us checked over it properly…” The Saniwa liked to prioritise keeping track of what resources were most bountiful in which time periods or areas, so that if the Citadel ever needed more, Units could be sent on expedition there. Putting down his brush, Izuminokami stood up and stretched, running a hand through his hair.

“Guess I’ll take a look at those before heading to lunch.”

 

He made his way down the Citadel’s sunlit corridors in the direction of the storeroom. He greeted others who passed him on their way to the dining hall - some full of energy, like Taikogane Sadamune or Urashima Kotetsu, running past him and laughing; while others followed more slowly, like Hachisuka trailing after his brother like a clucking hen, and Ishikirimaru, who generally moved quite slowly anyway.

Izuminokami almost ran right into his brother as he turned the corner, both of them stopping just in time. “Oh, Nosada—sorry, didn’t see you there.”

“It’s alright.” Kasen tilted his head up to look at him. “This isn’t the way to the dining hall. Are you not joining us for the meal?”

 

“I am, I just want to finish my report first, though, so I’m going to the storage room to check the resources we brought back.”

Kasen gave an understanding nod. “It’s good to see you taking your responsibilities seriously. I had been worried—”

“Worried?” Izuminokami’s voice sharpened a little.

“It’s nothing. I was simply concerned about the effects of Mutsunokami’s influence…”

 

Not this again. Was it because of the spectacle from this morning, or the chaos in the dining hall during breakfast? “He’s my friend.”

“I don’t mean just that.” Kasen lowered his voice. “At times, it feels as though he’s hiding something. He and the Master—”

“Well, he’s the Master’s attendant. It’s got nothing to do with me,” Izuminokami cut in hotly, letting just a sliver of disapproval slide into his voice. “And who I’m friends with isn’t up to you to decide.”

 

Hurriedly he swept past him before Kasen could say another word in edgewise, taking longer strides into the darkened corridor within the heart of the Citadel, his heart pounding.

Just when he felt that it was fine to be like this with Mutsunokami. Being away at Okehazama, away from him for these few days, had made him realise that he genuinely enjoyed spending time with him. What was so wrong about that?

But he hadn’t considered how other people might feel about it. And snapping at Nosada like that…it wasn’t something he’d wanted, nor meant to do. He ought to go and apologise later.

 

Lost in his thoughts, he passed by Mutsunokami’s room, and would have continued on his way if not for a voice that came from beyond the shoji.

“…still remember it. All of it.”

Imanotsurugi, Izuminokami thought. Why would he be in Mutsunokami’s room?

 

Izuminokami’s footsteps slowed at the sound of Mutsunokami’s voice answering him, his tone unnaturally grave. “It must have been hard for you, having to go through that again.”

 

Go through what?

 

He heard Imanotsurugi take a deep breath. “It was. I…the first time it happened, before Master brought me to life…my memory of it was blurred. It was over before I even know what was going on. I found out later, but…part of me had been glad that I didn’t see it clearly. It would have been better off that way. I wish I never had to—”

“I know.” Mutsunokami said softly. “I know.”

 

He thought of Kasen’s words. He’s hiding something. He and the Master…

 

Part of him told him to turn back. Walk away, pretend he never heard this. It was his duty as a warrior to obey his master unconditionally, and never question their orders and decisions.

And yet part of him wanted, needed to know. His curiosity getting the better of him, Izuminokami took a step forward, closer to the shoji door, listening for the next words that would change everything he believed about his Master.

 

“I never thought...” Imanotsurugi’s voice trembled. “I never thought I’d have to kill Lord Yoshitsune a second time by my own hands, on the Master’s orders.”

Chapter Text

The shoji door slammed open suddenly, and in the same moment Imanotsurugi jumped in surprise and toppled over with a yelp, limbs flailing. Mutsunokami was on his feet in a flash, but faltered when Izuminokami stood at the doorway of the room, his eyes dark.

Mutsunokami’s stomach dropped, in realisation of all he must have heard.

“Izumi—”

 

“Is it true?” Izuminokami demanded, stepping into the room. Neither Imanotsurugi nor Mutsunokami answered him, only staring at him in shock, and impatiently Izuminokami shut the door behind him, advancing on Mutsunokami and grabbing him by the collar of his yukata. “Answer me!”

 

Imanotsurugi made a distressed sound, and Mutsunokami sucked in a breath, his body cold. “How much did you hear?” he asked quietly, his voice quavering a little.

 

“That Master gave orders to Imanotsurugi,” Izuminokami growled. “Orders to kill his own former master, Yoshitsune. Is that true?”

Mutsunokami had never seen him this angry before. This wasn’t the same kind of ferocity that he exhibited on the battlefield, where he split flesh and spilled blood. This was real anger, eyes were filled with cold blue fire, his glare burning with defiance. All kindness he had had in his gaze earlier, the joy they shared throughout the past months, was all gone.

At a loss for words, Mutsunokami only looked away, and Izuminokami took his silence as affirmation.

“Why?”

 

There was a world of questions in that one word. Imanotsurugi tugged at Izuminokami’s arm. “Izuminokami-san, it’s not like that—”

“Imanotsurugi.” Mutsunokami’s voice was low. “Go. I’ll handle this.”

“But—”

“Go!”

Imanotsurugi hesitated, and after casting one more haunted look at Izuminokami, hurriedly left the room, darting out to the corridor like a fleeing sparrow and shutting the door.

 

Izuminokami pushed Mutsunokami roughly away from him, making him stumble back. “So that’s why Imanotsurugi looked so out of it. The Master had already sent him back in time - to kill his own master. And it broke him.”

He was breathing heavily, and Mutsunokami could tell that he was finally putting the pieces together. “Izuminokami…just listen to me. Let me explain—”

“What is there to explain?”

 

“We had no choice!” Mutsunokami burst out, and Izuminokami froze. Mutsunokami took a deep breath. Forgive me, Master. “The Time Retrograde Army had been acting out of sorts. They were becoming more intelligent, targeting our weak points - our rules, to not interfere with humans. They forced our hand, because they started going for people, historical figures, and changing their history. The first day you arrived—”

“You weren’t there.” Izuminokami’s voice was distant, as if he was thinking about something else rather than what was in front of him. “You and the Master were both missing that night…”

“That was the first incident. A sword from another Citadel had encountered it first. The Time Retrograde Army had misled them, and history was moving on when he was supposed to be dead—”

“Who?”

Mutsunokami steeled himself. “His former master. The Retrograde Army had cut down the ones who were meant to kill him. So he had to do it himself.”

Izuminokami was silent, but the blood had drained from his face, his dark hair hiding his expression from him.

“We had no choice.” Mutsunokami repeated, desperately. “When it happened again, in Hiraizumi - only Imanotsurugi knew how the correct history was supposed to go. How exactly it should play out. No one else could’ve done…”

 

“He loved him.” Izuminokami’s voice was shaking. “He loved him, and then he killed him, by your orders. You and the Master both. God, Nosada was right to warn me…”

Mutsunokami reached for him, and immediately Izuminokami recoiled, knocking his hand away. “No!”

“Izuminokami…”

 

“So that’s how you agreed to fix this? By sending swords to relive their pasts, to experience the most painful moment of their lives a second time?” Izuminokami’s voice rose. “And keeping it a secret from the others? What will they think if they find out you’ve been sending swords back in time to murder their own masters?”

Mutsunokami swallowed. “They’ll understand.” Even as he said it, the words stung, bitter in his throat.

“Some of them, maybe. Yagen, Souza, or Hasebe - they would kill Oda Nobunaga if you asked—no, ordered them to. But say the next incident comes up and it involves a sword who’s attached to their master the way Imanotsurugi is to Yoshitsune,” Izuminokami challenged. “What if it was the Shimotsuki incident? Would Tsurumaru kill Adachi Sadayasu?”

 

A boy no older than fourteen. Mutsunokami knew that despite his usual comical demeanour, Tsurumaru would sooner betray the Master than to do such a thing.

It was no wonder that Izuminokami, so fiercely loyal to the Shinsengumi and to Hijikata Toushizou, felt so devastated about this. “That’s how history is meant to go—”

“That doesn’t make it right! To hide this from them! Look how it’s tearing Imanotsurugi apart.” Izuminokami inhaled sharply. “He’s already had to suffer from Yoshitsune used him to commit suicide. Now you made him go back, defeat the Time Retrograde Army who tried to keep him alive, and he killed his own master. Does that mean nothing to you?”

 

“It means everything to me, damnit!” Mutsunokami snarled, finally snapping. “Do you think I wanted this to happen? If I could’ve done it in his place - if anyone else could’ve done it instead - we would have. And you know it. We would’ve volunteered, no questions asked. But we can’t. The guys that the Time Retrograde Army are targeting - they’re suicides, or assassinations that had no witnesses, that even historical records are fuzzy about. That’s what makes it so easy for them to try and change it. No one but the swords themselves know what happened in those moments. Do you think we could’ve just - gone to Imanotsurugi, asked him to tell us how Yoshitsune was supposed to die? D’you think he’d sit quietly at the Citadel, knowing someone else is going to Hiraizumi to kill him a second time?”

“If that means sparing him the pain!” Izuminokami yelled back.

“And do you think he’d ever look at that guy the same way ever again?” Mutsunokami shook his head. “Knowing that he himself wasn’t the one who killed his master, but this other sword walking around in the Citadel, eating and drinking with him, going on with life like nothing’s happened?”

 

That gave Izuminokami pause, and for a long minute neither of them said a thing, glaring at one another, the silence heavy between them, sparking with tension and distrust.

 

“This wasn’t what I signed up for,” Izuminokami growled. “This isn’t what any of us signed up for.”

“If you’d just understand…” Mutsunokami started.

Izuminokami rounded on him, his gaze icy. “If I would understand? You - you are a sword warrior too. How can you sit by and let the Master go ahead with this? Like we’re nothing to her?”

“She just wants the best for everyone—”

“Yeah?” Izuminokami’s eyes flashed, like cerulean steel. “You expect me to believe that she’s not a monster for making us kill our loved ones to preserve her precious history? And everything that you do, is by her command, and that makes you no less of a monster than she is.”

 

He turned away, pulling open the shoji door and stepping out into the sunlit corridor. In the distance Mutsunokami could hear the noise from the dining hall, clanking of plates and chopsticks against bowls, and the chatter and laughter from other swords enjoying their meal in each other’s company. His heart twisted painfully; if only he had been more careful, he would be there with Izuminokami now, laughing and joking with him and the others, having fun and being happy. The thought of it caused the beginnings of an apology to rise in his throat.

“Izuminokami—”

 

“Don’t.” Izuminokami sounded suddenly weary. “I…I have to get to the bottom of this. I can’t let this go on.”

And he was gone.

 

Mutsunokami felt his knees buckle beneath him; he pitched forward onto the tatami, his blood pounding in his ears. His chest felt hollow, yet at the same time it throbbed with pain, and instinctively his hand rose to press a fist over his heart, his skin tingling where Izuminokami’s hands had touched him earlier, gentle on his wrist yet raising goosebumps along their path, the faint scent of lavender still on him.

You like him, don’t you?

 

He bit his lip, realising how deeply the pain was cutting into him, and willed himself not to cry, wishing that none of this had never happened.

 


 

 

He stormed to the Saniwa’s room, not even bothering to knock and throwing open the shoji door. “Master.”

 

Izuminokami had had a whole speech planned. All the accusations that he would throw at her, questioning her capability as their master, that their duties as her weapons, her tools of war, did not apply to murdering their former masters, even if they served her now. He knew this was unwise - he had heard whispers of what sages in other Citadels did to swords who disobeyed them: assigning them to time periods from which there was no return, sent them to certain death and made sure they broke. He did not know if this Saniwa was like those other sages, but he was beyond caring. This was against everything that he stood for and believed in, and he was not going down without a fight.

Briefly a memory of Hijikata resurfaced, at the forefront of his mind, and he pushed it away, opening his mouth to speak.

 

“Izuminokami-kun. Just the person I wanted to see.”

 

The Saniwa’s voice was grave, almost uncharacteristically so, and Izuminokami faltered, thrown for a moment, before regaining his confidence in a surge of anger. “I talked to Mutsunokami. I know about Imanotsurugi, and those missions that other sages like you have been assigning swords to. Making them kill their own masters again.”

 

There was a pause, and for a second Izuminokami felt triumphant, that the Master was at a loss for words and that meant she knew she was wrong. Then she sighed. “So you already know. That will save me time in explaining.”

 

He stared at her. “W-what?”

She stood up, walking over to the screen on the wall at the other end of the room, tapping into its controls. The screen flashed and rows numbers began to fill it, a blur of blue on the black surface. “You’re absolutely correct, Izuminokami-kun. We - not just me, other sages from other Citadels, too - have been receiving directives from the government to deal with anomalies in time distortions. To preserve history as closely as possible to its original course, we have been ordered to send the swords concerned with those historical events to personally correct it…even if it means that they have to kill their former masters.”

 

This isn’t what Izuminokami had expected. He hadn’t foreseen his Master admitting to everything so easily. “Then…”

 

“Imanotsurugi-kun was the first one that our Citadel received a request for,” she continued. “June 15th, 1189…well. You know the rest. When he came back, he assured us that he was fine and that he would not tell anyone about the mission to avoid panic…but I had overlooked how much it had shaken him. A mission like that would break anyone.”

Izuminokami gritted his teeth, a frustrated growl escaping him, and the Saniwa looked back at him. “Just so you know, Mutsunokami-kun was against it. He argued on behalf of Imanotsurugi-kun, and it hurt him just as much when he left for Hiraizumi on his own. He didn’t want this to happen.”

 

He thought of the expression on Mutsunokami’s face when he left the room earlier, the fearful way he had reached for him, the desperation in his eyes when he had called him a monster.

“…I—”

 

He broke off abruptly as the screen suddenly flashed to life, showing the image of what looked like an inn, set in an old-fashioned street, the sky dark. Confused, his gaze was drawn to the words at the corner of the screen, listing the date and location.

December 10th, 1867.

Omiya, Kyoto…

 

A chill ran down his entire body, as if he was suddenly drenched in cold water.

He took a step back, at a loss for words, and barely heard the Saniwa speaking to him, her voice faraway:

“This is the second directive I have received from the government. After Imanotsurugi-kun’s first attempt, I do not want to send another to directly deal with this. Which is why I wanted to see you, Izuminokami-kun. I want you to travel to Kyoto, and assassinate Mutsunokami-kun’s former master Sakamoto Ryouma, ensuring that he dies as history dictates.”

Chapter Text

Izuminokami’s room was dark as he sat alone by the window, his candle unlit despite the fact that the sun was already setting, and it cast long orange shadows on the pale tatami flooring next to him, the dying rays of light just out of reach of his feet.

In one hand he held the remains of Mutsunokami’s bandages around his arm, left there from the morning’s events. It felt like weeks ago - that the two of them had been laughing together at breakfast, that he had put ointment on his aching skin when he told him that he’d missed him in the last few days, his gaze warm and sad at once, his touch full of tender curiosity. Now it was the memories of him shouting at Mutsunokami, Mutsunokami reaching for him desperately as he recoiled, and the Saniwa’s words.

 

“You have until daybreak tomorrow. Until then, you cannot tell anyone about this mission. I know it will be difficult to your absence to go unnoticed, so I will handle Horikawa-kun and Mutsunokami-kun - the two who care most about you. Kasen-kun does rarely worry for you…you are a Kanesada sword, after all. Do what you need to do, and meet me in my study before dawn.”

 

Omiya, Kyoto, 1867…a solo mission to assassinate Sakamoto Ryouma.

 

He’d managed to avoid the others since that - foregoing lunch and retreating straight to his room, pretending to be asleep when Kunihiro came by and asked if he was alright, even ignoring Nagasone when he passed, requesting for a sparring match. It didn’t escape his notice that Mutsunokami hadn’t come; though that was to be expected, since he’d snapped at him so aggressively earlier.

The thought of it wrenched at him cruelly, and Izuminokami shoved the linen strips into his cupboard, pushing it out of sight.

 

The worst part of this was, he knew what had to be done. But it didn’t mean he was fine with it.

 

He’d asked the Master the first question that he’d thought of, that had risen in his throat like bile. “Why me?”

 

She didn't answer him right away, not directly. “Mutsunokami-kun has been at the Citadel a long time. He is very popular with the swords here, and has gained many of their trust and friendship. I’m sure that if I had asked anyone else, they would have all agreed to do so, as long as it meant Mutsunokami-kun would not have to do it. But I also believe that out of respect or even sympathy for him, they would end up telling him what they had done - or at least, acting differently towards him that may raise suspicion.” She glanced at him then, and for the once, Izuminokami caught a glimpse of her eyes beyond the veil she always wore, her gaze sad. “But you’re different. I can see it in you, that you care enough about him to keep this a secret from him forever, for as long as it will not reach him, and it cannot hurt him.”

Izuminokami had flinched at that. “He’ll never know?”

 

“He can’t know,” the Master had echoed. “Imanotsurugi-kun has suffered enough, and Mutsunokami-kun is just as attached, if not more, to Sakamoto Ryouma. It will already take weeks, if not months, for Imanotsurugi-kun to heal from his experience, and to regain his trust in me. I fear that if I asked Mutsunokami-kun to carry out this mission, he may well lose his spirit entirely. That is why I believe you can do this - not for me, but for him.”

 

For once he hated it that the Master was right. He hadn’t known when it had started, but his rivalry with Mutsunokami had long since become friendship, then fondness, and now, perhaps more. Enough so that Izuminokami knew he was willing to do this for him.

 

Mutsunokami was right, too. This wasn’t a choice. It was an obligation - because if not him, then who?

 

Night fell and Izuminokami became more and more restless as time wore on. He finally lit the candles after the cold began to seep into his bones, the kind of brittle chill that raised goosebumps along his skin even though he was dressed warmly, and even then the heat did not reach him. He stayed inside for hours, until Horikawa knocked and asked again if he was feeling any better, and he’d told him that he was simply tired out from the Okehazama mission and wanted to sleep earlier, apologising for not treating the First Unit to sake like he had promised.

After Horikawa left, leaving behind a tray of food for him, Izuminokami tried to eat, but couldn’t force the food down. The udon felt rubbery in his mouth and the tea was cold. He ate half of it and left it on the engawa.

 

Sleep came in fleeting moments. He wasn’t sure how he accomplished this while sitting by the window, his sword propped on his shoulder, but somehow his dreams overtook him between the hours that passed, each as ghostly and haunting as the last.

He saw Hijikata, giving him away to Tetsunosuke at Hakodate; then he saw Kunihiro, his skin cold and blue at the bottom of the ocean; and finally Mutsunokami, fire in his eyes as he turned and walked away from him—

 

He awoke with a startled jerk when his sword slipped from his grasp and clattered against the windowsill. The sound wasn’t loud, but it felt as though it reverberated through the walls around him, and he straightened stiffly, checking the clock and seeing it to be just past five in the morning.

 

Without Horikawa to help him get ready, he dressed himself more slowly and carefully. Black leather suit, the collar clasped shut, and his gloves pulled on; the white han-juban knotted in front, slightly to the right; the scarlet red kimono; grey hakama over the suit underneath; and finally the black armour fitted around his waist. He didn’t bother tying up his hair in its usual ribbon, in no mood for a flashy appearance. He left his earrings, lest they catch light in the dark and give him away; and he put away his haori in the closet. There was no need to identify himself more to possible witnesses that he was Shinsengumi - they would come to that false conclusion afterward anyway, and Kondo Isami would pay the price for it.

 

Would Nagasone also hate him for this? Hammering in the final nail of his master’s coffin, so to speak? The Shinsengumi had always been about loyalty. This in itself was a betrayal of sorts.

But Hijikata had also had his loyalty to his beliefs. He had helped to commandeer the Shinsengumi with an iron fist, enforcing their regulations to uphold their reputation; to the point where close friends, too, were no exception to the Shinsengumi’s punishments. Even at Hakodate, despite knowing the cause he fought for was about to come to an end, and that he would perish, he stayed to fight. He was willing to die with the shogunate, and died with devotion to what he valued.

What was it, then, that Izuminokami believed in more? His duty to the Master’s orders, to preserve and protect history; or his own morals that warned him against knowingly hurting his allies, his friends, no matter how reluctantly? What would Hijikata have done, in his position?

 

The more he thought about it, the more Izuminokami hesitated, uncertainty clouding his mind.

 

Was this what Imanotsurugi went through, as well? Had he gone through all the possibilities he held in his hands: if Minamoto no Yoshitsune had not killed himself, if Musashibo Benkei had not died on that bridge protecting his lord, if their history could be changed and their pain could be spared…?

 

Then what of Mutsunokami? Izuminokami had so brazenly challenged him earlier, asking what right he had to cause suffering like this, when he was about to do the same? Would he understand?

 

He’ll forgive you, a voice whispered at the back of his mind. He knows this is part of the mission to protect history. He said so himself. There’s no choice.

But this is different.

How is it any different?

It’s his master. Not someone else’s.

And?

And I’m the one who’ll kill him.

It is his time to die. Who did the deed doesn’t matter.

Doesn’t it?

No one in the Citadel harbours ill will towards those who caused their masters’ demise.

It’s not the same. When we came to life here, hundreds of years have passed since we were used. The ones responsible are already dead. There is no vengeance to take.

So they accept it and move on.

Not everyone. Nagasone-san…

It was a false accusation. The fault does not lie with Kondo Isami, and Mutsunokami knows it, doesn’t he?

But this is different. He’ll know I killed Sakamoto Ryouma. I’ll break his sheath with my own sword. This is different.

 

The voice did not reply, and Izuminokami rose. He extinguished the candles in his room, plunging the room into darkness, and quietly left.

 

Outside, the Citadel was deathly silent. A brief wind stirred, passing over the moon-painted grass in the gardens between the hallways, and Izuminokami shivered a little, unused to how still everything seemed.

Next to his own room was Horikawa’s, and then Yamatonokami and Kashuu’s, sharing the same bedroom, and further down was Mutsunokami’s.

He thought of him, his amber eyes that glowed like firestones when he laughed, his smile that was always so full of hope and joy, and then he thought of his ashen expression, those same eyes filled with hurt when he had pushed him away, called him a monster.

Izuminokami felt the bitterness in his throat, shame spreading from his heart through his body like flames. Suddenly the silence of the night felt deafening to his ears, and hurriedly he made his way to the edge of the engawa, dropping down lightly to the cobbled stone path below to put on his shoes.

 

There was no going around it. He had to do this.

But before that, there was one more place he had to visit.

 

He stepped carefully and slowly across the garden as the moonlight was gradually replaced by weak sunlight. Soon early risers like Kasen, Hachisuka, even Yamabushi and Shokudaikiri, would come, and he wanted to be gone before then. With one hand braced against his sword he reached the other end of the courtyard and pushed himself back up onto the engawa, creeping down the hallway to the room he was searching for.

 

He knocked twice on the shoji door, careful not to disturb the other occupants in the surrounding rooms, but enough to rouse the sword residing within. Sure enough, within a minute the door slid open an inch, and a sleepy scarlet eye peered at him curiously; upon noticing his battle attire and the sword at his side, he opened the door wider, all drowsiness gone. “Izuminokami-san?”

 

“Imanotsurugi.” Izuminokami took a deep breath. “I need to talk to you. I need to ask you something.”

 


 

 

The Saniwa’s veil was off, and she sat at the table in her white robes, still as a ghost, hands clasped as if in prayer. She gave him a guarded look as he came in, closing the shoji door behind him quietly.

“Izuminokami-kun?”

“…I’m ready.”

 

Her face visibly relaxed, and she hurried over to the screen at the side of the room, her hands working quickly on the controls. “You know how it must be done? The assassination—”

“I know.” Izuminokami’s voice came out hoarse, and he cleared his throat. “Mutsunokami, he’s—” Dreamed it, had nightmares about it, described it in such vivid detail: every moment that he witnessed by his master’s side, and regretted not seeing the assassins’ faces, because he would never forgive them— “He’s told me once before.”

His Master took a deep breath. “I know you will resent me for this. I won’t ask for forgiveness. I only wish that…”

 

“Please.”

The Saniwa bit her lip. “Alright.”

She returned to the controls, bringing up the map and keying in the coordinates, and Izuminokami moved to the pedestal. Every step he took weighed heavy, like lead, and his sword bumped lightly against his hip as he walked, a rhythmic reminder of what he was about to do.

He closed his eyes, thinking back to his conversation with Imanotsurugi.

 

“Can you tell me how you did it? Your mission. How did you go through with it, when you knew how much it would hurt?”

 

The words came up on the screen once again, clicking into place. Date: the tenth day of December, 1867. Location: Omiya, Kawaramichi, Kyoto.

 

“Before I left, I told myself three things. First, I am a sword warrior, and this is my duty. Second, in order to protect history, it must be done, no matter how much it hurt. Third—”

 

The pedestal beneath him began to glow.

 

it’s fine, as long as I’m the only one who suffers.”

 

A moment of weightlessness, heat throughout his body.

Then everything went dark.

Chapter Text

It was late afternoon when he arrived. The same street, the same inn. He kept to the shadows, knowing that the Time Retrograde Army was likely still nearby. At this point, they have already killed the would-be assassins, who should have been waiting in a nearby restaurant for Ryouma to return, as well as the spy that the assassin used, dressed as a beggar to act as a lookout.

Izuminokami drew out the watch that the Saniwa had given him from within his sleeve, and after noting the time he automatically made his way through the alleys between the houses, stopping just behind a row of cargo, in view of the bookstore just south of the Omiya.

 

Moments later a man emerged from the bookstore, exchanging friendly conversation with a boy who walked with him. The man spoke a few more words to the boy, handing him a letter, and the boy nodded, running off through the emptying streets, and the man walked back towards the Omiya, steps slow and purposeful.

 

Nakaoka Shintarou, a voice told him, vaguely familiar. Ryouma’s companion… While Ryouma stayed at the inn, Nakaoka went about doing his business as usual. When he asked the bookstore’s son to deliver a letter for him, and for the reply to be brought directly to Ryouma at the inn, that was when the assassins confirmed where he and Ryouma were staying…

 

Izuminokami watched Nakaoka, and even from a distance he could tell that he was skilled in his own right. When the man had handed the boy the letter, he had done so with his left hand, keeping his sword hand free; and his gaze moved constantly around the street, alert and watchful.

 

It was a shame that for all his diligence, it would all be for nought.

 

Izuminokami followed him, keeping at a safe distance, until Nakaoka reached the inn. He threw a quick look behind him before he disappeared inside, closing the door swiftly behind him.

 

Ryouma and Nakaoka were on the second floor of the main house. A bodyguard, a sumo wrestler, kept watch for them, mindful for any suspicious visitors.

According to the old history, the original assassins - a group of five or six - would launch a coordinated attack. One would handle the bodyguard on the lower floor, and two would go after Ryouma and Nakaoka. Now, without them, Izuminokami would have to take on their tasks by himself.

 

Originally, Ryouma may have survived the assassination had he stayed in the room that was designed for him - containing an escape route through a ladder to the back alleys. But, unfazed by the danger, he moved to the larger room to accommodate the frequent visits of his family and friends. We were completely unprepared…

 

There was still some time before the assassination was meant to happen, when Ryouma and Nakaoka would have settled in and let down their guard, relaxing as they talked, and so Izuminokami crossed the street and searched the rooftops and alleyways of the surrounding houses. He moved quickly, never stopping long enough for witnesses to see him, and upon finding the Time Retrograde Army warriors hiding nearby, drew his sword silently.

It was unsurprising that there were more of them sticking around, wanting to ensure that their changed history could go on as they had planned. Izuminokami felt nothing as he killed them; it was not these kills that would bring him remorse or regret.

 

Night had fallen by the time Izuminokami had returned to the inn. The street was dark and the only lights were from the windows of the house in front of him, glowing pale yellow in the night.

He took a deep breath, approached the inn, and knocked.

 


 

 

The person who answered the door was a round-faced young man by the name of Toukichi, just twenty years of age. “Good evening. What can I do for you?”

“I have business I’d like to discuss with Sakamoto Ryouma.”

“Ah. I’ll have to see if he is still accepting visits at this hour…”

Izuminokami only ducked his head in response as the bodyguard took the visitor’s calling card, told him to wait, and started back up the stairs. One hand on his sword, Izuminokami followed him, silent as a ghost, and waited out of sight as the bodyguard entered the main room on the second floor.

 

Distantly he heard the bodyguard speaking, and Ryouma replying; Izuminokami’s blood chilled at the sound of the man’s Tosa accent, so painfully familiar to him in the past months, and for a fleeting moment he considered putting away his sword, leaving the inn, and getting out of here. But the weight of the Saniwa’s watch within his robes hardened his resolve and his heart, and his grip tightened on the hilt of his sword as the shoji door slid open, and the bodyguard emerged once again, his back turned to close the door.

 

As soon as the door slid shut Izuminokami took a step forward and, in a single movement, drew his sword and slashed at the man from behind. He was almost surprised at how easily the blade split through his skin and flesh; it had been some time since his blade had been used to cut down humans.

With an inaudible grunt the man collapsed, and Izuminokami had to stagger back, almost in surprise, as the bodyguard tumbled down the stairs, hitting the ground with a heavy thump.

 

From within the room there was a shout. “Quiet down!” Ryouma barked.

 

We heard a noise, and Ryouma thought that Toukichi must have been messing around, playing with his friends…we never knew that he had been attacked.

 

Ryouma’s voice and mannerisms were so achingly recognisable that it, again, almost gave Izuminokami pause.

But the groaning man lying at the foot of the stairs was not something he could ignore. Nor was the warm wetness of the blood on his face.

 

Mechanically Izuminokami swung his sword to one side, flicking the blood from the blade, and sheathed it again. Barely casting a look over his shoulder at the bodyguard behind him, Izuminokami wiped the blood from his cheek with his sleeve and approached the room doors.

 

Steeling himself he burst into the room, and both occupants looked up at him in surprise. In half a second Izuminokami’s gaze had swept through the room, taking in everything he needed to be aware of - the warm coal brazier between the two men, the lanterns that illuminated the walls, the alcove opposite him on which a scroll painting hung.

Beyond the painting, hidden in the alcove. That’s where Ryouma had hidden me…

 

The man closer to him stared at him. “Who are you?”

 

I only wish—he’d kept me closer by his side…

 

In the span of a breath Izuminokami’s hand went automatically to his sword, drew it, and cut Ryouma across his arm.

 

The room erupted into chaos; Ryouma collapsed on his side, clutching his wound, and Izuminokami moved forward to strike him, only for Nakaoka to push blindly into him.

“Ryouma-san!”

 

In the melee the lanterns went out and only a faint orange glow from the coal brazier acted as a source of light. Izuminokami didn’t need it; he knew what he had to do.

 

He banished all thoughts from his head, remembering Imanotsurugi’s words and saying them to himself: I am a sword warrior, and this is my duty…

 

With one movement he pushed Nakaoka off of him and cut open the back of his skull, spraying the paper walls with blood. Spinning back, he met Ryouma face-to-face and struck him across the forehead.

Ryouma stumbled with a grunt, turning to the alcove by the back of the room, reaching desperately for something in the dark. Izuminokami took another step forward, and slashed a second time across Ryouma's defenseless back, diagonally from his right shoulder to the left of his spine. There was a cry of pain; then Ryouma turned, eyes blazing and expression filled with a mixture of fear and determination, sword in hand. Even though he knew this was coming, had tried to prepare himself for this, still for a moment Izuminokami faltered, recognising its dark sheath, the blue-green hilt, the dragon-patterned tsuba.

 

Then the moment was over and Izuminokami raised his sword, bringing it down as Ryouma lifted his, blocking it with the sheathed sword.

There was a snapping sound in the chilling silence as the two swords met, and Izuminokami caught a glint of silver flashing as the tip of the sheath broke, a detached piece wedging into a plank on the ceiling above.

Ryouma staggered back from the force of the strike, his sword falling by his side, and his other hand reached for the gun in its holster on the opposite hip.

 

In order to protect history, it must be done, no matter how much it hurt…

 

Izuminokami drew back, readying himself for the final strike. He hit him again, across the forehead, and Ryouma collapsed to the ground with a heavy thud. This time he didn’t get up again.

 

For several long seconds Izuminokami didn’t move. His feet seemed to be frozen to the ground, and every shuddering breath he took sounded as loud as thunder in the deafening silence.

 

Then Ryouma shifted, groaning, still very much alive.

Though not for long.

That forced Izuminokami to move, turning away from Ryouma, his gaze lingering for a second on the sheathed sword he was holding, the blade's steel glimmering in the dim light.

His throat suddenly tight, Izuminokami looked away, closing his eyes.

 

It would be over in an hour, perhaps even minutes, for Ryouma’s life was fading fast. Nakaoka would survive for a day or two, but he would also perish, alongside the bodyguard that had fallen, too. Even so, he couldn’t risk them seeing his face.

 

Ryouma was saying something, and Izuminokami barely caught the words, holding his breath.

“—sword…? I…” He gave a bloody cough. “Is this it…for me…? I wanted…to see…”

 

He couldn’t stay here any longer. Any longer and he might break, too.

Time to go.

 

At the sound of the commotion downstairs - the inn’s proprietor and his family were waking - Izuminokami fled the room, climbing out of the window and onto the roof.

 

It’s fine, as long as I’m the only one who suffers.

 

He sheathed his sword and disappeared into the night.

 


 

 

At the Citadel, Mutsunokami awoke with a gasp, twisted in his sheets as the scar along his side burned, searing like fire.

Chapter Text

Mutsunokami woke up with a massive headache and his spine sore, as if he’d been sleeping funny. In fact, put that together with the nausea in his stomach, he felt as though he’d either drank a lot of sake last night or spent a year on a ship at sea, both of which he was absolutely certain he hadn’t done.

Somehow he was able to make his way to the bathroom to empty out his stomach, stumbling to the toilet in a haze of grogginess. By the time he was done he sat by the wall and rested his forehead on the cool tile walls, trying to catch his breath in an effort to make himself feel less like crap.

 

What the hell had happened? He couldn’t remember anything that would give a clue to his current predicament - vaguely he could recall being chided by the Saniwa because he was being moody at dinner…he was moody at dinner because he had lost his appetite and barely ate…he’d lost his appetite because…

One word popped into his head amid the hazy mess and it’s Izuminokami and all of a sudden Mutsunokami felt sick to his stomach again.

 

He hadn’t meant for anyone to overhear when he was talking to Imanotsurugi. Izuminokami’s reaction had been exactly why Mutsunokami had been urging his Master to come clean about the issue to the Citadel. It was unacceptable for them to keep something like that a secret.

But it hurt more because it had been Izuminokami of all people. His words to him had been harsh - even now, Mutsunokami flinched inwardly at the memory of “that makes you no less of a monster than she is”. He wished he and the Saniwa could have done things differently. Izuminokami was the one person he hadn’t wanted to know about this, not just because Izuminokami was so devoted to Hijikata Toushizou and the concept of loyalty, but because Mutsunokami undeniably and most definitely had a crush on him.

 

Everything had been going so well. Getting to spend time with Izuminokami every day, making fun of him, sparring with him, fighting alongside him. He loved every moment of that, and even more so just yesterday morning in Izuminokami’s room, when he’d unravelled his bandages for him with such gentle patience that Mutsunokami felt as though he was going to melt, and when Izuminokami’s hands were on his sore skin, helping him put ointment on with uncharacteristic warmth in his eyes, Mutsunokami’s heart had been hammering like crazy.

And now it was all ruined.

 

I should apologise, was the next coherent thought that Mutsunokami was able to form before he threw up again, though by the time he was done his head was pounding less and his mind seemed clearer. There were better things to do than to wish he could crawl into a hole and die. He wanted to see him again. He wanted everything to go back to normal.

I’ll go find the Master. I’ll talk to her, and then I’ll apologise to Izuminokami.

 

Filled with renewed determination, Mutsunokami got up with some effort and shuffled over to the sink, cupping cool water in his palms and splashing it onto his face. It took him a while to shake himself free from the queasy feeling in his stomach, but twenty minutes later he was more awake than ever, resolved to make things right.

He rubbed his face dry with the towel, slung it over his shoulder, and bounded out of the bathroom to the engawa outside, immediately coming face to face with Izuminokami.

 

His heart jumping to his throat, Mutsunokami skidded to an abrupt halt, completely unprepared, eyes wide. “Uh—”

 

The first thought he had was that Izuminokami also looked terrible. There were dark rings under his eyes, stark against his pale skin.

When Izuminokami looked at him, something in his expression changed - he seemed more ashen, the grimace evident on his face. “Mutsunokami.”

 

Mutsunokami swallowed hard. “Look, about yesterday…you were right, we shouldn’t have kept it all a secret from you. Any of you, really. And I’m—I’m sorry I said all those things. About making other swords do the job instead. It wouldn’t have lessened Imanotsurugi’s pain and would have made it worse. And I know it hurt you, since you didn’t even know your master had died, so it was painful for you. I know, and I’m sorry. So I’m gonna go talk to the Master about the whole thing, see if we can figure something out.” Taking a deep breath at the end of his speech, Mutsunokami added hopefully, “And…maybe we can be friends again…?”

 

Throughout this, Izuminokami hadn’t moved an inch. Was it just Mutsunokami’s imagination, or did Izuminokami seem uncomfortable? Mutsunokami frowned. Maybe he wasn’t sincere enough in his apology. “Look, let’s both just forget what happened yesterday. Hey, what do you say we go back to training today? And while we’re doing laundry before dinner, ya can tell me all about how Okehazama went!”

 

“Why…”

Mutsunokami’s smile faded. “Eh?”

“Why are you still being so kind to me? I…” Izuminokami inhaled sharply, averting his gaze and looking down at his feet instead. “I accept your apology. I’m sorry I called you a monster, too, because you aren’t one. Neither is the Master. But from now on I think it’s best if—we kept our distance.”

 

Dread hit Mutsunokami like a punch to the chest, and his throat was suddenly dry. “What? But…but why?”

“It’s just better that way.” Izuminokami still wasn’t looking at him.

“Is…is it still because of what I said? I know it was wrong, but I’ll make it up to ya, I promise! Just—” Let me be in your life again, he wanted to say, but held his tongue. He was not entirely certain if Izuminokami returned his feelings, and even if he did, this wasn’t about that, it was about whether he forgave him or not. “Please, tell me what I…”

 

“You don’t know what I’ve done!” Izuminokami burst out, so angrily that even Mutsunokami was startled into silence. “You have…no idea. You shouldn’t be so kind to me. I’m the one who should be apologising.”

He wasn’t talking about yesterday anymore, Mutsunokami realised. He’s talking about something else. “What are you saying?”

Izuminokami took a step back, and it was only then that Mutsunokami realised that his eyes were glistening with tears. “I—” he began.

 

“Listen—” Mutsunokami was about to interrupt, but the second that he stepped forward, the scar on his hip stung, pain surging down his side. It was so blindingly overwhelming that he collapsed on his knees, an involuntary cry escaping him.

Shit. It hurts. It hurts, it hurts, it hurts—

 

“Mutsunokami?” Izuminokami was in front of him, but his voice sounded far away. “Mutsunokami, what’s wrong?!”

 

His scar had not hurt like this in months. Only when he had first manifested, when his memories of Ryouma’s death were still fresh, and the Saniwa had gently explained to him that the injury he’d sustained as a sword during that event - when Ryouma used him to block the assassin’s sword and his sheath had chipped - had emerged on his body, a mark that served as a permanent reminder of his past.

It shouldn’t be hurting now. It shouldn’t.

 

“Mutsunokami? Oi!” Izuminokami was still shaking him, his hands on his shoulders. “Are you okay? Did you get hurt somewhere?”

“My scar,” Mutsunokami managed to choke out, and through the pain he barely noticed that Izuminokami had suddenly stilled. “The one on my side—I got it the night he died…”

“When your sheath broke…” Izuminokami’s voice sounded strange, and Mutsunokami forced himself to look up at him, realising that Izuminokami wasn’t looking directly at him, but his gaze distant as if he was recalling something.

 

“I-Izuminokami…?”

“I thought I—” Izuminokami let out a shuddering gasp, his face twisted in despair. “I thought I could hide it from you. I thought I could keep it all a secret. And you wouldn’t ever know.”

“A secret? What—”

“But I can’t. I can’t. I tried, but seeing you like this…” Izuminokami’s hand fisted in his yukata, bunching the fabric over his chest. “I kept telling myself not to say anything, because it was better that I was the only one who suffered, but my heart—it feels like it’s tearing itself apart when I see you suffering, too. I thought it would only be me. And not you.”

 

You don’t know what I’ve done. The words echoed like a mourning bell in Mutsunokami’s mind, and he swallowed hard. “Izuminokami…what did you do?”

 

The scar shouldn’t be hurting. Unless…

 

Izuminokami shook his head, refusing to answer, and the pain in Mutsunokami’s scar increased, enough to make him dig his nails into his skin in an effort to dispel it, to make it go away. When it didn’t, it only made Mutsunokami angrier. He reached out, grabbing Izuminokami roughly by the shoulder. “Tell me what happened! What did you do?

 

“I killed Ryouma,” Izuminokami blurted out, and Mutsunokami froze all over, feeling ice spread through his entire body. Whatever he had been expecting, it wasn’t this. And the pain in his side was nothing compared to the sensation in his heart - like a thousand knives digging into his chest. “There. I said it. That was the mission that the Saniwa received. She asked me to, so that you could be spared. I went to Omiya, the Time Retrograde Army had killed the original assassins, so to ensure history was preserved, I—”

“Don’t say it!” Mutsunokami shouted, and Izuminokami fell silent. Mutsunokami realised that he was fully crying now: he felt the cold tear tracks on his cheeks, and wiped them away angrily. “Don’t. Don’t say another word. It can’t be true.”

Izuminokami, whom he loved - killing Ryouma…?

 

“Mutsunokami—” This time it was Izuminokami who reached for him, and fiercely Mutsunokami pushed him away, making Izuminokami fall back on his hands.

“It can’t be true,” Mutsunokami repeated.

Izuminokami only shook his head. “I only wanted…to protect you—”

 

Protect me?” Mutsunokami shook his head, his fury numbing the pain in his scar. His hands were trembling, and he curled them into fists to stop from shaking. “You’re the one who killed Ryouma in the new history—then it means you’re the one who broke me.” He pulled at his own yukata, across his stomach to show the edge of the scar on his hip, an angry pulsing red as if someone had laid a hot iron across it. “You’re—you’re the one who did this—”

He broke off, his head spinning, his thoughts jumbled. No, no - this was wrong. He shouldn’t be angry. Mutsunokami knew he had no choice. And this was to preserve history, as is their mandate, enforced by the Saniwa herself and even by Mutsunokami, when Izuminokami had confronted him about Imanotsurugi. He couldn’t blame him for this. Mutsunokami had always known, deep down, that one day it would come for Ryouma to die a second time…

 

And yet he couldn’t bring himself to accept it, especially with the pain of his scar throbbing in his side, as if taunting him. As if laughing at him for trusting Izuminokami, for loving him when he killed the man he cared most about—

 

“I could have protected him,” Mutsunokami whispered. “Even if Ryouma still had to die - I could have protected him then, cut down the ones who came to kill him. He could have had a noble end, not caught off guard like that…” He couldn’t control himself, letting the words spill out before he could stop them.

Izuminokami paled. “Then you would have cut me down.”

Mutsunokami gave a humorless laugh.“Well, you didn’t have any trouble cutting me down, did you? Are you sure I’m the monster and not you?”

 

He regretted saying that as soon as the taunt left his mouth. He wasn’t thinking straight - it was the pain, fogging his mind with bitterness and hostility, and anger. The discomfort was spreading through his entire body, his hands clammy on the cool wood of the engawa beneath him; it was making him irritable and unreasonable and he knew it but he couldn’t do anything about it. It hurt and he just wanted it to go away and it pissed him off to know that Izuminokami was to blame for this.

So he simply said whatever came to his mind first.

 

Izuminokami was frozen, his eyes wide. He looked as though he couldn’t quite process what he had just heard. Then: “I only wanted to protect you,” he repeated.

He stood up, blinking away tears, at the same time that Horikawa’s voice sounded in the distance - “Kane-san? Where are you?” - and hurriedly Izuminokami turned away in a flurry of red robes.

 

Mutsunokami couldn’t even summon the strength to call out to him, let alone go after him. I shouldn’t have said that. But it hurts so much.

I should apologise to him, properly this time. But he killed Ryouma.

I still love him.

But I loved Ryouma, too.

 

Mutsunokami gritted his teeth, his hand clamped tight over his burning scar, and he dragged himself to his feet, making his way slowly, and painfully, towards the Saniwa’s room.

 


 

 

The rest of the day went by numbly for Izuminokami. He was barely aware of whatever was happening around him - he hardly heard the words said to him, hardly tasted the food he put in his mouth, and could not even summon the focus and concentration needed in training, to the point that Nagasone called a stop to the sparring session to talk to him privately.

“Izuminokami, is something bothering you? You’re out of sorts.”

“…It’s nothing.” How could he possibly explain? “I’m just tired.”

 

This was a blatant lie and Nagasone knew it. Izuminokami felt that Horikawa wasn’t disloyal enough to go tell others that he had been crying, but it was painfully clear that something was wrong.

 

“Whatever it is you’re dealing with…” Nagasone hesitated for a moment. “Well, just know that we’re here for you. If - you need us.”

 

Izuminokami turned away. “I know.”

 

At mealtimes, Izuminokami went back to his room rather than going to the dining hall, deathly afraid of running into Mutsunokami again. This was entirely different from before when he had been the one to fight with him: that was when he believed that Mutsunokami was in the wrong. Now, it was him who had done something unforgivable.

Horikawa brought Izuminokami his food, leaving the tray on the engawa and simply knocking on the door to let his partner know that it was there. “I’ll be here if you need me,” he had insisted.

 

Izuminokami wasn’t sure what he needed, or even wanted. Forgiveness? Redemption? All he knew was that Mutsunokami had called him a monster and his heart felt like it would shatter every time the memory resurfaced in his head, and he finally understood how Mutsunokami had felt before.

 

Later that night, unable to sleep, Izuminokami retrieved his sake and cups from his own room and went out to the engawa. The moon was high in the night sky and the Citadel was quiet, save for the soft chirping of crickets.

He sat down by the pillar, pouring out the sweet alcohol and downing it in one gulp. The burn in his throat was terrible, but a good distraction. He had never been a good drinker, but even humans drank to forget, didn’t they? And he was human now, so he’s allowed to do that, isn’t he?

 

Izuminokami wondered what he had felt when he killed Ryouma, tried to recall his emotions at the time. Nothing, actually. He’d never met Ryouma, not even as Hijikata’s sword. The Shinsengumi had never managed to come across him, either.

It had only hurt when he’d cut down on Mutsunokami’s blade, chipped the sheath and given him that scar that now burned him.

 

Unlike Mutsunokami’s, the wounds that Izuminokami had were in his heart, not on his own body. How irritating being human was, Izuminokami thought, that these hearts felt everything, from grief to anger to love.

Will he ever forgive me? Is this something that can be forgiven?

 

“Mind if I sit with you?”

 

Izuminokami jumped, a little guiltily, and chastised himself for having been snuck up upon. “Mikazuki.”

The ancient sword had practically materialised out of thin air, silent in his approach as if he was made of moonlight and shadows. “I didn’t think you were the type of person to be indulging in sake by yourself so late at night.”

 

Izuminokami winced but said nothing.

Mikazuki moved to sit at the edge of the engawa next to him, though stayed a respectful distance away as Izuminokami poured him a cup and handed it to him. “Where is your partner?”

“Asleep.” Thankfully, he added silently. Horikawa had clearly noticed something was wrong - it was difficult not to, considering Izuminokami had returned to their room with reddened eyes and dried tear tracks on his cheeks. But he was wise enough to leave Izuminokami alone for a while, giving him the space that he needed.

 

Mikazuki accepted the answer, and took the cup of sake from him, though he didn’t drink from it, holding it on his lap as it it were a cup of tea instead. “Is something bothering you?”

 

Of all the swords at the Citadel, Mikazuki was the one person whom Izuminokami had never been sure of how to deal with. Kashuu and Yamatonokami had once joked that, based on their forging date, Mikazuki was one of the oldest swords and Izuminokami was the youngest, which apparently was hilarious to them to imagine Mikazuki treating the Shinsengumi’s demon vice-commander’s sword like a wayward grandson. Izuminokami had not found that funny.

On the surface Mikazuki seemed simply to be a man who had been alive for so long that he handled life like a grandfather would; yet it was times like these that it felt as though he knew more than he let on.

 

“I can’t tell you.” Izuminokami cast him a quick glance out of the corner of his eye; Mikazuki hadn’t moved, and there was no change in his expression following his statement. “Besides, you wouldn’t understand.”

Mikazuki chuckled. “That may be the case. But I was told that I am a good listener.”

 

The alcohol burned, not unpleasantly, in his throat as he sipped the sake. Grimacing a little at the taste, Izuminokami lowered the empty cup. “…There’s something I did. It was the right thing to do, but it felt wrong to do it. Does that make any sense?”

There was a pause, and Izuminokami got the sense that Mikazuki was choosing his next words very carefully. “Was it an order from the Master?”

“…Yes.”

“So a mission.”

“Yes.”

“Then it was a mission that will preserve history.”

 

“Does that make it right?” Izuminokami murmured. “Letting something terrible occur, or ensuring people die, just because it is meant to happen that way in the past?”

“Of course not.” Mikazuki’s voice was clear. “But we are sword warriors. We carry out the orders given to us by our Master. It is not for us to decide whether it is right or wrong. All we can do is to accept it, and learn from it.”

 

Izuminokami sighed. “This mission…it hurt someone I care about.”

“Does the Master know this?”

“…She does.”

Mikazuki hummed. “You cannot get it past yourself to accept the outcome of the mission, even though it was your duty.”

 

Izuminokami said nothing. The crickets’ singing in the garden filled the silence for him, and after a while Mikazuki remarked, “Pride made Oda Nobunaga kill himself rather than to have his head taken by his enemy; honour for his clan caused Tokugawa Ieyasu to force his son’s hand. Even your former master stayed and fought at Hakodate, despite knowing he would perish there, because he had a duty to his ideal. Am I wrong?”

“No, but…what are you trying to say?”

“Throughout history, wars have been won and empires have been defeated, out of obligations to many human things. Now, as swords who have become humans, we have gradually developed attachments to such things as well.” Mikazuki’s expression was unreadable as he spoke. “It is natural to feel as though those beliefs may sometimes lead us to undesirable choices. But in the end, those choices may well make history.”

 

Izuminokami frowned. “That’s…”

 

“Well.” Mikazuki placed the sake cup down by his side, not letting Izuminokami finish. He stood up, brushing down the front of his robes, and gave him a small smile. “I suppose I ought to retire for the night. I wish you luck, Izuminokami Kanesada.”

He walked away, as silent as he had come, and Izuminokami stared after him, a little unsettled about the whole conversation, before realising that Mikazuki had not touched the sake at all.

Chapter Text

Mutsunokami blinked his eyes open groggily, and saw the blurry outline of the Saniwa leaning over him. “You’re awake,” she remarked. “Stay still, I’m almost finished.”

 

“How…” His voice came out as a rasp. He swallowed, trying to soothe his aching throat. “How long have I been out?”

“You blacked out the moment I opened the door when you came this morning. It’s already past dinnertime.”

 

Frowning, Mutsunokami turned his side to one side to look out the window and, with a jolt of surprise, saw that it was already dark outside, the room only lit with a soft golden glow from the lamps on the desk. His vision began to clear and with it, his thoughts started to return.

The first thing he thought of was Izuminokami. It had been hours since they’d spoken - had he cried more, or had he thrown himself into his training as a distraction? Did Horikawa notice, did Kasen notice, did they try to help him and comfort him? Was he okay? How much was he hurting inside, because of Mutsunokami?

 

He hadn’t slept well, either. He had dreamed: watching helplessly as if through a glass wall as his memories of Ryouma’s death played out in front of him, and no matter how much he yelled and pounded on the screen separating him and his former master, the events still unfolded in front of him. The thump from Ryouma’s bodyguard hitting the bottom of the stairs, Ryouma calling out, and then the assassin’s figure bursting into the room: except Mutsunokami could see their features clearly this time: long dark hair, crimson robes, and cerulean eyes that were flinty in the darkness, the glow from the coal brazier reflecting in their irises. There had been a flash of steel, a sharp clang, and then he had woken up.

A change in history that had carried forward into the future, into his present self now.

 

“There, all done.”

The Saniwa turned away from Mutsunokami, removing her gloves with a relieved exhale. “I’ve patched you up as best as I can. Here are some pills to help you numb the pain when you sleep - or if you prefer, you can stay here in my room for a few days for me to keep a closer eye on you.”

 

“That won’t be necessary.” Gritting his teeth, Mutsunokami sat up from the bed, his movements slow and his hand still pressed gingerly against his hip, now swathed in thick bandages not unlike his own. It felt snug against his skin, and the pain in the scar had lessened into a dull throb now, though Mutsunokami doubted he would be in any condition to fight until this faded.

 

He couldn’t even bring himself to thank the Saniwa for doing this. He couldn’t muster the words. Mutsunokami found that he didn’t know what to say to her, knowing that she had been the one to ask Izuminokami to go to Omiya in his place.

And she must realise, to take his newfound injury into stride so easily, that he already knew.

 

“So Izuminokami-kun told you.” The Saniwa’s words jolted him out of his thoughts. It wasn’t a question, it was a statement.

Mutsunokami took the glass of water that she offered to him, sipping the cool liquid slowly and feeling it soothe his throat. “I felt it early this morning…I thought I was just having a nightmare.” Mutsunokami recalled having awoken abruptly, his entire body burning with heat. “Was that when…?”

 

“Time passes differently in the past than it does here.” The Saniwa began to put away the medical supplies, scissors and pliers clanking noisily against boxes. “Izuminokami-kun left at dawn, and was there for almost half a day until it was done. But by the time he returned, only three or four hours had passed here. So yes, what you felt when you woke from your slumber - that was when he cut your sheath, in the past.”

 

Hearing the words so matter-of-factly made him wince. “Because my body is still connected to the physical sword?”

 

“In a way. I suspect that’s also why the scar hurt more when you were near Izuminokami-kun - your body remembered who injured you.” When the Saniwa turned back to face him, she had removed her veil, and her expression was gentle. “But it’ll go away. You were just unprepared - and you didn’t want to accept it.”

 

In front of his Master, Mutsunokami couldn’t lash out, or yell at her. He suppressed the bitterness rising in him, and said, “I still…don’t know how I’m supposed to feel. When I became human, I had already accepted that Ryouma’s time was over. “That’s the world for ya”, I had thought. Even when these incidents first began…there were times I had thought about this. I wondered what would happen if one day the Time Retrograde Army went after Ryouma, and if you asked me to go to Omiya and finish it. At that time, I thought that I could do it. I really did.” His fists clenched on his lap, his nails digging into his palms. “But when we sent Imanotsurugi to Hiraizumi, and when I talked to him, I began to doubt myself, too. Could I really hold my sword in my hands and cut down my former master, even if I no longer served him?”

 

“When Imanotsurugi-kun returned, I knew it had been a mistake to send him.” The Saniwa’s voice was distant. “Unfortunately it was already too late to help him. All I could do was to try and lessen the pain for the next incident - which was yours.”

 

Mutsunokami shook his head. Protect history - or protect Ryouma? But he already knew the answer.

 

“Mutsunokami-kun, let me ask you this.” The Saniwa took Mutsunokami’s hands in hers, unfurling his clenched fists. “If I asked you to go to Hakodate and kill Hijikata Toushizou - would you have done it?”

 

Mutsunokami opened his mouth to reply, then closed it. This, too, he knew the answer to.

 

“Izuminokami-kun understood what had to be done. Even though he came to see me right after learning about all this from you and Imanotsurugi-kun, with the intention of confronting me and putting a stop to it all, he accepted the mission to go in your place. He may not know it yet, but he, too, believes that it was something unavoidable to preserve history - and to save you from the pain.” She smiled sadly. “It’s not everyday someone loves you so much to do something like that for you.”

 

Mutsunokami was suddenly struck with a memory from long ago, only weeks after he’d come to this world…

Being human now means we can share both our happiness and our sorrow, right? And our pain, whether it’s an injury or it’s in our hearts, we don’t have to bear it alone.

 

He sighed. “I miss him. I said horrible things to him too. Things I don’t know if he’ll forgive me for.”

“Do you forgive him?” The Saniwa questioned.

 

He was quiet for a long time. He recalled his own words, said to Izuminokami the second day they met: now that we’re human we can do so much more…but that means living in the present and going to the future, not staying in the past.

Damn. All that preaching he did and he had forgotten it when it mattered the most.

“…Yeah. Yeah, I do.”

 

She chuckled. “Well then, he’ll surely forgive you too.”

 


 

 

For all his hopeful optimism, though, Mutsunokami almost overlooked the fact that the Saniwa was more understanding because she understood the situation and the context behind everything. Others who unquestioningly took Izuminokami’s side would be less forgiving.

 

Which was why, the next day, when Mutsunokami went to Izuminokami’s room and knocked, he was momentarily confused by the sound of short, pattering footsteps instead of long strides coming to the door and sliding the shoji door open. For a fleeting second Mutsunokami forgot everything he had planned to say as he met icy teal eyes, and before he can even blurt out a “oh shit” he was slapped across the face with such force that he had to stumble back, hand clamped to his cheek.

Behind Horikawa, Kasen emerged from the room, leaning against the doorway with his arms crossed, looking exactly like a disapproving elder brother, and the dismissiveness evident in his gaze - the jade colour so reminiscent of Izuminokami’s. “You know you deserved that.”

 

“…Horikawa. Kasen.”

 

“I don’t know what it is you said or did to Kane-san.” Horikawa’s eyes flashed. “All I know is that he is miserable because of you, and that means I don’t want to see you here. And neither does he.”

“We knew you’d come to find him,” Kasen added. “Which is why Izuminokami’s not here. We sent him away. You’re not going near him.”

 

Mutsunokami bit his lip. “Please, I just want to see him again. I want to apologise—”

Kasen snorted. “Apologise? You believe a simple “sorry” will suffice for hurting him like this? I have been at this Citadel for almost as long as you have, Mutsunokami, so I will be frank. I had always thought you to be unrefined, uncultured, and inelegant. Over time I thought I could accept that this was simply who you were, especially when Izuminokami began to take a liking to you. That these traits of yours were, simply, of a wild and free heart. But I see now that my wayward brother was wrong. When I saw how he cried and broke down - I won’t let him be hurt that way, especially by the likes of you.”

 

“Even if Kane-san is softhearted enough to forgive you, I won’t,” Horikawa chipped in, and Mutsunokami almost found himself recoiling from the smaller boy. “How are we supposed to know if you’re serious about this?”

 

Mutsunokami took a few steps back, wincing lightly at the pain from his scar. But he only gritted his teeth to keep silent as he knelt, folding his feet under him, and placed his hands flat on the ground. He heard Horikawa’s sharp intake of breath, but didn’t dare to look up as he bowed his head low.

 

“I know I fucked up. But I love him. I really do.” He hadn’t intended to confess his feelings like that, to Horikawa and Kasen no less, but it was too late to backtrack. “Nothing can erase what I said. I know it was unforgivable. But whenever I was with him - I was so happy just to be by his side. I want to make things right. I’ll do anything. Just let me see him again. Please.”

 

He held his breath, his gaze trained on the floorboards beneath him. Several long minutes passed, and Mutsunokami got the impression that they were testing him to see how long he would keep this up. I’ll do this for as long as it takes, until they allow me to go to him.

 

At last, after what felt like millennia, Kasen sighed. “Very well. I believe that you have truly understood the magnitude of your mistakes and are willing to make up for it. I will never pretend to know what Izuminokami sees in you, but he, too, loves you enough if he cares so deeply for what you said to him.”

Mutsunokami looked up, hopeful.

 

“But just so you know…” Horikawa’s smile was venomous. “If you do anything out of line again, I won’t hesitate to ruin your life for the rest of your days here at the Citadel.”

 

Yikes. He didn’t doubt that Horikawa would be capable of that.

Mutsunokami swallowed, hardly daring to believe his ears. “Then - you’re gonna help me?”

 

Horikawa looked at Kasen for confirmation, who sighed again and massaged his temple. “Right, help him up. I can’t very well witness an apology like that and still not forgive you. It would tarnish the name of the Kanesada school - and it would break my brother’s heart even more.”

 

Obediently Horikawa took Mutsunokami by his wrists and pulled him upright. Gratefully Mutsunokami leaned against the pillar by the engawa, rubbing his thighs. His knees had started to cramp, and his scar was still stinging, but his chest now felt lighter than ever.

Kasen looked at Mutsunokami levelly. “Izuminokami is at the training hall. Nagasone had the schedule cleared for the rest of today to give him some time alone, and my younger brother has always been the type to distract himself through training…”

 

“Alright, got it.” Mutsunokami nodded, wringing his hands, suddenly nervous. “You know, he’s really lucky to have you two looking out for him.”

 

Horikawa shrugged, smiling. “We all want Kane-san to be happy.”

 

Kasen simply waved Mutsunokami off. “Go. Woo my brother back. And good luck.”

 


 

 

Having the training hall all to himself was strange at first, but Izuminokami gradually got used to it, dressed lightly in a simple grey sleeveless yukata and hakama, his hair tied back in a ponytail and the comforting weight of the bokken in his hands. It had been almost centuries since he could recall carrying out solo training practice like this, the way Hijikata-san used to, simply going over the basic juge-buri technique repeatedly, occasionally practicing his footwork. No onlookers, no sparring partners, just himself.

 

It had been Nagasone’s idea, really. Izuminokami had spent the morning feeling horrible, his chest still constricting as if something had coiled around his heart. Horikawa must have noticed right away, because Nagasone had come along afterward, urging Izuminokami to go to the training hall and get his mind off things. “It’ll be good for you,” he’d insisted.

 

In no mood to refuse, Izuminokami had simply obeyed.

 

And yet the training did nothing to distract him. If anything, it left him alone with his thoughts, which only served to eat away at him like poison.

This morning had been Nagasone; last night it had been Kasen and Horikawa, waiting for Izuminokami in his room after dinner, like two stern, tight-lipped sentries.

 

“Horikawa-kun tells me that you’ve been…” Kasen had paused delicately. “Upset.”

“Sorry, Kane-san,” Horikawa had said quietly. “You looked so miserable…I didn’t know what to do, so I thought maybe Kasen-san could help. It’s just…it had to do with Mutsunokami-san, right?”

 

At the sound of his name, Izuminokami had frozen up, and at the expression on his face Kasen had tutted. “So it’s true. It is about him. What did he do, Izuminokami? You can confide in me or Horikawa-kun, you know.”

 

How could he possibly tell them? Yes, Mutsunokami had snapped at him, but with good reason - for Izuminokami to have done such a terrible thing to hurt him, to even physically hurt him because of his scar…

“He…” Briefly Izuminokami had hesitated. He couldn’t tell them what he had done, what his mission had been. “It wasn’t his fault, it was me—”

 

Honestly,” Kasen had interrupted with a long-suffering sigh. “I had always had my doubts about that man. Nothing good can come out of a relationship with someone like Mutsunokami - platonic or otherwise,” he had added, making Izuminokami go red.

“But I hurt him, too.”

Kasen had silenced him with a raised hand. “It will be better off that you stay away from him. I did warn you that he and the Master were hiding things from us.”

 

“Nosada—” Izuminokami had begun, impatiently, but Kasen rose to his feet, a chilling look in his eyes.

“You are a Kanesada as well, Izuminokami. Do have some respect - not just for me, but for yourself too.”

 

Helplessly Izuminokami had looked to Horikawa for help, but his partner had only shaken his head. “I have to agree with Kasen-san…I know you like Mutsunokami-san, but whatever he did or said to you made you really sad. You haven’t cried like that since the Master told you that Hijikata-san—” He broke off, biting his lip. “Maybe just take some time to think things over, first.”

 

And then later that night, Izuminokami had spoken to Mikazuki, too. If anything, it had been a strange experience, that a Sanjou sword would be able to help clear his thoughts when his elder brother and his partner couldn’t.

Undesirable choices that will make history, huh…

 

As a sword warrior of this Citadel, under the Saniwa, Izuminokami could accept that. That was something that Hijikata-san and the Shinsengumi had always accepted - that some things must be done for the sake of their ideal, and for their country. All along it had been the fact that Izuminokami could not accept hurting Mutsunokami that way.

 

I wonder if he’s alright.

Izuminokami forced himself not to think about the hurtful things Mutsunokami had said to him. He wasn’t in his right mind when he said them. He was delirious, he told himself. He was in pain. He was in pain because of me…that’s why he said those things…I wonder if he’s okay…

Is he better now? Has he come to look for me? Or have Nosada and Kunihiro stopped him? Maybe I should go find him myself. I should properly apologise, because I was wrong, too…but maybe he hasn’t forgiven me yet, so I shouldn’t go find him, it’ll just make him angrier…

As he thought, this training wasn’t helping to distract him at all.

 

Slipping a little on the floor beneath him, Izuminokami glanced down to see the droplets of sweat under his feet, and clicked his tongue in mild annoyance. He walked over to the edge of the open engawa, propping his bokken by the pillar, and wiped at the sweat beading on his forehead with a towel, trying to calm his breathing.

Tomorrow, he decided. Tomorrow, I’ll go see Mutsunokami. I’ll figure out what I should say, so that I’m not unprepared—

 

“Izuminokami!”

 

His heart skipping a beat, Izuminokami turned around at the sound of Mutsunokami’s voice, seeing him appearing wide-eyed at the entrance of the training hall. Just the sight of him, no matter how dishevelled he looked, took Izuminokami’s breath away.

 

“Mutsunokami…”

Nosada and Kunihiro, Izuminokami realised. They let him come.

 

He found himself rising to his feet, taking a couple of steps towards him; Mutsunokami, too, came forward, and within seconds they had crossed the distance between them. Even before they had reached each other, they started speaking at the same time.

“Your scar, is it—”

“About yesterday, I—”

 

They stopped, and Mutsunokami gave a shy smile. Izuminokami felt his cheeks warm as Mutsunokami said reassuringly, “I’m okay, the Saniwa patched me up. It doesn’t hurt.”

Izuminokami exhaled sharply. “Thank God. I was so worried, I shouldn’t have—”

“About that…”

Izuminokami shook his head, making Mutsunokami trail off. “Please. Let me say it first.”

 

Mutsunokami paused, then nodded, his gaze gentle.

 

Together they made their way to the engawa where Izuminokami had left his bokken, and Izuminokami hoped that Mutsunokami couldn’t hear the beating of his heart that hammered like thunder in his chest. He did look better than he did yesterday, Izuminokami noted, glancing at Mutsunokami out of the corner of his eye, but he could tell that Mutsunokami had lied about the scar - he could see the flash of pain in his eyes when he knelt to sit at the edge of the engawa, could see him gritting his teeth slightly and his hand rising to press lightly at his hip, though the movement was quick and soon obscured from Izuminokami’s view by his yukata.

Izuminokami looked away, and for a moment the two of them sat in silence, just like they had every day for the past few months. His hands felt clammy, and he clenched his fists, willing his nervousness away.

 

“I talked to Mikazuki last night,” he began, and he saw Mutsunokami shift slightly next to him, but he kept his gaze forward, looking out over the gardens. “I didn’t go into detail about the mission, but…well, I wanted to talk to someone about it. About how I felt - how I still feel.”

He had wanted to plan out exactly what to say to Mutsunokami, but now that he had started, he couldn’t seem to stop. He could feel his nails digging into his palms. “He reminded me that as a sword warrior, it was my duty to carry out missions to protect the flow of history. No matter how difficult the choices were, they were something that was meant to happen, that had already happened once in the past, and so it was our job to make sure it stayed that way. So that in protecting the past, we can protect our future, too - where history has a place.”

 

Mutsunokami said nothing, and so Izuminokami swallowed, continuing, “I had to accept that what happened was a necessity. It was something that was bound to happen because that’s our job, as protectors of history. But what I couldn’t accept was hurting you.”

 

Izuminokami had to stop, and take a deep breath. He thought he could do this and keep himself together in the process, but that was looking less and less likely by the second. He closed his eyes.

“I had to talk to Imanotsurugi, you know, before heading out. I was at my wit’s end, I didn’t know what to do. He told me that he endured the pain by reminding himself that it was better when he was the only one who suffered. So I followed his advice. I kept telling myself that, throughout the whole mission, that it was fine as long as it was me, and it wasn’t you, even when I—”

 

He trailed off as the memory resurfaced in his mind: shadows pressing in within a small room, the warm spray of blood on his face, his sword’s edge on a worn sheath, and breaking it.

“I know this isn’t something you have to forgive me for.” He didn’t dare glance at Mutsunokami. “But it was something that I chose to do, not just because I was told to, but also because I wanted to protect you, I didn’t want you to be hurt, I just wanted you to be happy because I…”

 

But he couldn’t say it. Not right now.

“I…I just wanted you to know that. I’m not asking to be forgiven. And I’m just…glad that you’re better now. That you’re unhurt. That’s all I wanted for you.”

 

At last Izuminokami was able to force himself to open his eyes, and suppressing the terror he was feeling in his chest, snuck a glance at Mutsunokami next to him, praying that he wasn’t going to get punched in the face for such a lacklustre apology.

 

To his surprise Mutsunokami was smiling slightly, looking down at his hands. “Do you remember when we first met?” he asked quietly. “Here, in the training hall?”

Despite himself, Izuminokami smiled too. “I wanted to punch you in the throat.”

“And Yagen had to stop you.” Mutsunokami sounded wistful. “We've come a long way since then, haven't we?”

“...Yeah.”

 

“I thought it was amusing, ya know. Every sword who first arrives retains their old memories, but you wanted to beat me up so badly, even though the Master had already filled ya in on our new mission. You didn’t care. Still loyal to the Shinsengumi cause, and ready to have a go at me.” Mutsunokami shrugged. “I was so proud of myself then. To have understood the Master’s orders, and put my past behind me, unlike you. And being the first guy here, I should be the one to have understood my new duty is a sword warrior the most: the mission to protect history. And yet, when it came to it, I was the one who couldn’t accept Ryouma’s death and lashed out at you.” Mutsunokami shook his head. “How pathetic.”

 

Izuminokami bit his lip. “You can’t blame yourself like that.”

 

“It’s still true. Being human is more different than I thought. There’s something new every day. New emotions, new wishes, new ambitions - and new challenges. It’s not just about obeying orders. Sometimes things don’t turn out the way we want, and we break. But just like our bodies, and our swords, we can heal. Sometimes it takes a long time. Sometimes it never goes away.”

 

““There are some things that the heart can’t heal, but at least the pain lets us know we’re alive”,” Izuminokami murmured softly, remembering. It seemed like a distant memory now - his first ever sortie, the pain that had torn at his heart, what Mutsunokami had said to him afterwards.

 

“Developing, overcoming, and being strong - that’s what being human is about.” Mutsunokami scratched at his ear, a little embarrassedly. “That’s what I think, anyway. Though in the end, I still couldn’t let go of Ryouma. That’s why my scar hurt so much, when my body still had those memories, and why I said those horrible things to you. I’m sorry I said them. I didn’t mean any of it. You were just doing your job.”

 

“I’m sorry too,” Izuminokami looked away. “For what I did.”

 

“But the Master asked me something. She asked me if I’d be willing to do the same for you, in your place. If it came to it.”

Izuminokami sucked in a breath. Hijikata, killed in Hakodate, a bullet that shattered his lower back. He had not been there when it happened, but the thought of Mutsunokami firing that shot, ending Hijikata’s life and his ideals, and condemning Horikawa to his fate at the bottom of the ocean, made his head spin and his stomach churn. “And what did you say?”

 

“That I would,” Mutsunokami replied simply. “Without question. Because I’d want to protect you from the pain, too. And that was when I realised why you did what you did. Then my scar...it hurt less when I came to that thought.”

 

If that scenario had truly happened, if it had been Mutsunokami who went to Hakodate instead, Izuminokami knew that he and Horikawa would go through the same pain regardless, blaming him for doing such a thing. Even if it was necessary - it would still hurt.

But it would hurt less than if they had to do it themselves.

 

They were silent for a long time after that.

 

“Can ya tell me something?”

Izuminokami looked up at the quaver in Mutsunokami’s voice, and asked hesitantly, “Yeah?”

 

“Ryouma’s last words...what did he say?”

 

Izuminokami lowered his gaze to his hands. “Before I left, he was still alive. And he said...that he had wanted to see a new age.”

 

“Ah...so that’s what he…” Mutsunokami trailed off, not finishing his sentence, and Izuminokami only closed his eyes as Mutsunokami began to cry openly, and willed himself not to break down, too.

Chapter Text

They fell back into their old routine: Mutsunokami barging cheerfully into Izuminokami’s room in the mornings, messing around at breakfast much to Horikawa’s chagrin, completing their chores under Kasen’s watchful eye and, of course, their sparring sessions together.

It was those few hours that Mutsunokami found that he had missed Izuminokami’s company the most. The past week had been a whirlwind of emotions and events that he frankly hoped they would never have to bring up again, including him accompanying Izuminokami to the Saniwa’s room to formally apologise for his behaviour towards her before. She’d forgiven him, saying that it was a reasonable reaction, and Mutsunokami was glad that they remained on good - and equal - terms after that.

 

And it was a comfort and a relief to be able to stand across from Izuminokami once again, the smooth wood of the bokken in his hands, and his instincts taking over as they fought. A step to reposition here, a parry there, a strike that would have hit home if not for Izuminokami’s hair whipping him in the face as he spun, making Mutsunokami topple over, both dissolving into laughter.

It was as if nothing had changed.

 

But it had. Neither of them brought up the mission again, but Mutsunokami realised that Izuminokami’s behaviour towards him was different. All along, it had been Mutsunokami who had not-so-secretly (only secret to Izuminokami, actually, because he had been too dense to notice it) harboured a crush on him, spending time with him and training with him and sneaking glances at him during missions. But now Mutsunokami noticed that Izuminokami was deliberately avoiding striking his hip area during their training, and occasionally asking if he was still in pain and needed to see the Saniwa, like he was afraid. And there were also times that when they fell into step next to each other, their hands would brush together ever so slightly, and when Mutsunokami glanced at him, it would be to see Izuminokami meeting his gaze for a split second before he looked away. Like he had been looking at him, too.

 

Something was up. Mutsunokami didn’t know what happened at Okehazama, with Izuminokami being so kind to him, or what Mikazuki had told him, but something had changed for him, too. Did he know? Had he realised? Did he return his feelings, whatever it was?

He wanted to find out, but couldn’t find an opportunity to bring it up. How could he, with Horikawa and Kasen watching him beadily like hawks, making sure he wasn’t going to screw up again?

Even so, Mutsunokami sensed that something was about to happen between them. He could feel it in the air, like the impending arrival of a storm.

 


 

 

Their first sortie together after days was to Edo, in the Enkyou era. With Tsurumaru as Captain of the Unit and joined by Honebami and Namazuo, Mutsunokami was surprised to learn that Kasen would be accompanying them. No doubt he had asked the Saniwa to allow him to go, under some pretense of gaining more experience, but in reality to keep an eye on Mutsunokami. Izuminokami, too, seemed a little embarrassed, like an errant child who was under surveillance by a disapproving parent, and kept his distance from Mutsunokami while in Kasen’s vicinity, choosing to walk next to his elder brother instead.

 

Not that Mutsunokami could complain. Though Izuminokami may have forgiven him, both Horikawa and Kasen still had their misgivings, Kasen in particular, despite having witnessed his sincere apology. He had confided in Izuminokami on the matter, of course, who in turn had expressed his disbelief to Mutsunokami that he had really performed dogeza, a highly uncommon and extreme act of etiquette of deep apology.

“Well, yeah,” Mutsunokami had shrugged, looking bashful. “That was the only way I could think of that they’d take me seriously. They weren’t going to let me see you otherwise.”

Izuminokami had sighed. “You’re an idiot,” he remarked, even though he was smiling, his expression soft and warm.

 

That memory was what distracted Mutsunokami in the precious few moments that Tsurumaru yelled an order, forcefully pulling him back to the present moment as black mist emerged all around them. The others all had their swords drawn already, and had leapt into the fray, cutting down the Time Retrograde Army warriors that swarmed from the shadows.

 

Thrown, Mutsunokami reached for his blade; instinctively his gaze went to Izuminokami, who was fighting back-to-back with Kasen, his turquoise eyes glowing with ferocity and determination.

In that split second that Mutsunokami stopped, drawn by the elegance in which Izuminokami slew his enemies, was his undoing: a blur of black, the flash of a gleaming red eye, and pain seared up Mutsunokami’s arm as a serpentine tantou flew past, the blade in its bony jaws slick with his blood as it slashed at his dominant hand, making him drop his blade with a gasp.

Damnit. He screwed up.

 

The enemy tachi advanced on him, blade raised, and Mutsunokami kicked out at it, making it stumble back as he scrambled towards his sword - he tried to get a grip on it, but his hands, too, were soaked in his blood and made it hard to hold.

He heard the tachi’s footsteps behind him, the hairs at the back of his neck prickling as the demon’s breath came close. Panicking, he spun around in time to avoid the strike, falling hard on his back in the process. The tachi loomed over him, a twisted grin on its face, and raised its sword again.

Shit—

 

“Yoshiyuki!”

 

Izuminokami’s ragged cry was what snapped Mutsunokami out of his hesitation, clearing his mind. With a swift movement he reached for his gun with his good hand, yanking it out of his holster and aiming it directly between the tachi’s eyes, and pulled the trigger.

The shot rang loud and clear, and the tachi froze, the hole in its skull wide and gaping. It opened its mouth in a hiss, but before it or Mutsunokami could move, the end of a sword emerged from its chest, tearing through shadowy flesh and bone. Mutsunokami stared at the blade in surprise as the tachi began to dissipate into smoke.

 

Behind its vanishing form stood Izuminokami, breathing hard. There was blood on his clothes that was already disappearing, and a cut on his jaw that was stark red against his pale skin.

“What,” Izuminokami said. “The hell were you doing?”

 

Mutsunokami quickly stowed away his gun, waving off the smoke that furled from the barrel. “Sorry. Thanks for the help.”

You called me Yoshiyuki. He looked challengingly at Izuminokami, but the other warrior only averted his gaze and sheathed his blade.

“Well, be careful next time. I can’t always be around to help you.” He gestured to his hand. “Let me see that.”

 

Sheepishly Mutsunokami sat up, holding out his arm towards him. “I’ll get it fixed at the infirmary when we go home.”

“At least get it patched up for now,” Izuminokami tutted, reaching into the pack tied at his hip and drawing out a roll of bandages. Taking Mutsunokami’s hand with both of his, Izuminokami deftly wrapped the thin cloth around his wound, and Mutsunokami was reminded of when Izuminokami had done the same with the ointment just last week. He felt his cheeks redden at the thought, and opted to look away instead of at Izuminokami’s hands or even at Izuminokami himself, and caught the gaze of Tsurumaru, looking on with amusement in his gleaming golden eyes. Then again, Tsurumaru seemed to look at everything as if he knew some inside joke about it.

 

“You’re pretty good at first aid, Izuminokami,” Tsurumaru drawled, his tone teasing.

“Thank you. I’m told that I can be quite a ministering angel.”

Ow,” Mutsunokami complained, as Izuminokami sealed the dressing and tapped his wrist. “That hurt.”

“Only because you’re a weak little b—”

“IZUMINOKAMI.” Kasen sounded horrified.

 

Namazuo laughed. “You can’t say bad words, Izuminokami-san.”

“That’s hardly a bad word—”

“It is,” Honebami said softly. “Ichi-nii told us never to say things like that.”

Izuminokami pointed at them accusingly. “You two are ganging up on me. Ichigo’s been too soft on you guys.”

Kasen whacked his brother on the back of the head. “Please stop talking.”

 

As they argued amongst themselves, Mutsunokami found his gaze drawn to his newly patched-up wound, overly aware of the tingling on his skin. That was twice in recent memory that Izuminokami had touched him, with such intimate tenderness, and both times Mutsunokami had been unable to discern what was going through Izuminokami’s mind when that was happening.

 

And he had called me Yoshiyuki, he reminded himself. The thought had been weighing on his mind since it had happened, but now that his mind was clearer, out of the thick of battle and the rush of adrenaline, Mutsunokami felt a new emotion swelling in his chest. It wasn’t the same as joy, but it was also just as warm and he couldn’t help but smile when he recalled Izuminokami’s voice saying his name—

 

“Mutsunokami?” It was Tsurumaru, peering at him. “You sure you’re alright? You’re a bit out of it. We could request an early retreat back to the Citadel if you want to take a rest. I’ll explain to the Master and have her send out another Unit in our place.”

Mutsunokami hesitated.

“She’ll understand,” Izuminokami supplied quickly, and Mutsunokami didn’t miss the way that his gaze darted to his side, where his scar was hidden beneath the bandages that wound around his abdomen. He must have thought that it was that instead.

 

He took a deep breath. The sooner we get back, the faster I can get to the bottom of this...of all of this. Izuminokami’s glances at him, patching up his wounds for him, calling him by his first name. He had to find out. He had to know.

“Yeah,” he lied. “Let’s go back. I’m not feeling too good…”

 

Kasen probably knew he was lying. There was no way that he could have missed his own brother calling out his name. But at this point Mutsunokami was beyond caring. Besides, Kasen knew that there was something simmering beneath the surface of their friendship.

The difference was that Mutsunokami wanted, no, needed to know exactly what that was - and if it was mutual.

 


 

 

Minutes after they got back to the Citadel, Mutsunokami ran off in the direction of the baths as fast as he could, leaving Tsurumaru and the rest of the Unit to report to the Master instead. The baths were blessedly empty, and quickly Mutsunokami put away his clothes and weapons, gingerly stepping into the water.

At first it was scalding hot, and it stung a little when the water came up past his waist and covered his scar; but after a few minutes the temperature levelled out to a warmth that soothed his skin, and a chilly breeze swept through the open air, barely disturbing the steam that rose from the surface of the water.

 

Exhaling a sigh, Mutsunokami leaned against the cool rocky edge of the bath, arms outstretched on either side of him, and keeping his injured right hand suspended above the water with its wrapping. Now that he was here, it was time to organise his thoughts properly.

 

He liked Izuminokami. Of course he did. He was happy when he was with him, and he didn't ever want to make him upset or angry. That much was true.

But he’d never expected Izuminokami to notice that he was crushing on him, or to even reciprocate such feelings. Liking someone didn’t mean you were entitled to make them like you back.

 

Yet Izuminokami’s behaviour indicated that he felt the same way: lingering touches, the worry and concern that creased his face whenever Mutsunokami’s side stung, and…

 

My name. Mutsunokami felt a chill run through his body, despite the heat of the water, and automatically he slipped lower under the waves, letting it lap over his shoulders that were suddenly covered in goosebumps, like little pins on his skin. He picked at the bandage dressing around his hand, fiddling with the tidy knot at his wrist.

 

The human concept of “names” was unfamiliar - there were many at the Citadel who cared a lot about their names, like Yamanbagiri, and there were those who didn’t care at all, like Higekiri.

Mutsunokami was one of those who was proud of their name. He had been a treasure handed down in Ryouma’s family, and famous in Tosa, his hometown. Ryouma had called him his Yoshiyuki, too. So over time, Mutsunokami came to understand that only those who were special or close to him would call him by that.

 

It had been so long since he’d heard his name spoken by someone else. It was strange, but...it wasn’t unpleasant.

 

Did Izuminokami know, or had it just been a slip of the tongue? Did he know how much this meant to Mutsunokami?

It had to have meant something. The question was, what?

 

With renewed purpose Mutsunokami got up from the pool, hurrying to take a quick shower and wash off the onsen water, and within minutes he’d dried himself off and redressed in his ordinary clothes. After a quick visit to the infirmary to get the gash on his hand healed - which only took ten minutes - he made his way briskly to the training hall with a towel slung around his shoulders.

He knew Izuminokami was going to be there - knowing him, he’d be restless after an early retreat for their mission and would want to release all that pent-up energy through sparring. Mutsunokami hoped, however, that he would be alone there.

 

Sure enough, as Mutsunokami approached the training hall he could only hear the sounds of one set of footsteps on the floor, a rhythmical slide of feet along the wooden boards and the louder, rough thumps of a bokken being swung at the wooden dummy at the side of the hall. When Mutsunokami peered in, it was to see Izuminokami standing there by himself, his sleeves tied back with a white strip of cloth and his hair up in a ponytail. As Mutsunokami watched, Izuminokami raised the bokken and slashed down at the pillar in front of him, the sound ringing loud across the room.

Grinning to himself, Mutsunokami took a spare bokken from the stands along the wall, weighing it in his hands and then creeping forward until he was just a few feet away from Izuminokami.

 

Taking a deep breath, Mutsunokami yelled, “This is a Shinsengumi raid!”

 

Izuminokami spun around, startled, and just barely managed to utter a “what the f—” in surprise before blocking Mutsunokami’s strike with his own bokken. “Mutsunokami?!”

“I’m here to search the premises! Surrender yer weapon!” Mutsunokami stepped back and lunged again, only for Izuminokami to parry his hit and push him back with a rough nudge.

“What the hell are you on about, you bastard?”

 

Mutsunokami ignored him and attacked again. Realising he wasn’t going to get a straight answer unless he played along, Izuminokami growled, “Alright, bring it on,” and struck back, deflecting Mutsunokami’s sword with his own and sweeping his sword low, trying to trip him up.

Mutsunokami saw it coming and sidestepped it easily, swinging his bokken down at Izuminokami’s exposed flank, but the taller man knew that his side was going to be unprotected and therefore the obvious target, and deflected the hit again as he brought his sword back up from its earlier sweep.

 

On and on they fought, more like a choreographed dance than a mock battle, with their equal footing and strength; but Izuminokami was tiring easily, having been training for the past hour or so, while Mutsunokami, fresh out of the shower and filled with adrenaline, pushed his advantage, attacking again and again until Izuminokami’s challenging expression was replaced by irritation and impatience.

 

There was a thump as Izuminokami’s back hit the wall behind him, and panic flashed in his eyes as Mutsunokami’s sword stopped at his throat, the blade tip below his chin, Izuminokami’s face tilted slightly upwards.

They were close enough now that they were only inches apart, and Mutsunokami could feel Izuminokami’s breath on his cheek, see the beads of sweat forming at his neck, and the rise and fall of his chest as he fought to catch his breath.

 

Swallowing, Izuminokami laughed softly, dropping his bokken to the ground with a clatter. “Alright, fine. I give—”

“You’re under arrest.”

A different emotion passed through Izuminokami’s eyes then. Defiance. Like he had an inkling of what Mutsunokami was trying to do. “Oh? And what crime have I committed?”

 

Mutsunokami didn’t lower his bokken from Izuminokami’s neck, but boldly reached forward with his free hand, his fingers brushing Izuminokami’s cheek. Even though Izuminokami was taller than he was, he could reach him with ease like this.

He heard Izuminokami take a sharp intake of breath, but he didn’t move as Mutsunokami’s thumb traced over the cut on his jaw. “What are you…?”

“Why did you protect me?” Mutsunokami asked quietly.

Izuminokami stiffened. “You’re my ally. I have a duty to protect all of my comrades—”

“But you got hurt.”

“Would you rather I have stood by and watched you break?”

 

Somehow Mutsunokami got the sense that they weren’t just talking about today’s mission.

He lowered his hand and the bokken, and took a step back. “Why did you call me by my first name?”

 

Izuminokami’s eyes widened. “I…”

“Even since Okehazama you’ve been acting weird. Patching me up, taking on missions for me, and now calling me Yoshiyuki. You can’t just—” Mutsunokami broke off, thinking the better of his words, and tried again, “What am I to you?”

 

Izuminokami blinked, thrown, and looked away, his cheeks pink. “I’m just doing my job. It’s not a crime to—to care for fellow allies, if that’s what you’re saying, so don’t make it a big deal. It’s nothing.”

“It’s not nothing,” Mutsunokami insisted. “Tell me the truth.”

 

Izuminokami didn’t answer him, and instead tucked a stray lock of dark hair behind one ear. “Well - we’re friends, aren’t we? You would have done the same for me.”

He’s nervous, Mutsunokami realised. He’s just as scared as I am.

 

He didn’t dare to get his hopes up - he only wanted to get a straight answer. A reason that could explain away the butterflies in his stomach, the way that his chest always felt warm and light when he was with him, the way he sometimes couldn’t help but stare a little longer at Izuminokami. A reason that would either alleviate his worries or disappoint him entirely.

 

“Please. My name - it means something for you to have said it.”

 

“Then what about you, huh?” Izuminokami challenged back, meeting Mutsunokami’s gaze with a daring glint in his eyes. “What am I to you?”

 

Mutsunokami spluttered. “What?” He hadn’t been expecting Izuminokami to turn the tables on him.

“Don’t lie. Kunihiro and Nosada have both noticed. All those things you do for me, spending time with me and everything. I’d never noticed them. But it was Kunihiro who told me about them, and that you li—”

“He said that?” Mutsunokami squeaked. Had he been that obvious all along? Knowing he liked him and being told of the fact was entirely different, and Mutsunokami was not prepared at all.

 

Izuminokami stared at him. “Is it true, then?”

Before Mutsunokami could reply, Izuminokami’s hand came up to clutch at his own chest, over his heart. “Does it feel the same for you then, here - all warm inside, whenever we see each other?”

 

Mutsunokami’s mouth went dry.

Suddenly realising the weight of his words, Izuminokami’s eyes widened and his pink cheeks grew into a dark red blush that reached all the way to the tops of his ears. “I—I have chores to do,” he said abruptly, and pushed past Mutsunokami, walking briskly across the training hall and out into the corridor, where Mutsunokami could hear him break into a run as his pounding footsteps echoed away into the distance.

 

Dazed, Mutsunokami put his hand on his chest, too, as if the movement could physically calm his rapidly beating heart. His blood was singing in his ears, and all he could think of was: he feels the same.

Was that as close to a confession as he’ll ever get? It was messy, yes, and they had both blustered their way through it, and it had not gone at all how Mutsunokami had been planning it - but it was something. And now that Mutsunokami knew, he couldn’t stop thinking about it. When had it started, for either of them? Or maybe there wasn’t really a point where their rivalry ended and their friendship began. Maybe it had been friendship all along, and had gradually grown over time to something else.

Mutsunokami let out a nervous laugh, unable to help himself. Perhaps, this is what the Saniwa had meant by—

 

“Mutsunokami-san?”

Mutsunokami practically jumped out of his skin, turning around in a mixture of surprise and guilt. “Konnosuke! Jeez, don’t just sneak up on me like that.”

 

The pipe fox looked offended. “I did no such thing. I’ve been calling you for the past minute. You’re the one who didn’t hear me.” It tilted its head to one side. “What’s distracting you, anyway?”

“Nothing,” Mutsunokami answered vaguely. “Well? What did ya want? I don’t have any fried tofu on me, if that’s what you’re gettin’ at. Master knows ya’ve been nickin’ Nakigitsune’s fox’s stash, and forbade us from giving you any. You’ll have better luck bribing Urashima to give you some, apparently Kamekichi likes them now.”

“I was not looking for fried tofu, but thank you for the tip.” It sat down, folding its tail over its paws. “The Saniwa asked me to come fetch you. She has a mission for you.”

 


 

 

When Mutsunokami entered the Saniwa’s room with Konnosuke by his side, he was surprised to see a map laid out on her desk - a physical map, for charting the seas. The Saniwa usually used scanned maps on the interactive screen at the other side of the room for sorties. This must be an exception after all.

 

“It better not be another Time Retrograde Army issue,” Mutsunokami said guardedly, before the Saniwa could speak first. “I can’t handle that again.”

“No, no.” The Saniwa shook her head. “Konnosuke, thank you for bringing Mutsunokami-kun to me. You can go now.”

 

“Yes,” went the pipe fox, and scampered away out to the hallway, no doubt in search for fried tofu.

Shaking his head, Mutsunokami pulled the shoji door shut, lowering into a formal seiza, then turning to face the Saniwa. “So? What’s the mission?”

Although the Saniwa’s face was covered by her veil, Mutsunokami had the suspicion that she was smiling when she answered, “An expedition that I can only entrust you to carry out successfully. Can you do that for me?”

 

Relieved, Mutsunokami sat up proudly. “An expedition? Well, of course! Where am I headed?”

“To an island off the coast of this Citadel. Unlike other normal expeditions, the destination will not be in the past, nor will it be in any historical area that you’ve visited before.”

“An island?” He frowned. “But, then—”

The Saniwa laughed. “Haven’t you always wanted to captain a ship, Mutsunokami-kun?”

“WHAT?”

 

When the Saniwa nodded, Mutsunokami let out a whoop of laughter and jumped up in sheer giddiness, practically leaping about the room energetically in his excitement. “Are ya pulling my leg? Yer not, are ya? Yer serious? A real ship?”

“Yes, Mutsunokami-kun, a real ship.”

“A real ship, with sails and cannons—and me at the helm?”

“Yes.”

 

“Nice, Master!” Mutsunokami clapped the Saniwa on the shoulder happily, almost making her stumble beneath the force of it. “Leave it to me!”

“Not just you.” The Saniwa corrected him.

“Right, right - I’ll have to have a team with me, don’t I? Can’t captain a ship without a good crew, eh? Though, I doubt any of the other guys at the Citadel would know the ins and outs of being on a ship...man, they’ll have to get their sea legs, too!” Mutsunokami barked out a raucous laugh, joy in his heart and exhilaration in his blood. “To be fair, it’ll depend on the duration of the journey - if it’s a short trip, I could go with a smaller Unit?”

 

“You’ll be sailing for the island north of here. Uninhabited, so don’t get any funny ideas. I was supposed to receive a package from the government, but something went wrong with the delivery process and they dumped the package on an abandoned island instead of here. I’d like to ask you to retrieve it for me.”

Mutsunokami frowned. “Not that I mind, but...can’t they just send another package?”

“Those are highly classified documents. Apparently they can’t procure another copy for me, so I’ll have to find my own means to get it back.” The Saniwa shrugged. “Based on how far the island is from here, and your mastery of the ship, I’d say that your journey will probably take up to three or four days before you return.”

“That’s close.” Mutsunokami crossed his arms and looked up at the ceiling, squinting as he wracked his brain. “If that package is important and classified, I could handle half a week on my own.”

 

“Oh, that won’t be necessary.” Again with the Saniwa’s smile in her tone. “I’m sending another sword warrior to accompany you and help you.”

“Eh?” Hope unfurled in Mutsunokami’s chest, like a flame. “Who are ya sending?”

 

There was definitely laughter in the Saniwa’s voice when she answered. “You’ll be going with Izuminokami-kun. Just the two of you.”

Chapter Text

Tsurumaru Kuninaga, at any given moment, was generally having the time of his life. He was constantly on the prowl for new gossip and happenings around the Citadel, and so he was pleasantly surprised when his tanuki-hunting endeavours led him to (accidentally, of course) overhear the juicy part of a conversation taking place inside the Saniwa’s room.

 

He could hear his Master’s voice, and the familiar Tosa accent of Mutsunokami Yoshiyuki, and so Tsurumaru stayed very still under the engawa outside the room, the hard wood of the flooring at his back and the dry pebbles and grass under his hands. He crouched out of sight, listening hard, and a smile forming on his face that stretched from ear to ear with every word that he caught.

 

A special ship expedition that only Mutsunokami and Izuminokami would be going on. Well, that was definitely a surprise.

 

The reason for the expedition was probably true - Tsurumaru didn’t doubt it - but he was pretty sure that the Saniwa had her reasons for picking that lineup. Reasons that aligned with a new idea forming in his head.

 


 

 

“A bet?” Yamatonokami wrinkled his nose. “What do you mean?”

 

After going back to his room and retrieving the necessary tools to put his plan into action, Tsurumaru had gone to Yamatonokami and Kashuu’s room first. Out of everyone in the Citadel, the two Okita swords were closest to Izuminokami and were very, very likely to take part.

 

Besides, the whole Citadel knew something was up. Everyone just pretended not to notice, so that Mutsunokami and Izuminokami could go at it by themselves. It’d been extremely entertaining (for him, anyway): seeing them explore what the humans called “love”. Of course, the other swords weren’t exactly well-versed in that, and Tsurumaru was no exception. Most of their knowledge came from their pasts with their masters or cheesy movies and books that the Saniwa had left lying around in the Citadel’s library.

Even so, Tsurumaru had to admit that recently Mutsunokami and Izuminokami may had hit some bumps along the road, with some argument erupting between them, and this little expedition was the best chance to make something happen. Something more than just secret glances and slight touches, like he’d seen this morning during their incomplete sortie. A little bit of progress in the grand scheme of things.

 

"Don't you see?" Tsurumaru threw his hands up, golden eyes glittering. "This is the perfect opportunity for them! They've been tiptoeing around each other for months. They've even had their first big fight, and made up, and now they're going somewhere alone - just the two of them. No one else.”

 

A look of understanding dawned on Yamatonokami's face. "You want to bet on who makes the first move.”

Tsurumaru pointed at him. “Exactly.”

Kashuu looked confused. “The first move? You mean first to kiss, or first to f—”

 

“Oh my God, shut up.” Yamatonokami nudged him, hard, cutting off his sentence.

Kashuu looked miffed. “How will we know, though? It doesn't matter what we bet on, Izuminokami's definitely not going to say anything even if something does happen. Well, he might tell Horikawa, but Horikawa's totally loyal to him, he'll keep it a secret, too.”

 

“We'll find a way,” Tsurumaru said mysteriously, a finger to his lips, then turning to Yamatonokami excitedly. “Well? Are you in?”

“I'm betting on Mutsunokami for sure," Yamatonokami answered immediately. “Izuminokami's never going to win. He's too shy, he'll never make the first move.”

 

“Ooh, confident. Then I'll be betting on Izuminokami. After all, he may very well surprise us." Tsurumaru whipped out a notebook from within his sleeve, writing Izuminokami's name on the top of one page, then Mutsunokami's name on the other. Once he finished, he looked up expectantly at Kashuu.

 

“Well, I guess I'll be the first to put my bet,” Kashuu announced, drawing out a red velvet pouch, heavy with coins. “A hundred yen, on Mutsunokami.”

“Only a hundred?” Yamatonokami looked disappointed.

“I'm saving up for new nail polish,” Kashuu told him. “Besides, when you win, we'll share the money, right?’

“We will?”

 

“Kashuu, a hundred yen on Mutsunokami,” Tsurumaru muttered, adding Kashuu's name on Mutsunokami's page. “Well, it's a start. I think the others would be more enthusiastic about it, don't you think?”

“I'll come with you,” Yamatonokami offered, getting to his feet. “Have to know how much money I'll be winning, anyway.”

 

Kashuu was leaning back on his palms, looking at them with an expression that was a mix between amusement and disbelief. “This better be worth it.”

 


 

 

They visited the Kotetsu brothers’ room first, which was directly next to Yamatonokami and Kashuu’s room, by a collective request for the Shinsengumi swords to stay as close together as possible. Inside, Hachisuka was the only one working: he was cleaning out the shelves, and thus had cleared it of books and ornaments while wiping down the cupboard. Urashima and Nagasone, on the other hand, were setting up a sort of labyrinth with the books on the floor, trying to coax Kamekichi through it with a dangling piece of lettuce.

 

“Mutsunokami,” Nagasone answered immediately, before Yamatonokami had even finished explaining.

 

Tsurumaru groaned as Yamatonokami shook with laughter, adding Nagasone's name under Kashuu's. Nagasone continued, "Izuminokami's not the type to take the initiative on something like that. Sure, he's hotheaded in battle, but he's inexperienced in...those matters.”

 

“Why do I feel like you guys are having fun betting against him? Isn't he your comrade?”

“It's exactly because he's our comrade that I know he won't win," Nagasone snickered, handing over a thousand yen note. “I’m not a fan of Mutsunokami, but I'll say one thing for him - he never misses.”

 


 

 

Izuminokami gained his first ally in the form of his brother, though Tsurumaru was disappointed at the amount of money that Kasen was willing to bet.

 

“This is a silly game,” Kasen tutted, even though he was already reaching into his sleeve to pull out the money. “But only because I believe that Izuminokami will emerge victorious, mark my words. A Kanesada does not lose.”

Tsurumaru only grinned, pocketing the five hundred yen coin. “We'll see, we'll see.”

 

Kasen gave Tsurumaru a stern look. “If you resort to any drastic measures to invade Izuminokami’s privacy, be warned that I can and will make your life miserable.”

 

“But I can invade Mutsunokami’s privacy?” Tsurumaru questioned.

 

There was a pause. Then: “Yes. But only if it’s him. Izuminokami can’t handle his liquor very well, but Mutsunokami gets quite talkative when he’s drunk. I would suggest taking that approach when the time comes.”

Tsurumaru squinted at Kasen. “Are you helping us?”

 

Kasen shrugged. “I do care for my brother’s well-being, even if he is sometimes too shy to show it. This is a roundabout way of finding out whether Mutsunokami is really the one for him. If he isn’t…” His eyes suddenly grew cold. “Then I’ll handle it myself. Mutsunokami will wish he had never approached my brother.”

 

“Woah, scary.” Tsurumaru backed out of the room. “Alright, I’ll see you around!”

Quickly he fled.

 


 

 

“Why on earth would you bet on something like that?” Shokudaikiri commented, distracted by the bubbling soup inside the pot in front of him. He never took his gaze off of his cooking, and forbade Tsurumaru to take a single step into the kitchen, instead confining him to the doorway. “It's their relationship. As long as they're happy, then I'm happy for them. It seems mean to assume such intimate matters between them.”

 

Ookurikara, who stood at the table by the shelves peeling potatoes with a knife, scowled at Shokudaikiri's back. "Mutsunokami," he grunted.

 

“Oh? Karabou is joining in? Now that's a surprise!”

 

“That Izuminokami's an idiot.” Ookurikara was no doubt recalling his first sortie with said sword warrior, where he had complained of having to save his ass.

“That's why you're betting against him?”

Ookurikara paused. “Yes,” he answered, at length.

 

“How much?” Tsurumaru already had his notebook at the ready.

“A thousand.”

“Ohh, hefty. You sure you don't want to keep that money for buying cat plushies? You—”

 

He ducked as Ookurikara chucked the knife at him, the blade lodging itself on the wooden doorway with a thunk.

 

“KARA-CHAN.”

“He started it.” Ookurikara glared at the ladle that Shokudaikiri was pointing at him.

Tsurumaru straightened up again, beaming just as cheerily as before, if not more. “Good throw! Anyway, Mitsubou, you sure you don't want to join in?”

 

Shokudaikiri sighed, running a hand through his hair in exasperation. “Alright, fine. A hundred yen on Izuminokami-kun. I feel like he's the type to do something once his mind is set on it. Now get out of the kitchen before Kara-chan murders you.”

 

“Bah, a hundred?” Tsurumaru scribbled quickly on the notebook. “At this rate I won't earn anything from this. It's no fun. By the way, soup smells great. Can I have a bowl?”

 

The soup ladle was then pointed at him. “Out!”

 


 

 

Shishiou bet on Mutsunokami. So did Doudanuki, Nikkari, Nakigitsune, and both Genji brothers. Yamatonokami was practically giddy with excitement as the numbers piled up, overwhelmingly in Mutsunokami’s favour.

 

Tsurumaru, despite the odds being against him, wasn’t too concerned. He wasn’t doing this for the money, anyway, he was doing this because it was fun and it was a good surprise and it stirred the Citadel up for some good gossip. In fact, some unlikely swords had decided to take part and had voted for Izuminokami: Jiroutachi, Taroutachi (who had been weedled into it by his brother and so Tsurumaru doubted his true opinion), and even Ichigo, who was strict enough not to allow any of his brothers to bet - “I don’t care if they’re older than I am by forge date, Tsurumaru, they’re still my younger brothers and so I will not be allowing them to take part in gambling” - but also a good enough sport to vote in more money in place of his brothers, a whopping five thousand yen for Izuminokami.

They snuck under Hasebe’s radar, uncertain if he would report them to the Saniwa, and that was when Tsurumaru had run into Mikazuki, Kogitsunemaru and Ishikirimaru, enjoying tea on the engawa as always, and asked them what they’d thought.

 

As he’d expected, the Sanjou swords were not really into gambling, either - but Mikazuki was, surprisingly, rooting for Izuminokami.

“Now that’s a surprise,” Yamatonokami commented, taking the words right out of Tsurumaru’s mouth and earning a firm smack on his shoulder as a result. “Mikazuki, are you close with Izuminokami?”

“Not quite,” Mikazuki replied honestly, sipping his tea. “But he and I had a chat recently, and that is the feeling that I get. I hope that answer will suffice.”

 

Yamatonokami shot a puzzled glance at Tsurumaru, who only shrugged; they thanked the trio for their time and hurried away, whispering about what could the oldest and the youngest swords of the Citadel could have possibly talked about.

 

The Samonji brothers had opted out of the betting pool, though Souza and Kousetsu both agreed that Mutsunokami would take the initiative. The same went for Tonbokiri, Otegine and Nihongou; and so lastly Tsurumaru and Yamatonokami visited the Kunihiro brothers.

 

Thankfully only Yamabushi and Yamanbagiri were present - personally Tsurumaru didn’t think Horikawa would take too kindly to knowing half the Citadel was betting against his partner.

 

By the time they had finished explaining, Yamabushi was stroking his chin thoughtfully. “I see, I see. This is certainly a difficult choice to make.”

 

“Is it?” Kashuu muttered, and Yamatonokami elbowed him in the ribs. “Ow!”

“C’mon,” Tsurumaru prompted. “You’ve seen how the two of them act around each other. All lovey-dovey and they don’t even know it.”

“That’s what bothers me,” Yamabushi answered seriously. “What if nothing happens?”

 

Tsurumaru exchanged a glance with the two Okita swords. They hadn’t thought about that. “This bet is only for if something happens during this expedition, right?” Yamatonokami asked, with some uncertainty. “I guess if nothing actually happens...we can just cancel the bet and return everyone’s money?”

 

Tsurumaru shrugged. “Looks like it. I’ll be very disappointed if that’s how it all ends up, though.”

“I trust that you will follow the same reasoning if something happens but you don’t find out who makes the first move.” Yamabushi’s expression was grave.

 

“If,” Tsurumaru emphasised. “Then yes.”

“Alright, then this humble servant of Buddha shall wager a thousand yen for Mutsunokami-dono!” Yamabushi slapped down the money with a loud bang, making everyone in the room jump.

 

“Well, that’s another for me, then,” Yamatonokami announced triumphantly, once the initial shock of Yamabushi’s actions had subsided.

Everyone then looked expectantly at Yamanbagiri, whose face turned as red as a tomato. “Wha…I—”

 

“You must be rooting for one of them,” Kashuu pointed out. “And don't tell me you haven't noticed them pining for each other, either.”

“It's alright if you don't want to, though,” Yamabushi added kindly, patting his brother on the shoulder.

 

Flustered, Yamanbagiri pulled his hood lower down to cover his eyes. “…—nokami.”

“What?” Tsurumaru leaned closer eagerly.

“Izuminokami,” Yamanbagiri said in a slightly louder voice.

 

“FINALLY,” Tsurumaru yelled, forgetting that he was right next to Yamanbagiri, who leapt about a foot into the air and flinched away from his voice.

“Please don’t do that,” Yamanbagiri whispered.

 

“My bad, my bad!” Jovially Tsurumaru clapped Yamanbagiri several times on the back, practically pitching him forward each time. “I knew you’d come through! Well? How much are you gonna bet on our dark horse?”

“Nothing.”

“What?” Tsurumaru couldn’t keep the dismay out of his voice. “Why not?”

 

Yamanbagiri turned away. “That’s just what I think. And it’s not kind to make fun. I don’t want to turn this into a game. Especially Horikawa...he thinks a lot of Izuminokami. He’ll be angry at you guys if he finds out about this.”

 

“Well, he won’t,” Yamatonokami assured him. “We’ll make sure of it.”

 


 

 

“How much we got?”

“Shut up, I’m counting.” Kashuu was muttering under his breath as he ran the tip of the pencil down the row of numbers on Mutsunokami’s page, his eyes darting back and forth across the paper.

 

Tsurumaru, who was lounging on the floor spread-eagled, let out a dramatic sigh. “Are you just deliberately taking longer so that you can make a point of how much more people are willing to bet on Mutsunokami? Because if you are, I get it, thanks, can we move on?”

 

“Hey, are you still not done counting?” Yamatonokami whined.

“If you poke me one more time—”

 

“What are you three up to?”

 

Horikawa was standing at the doorway of the room, carrying a basket of folded laundry in his arms. Yamatonokami and Kashuu froze, the notebook in plain view, and Tsurumaru watched Horikawa take a step forward, gaze zeroing in on the pages.

“What’re you…”

 

“Say, Horikawa!” Quickly Tsurumaru jumped up, arms wide and smile even wider, blocking his view of the notebook. “What do you think about Izuminokami and Mutsunokami, eh? Pretty interesting pair, wouldn’t you say?”

Behind him he heard Kashuu stowing away the notebook out of sight, the drawer slamming shut.

 

“If you’re planning to prank them, I’d rather not know about it,” Horikawa responded warily. “You know, in case it goes south. Kane-san’s headlocks hurt.”

Tsurumaru shook his head. “We’re not! Trust me.”

“Not a phrase I’d believe from you of all people,” Yamatonokami pointed out.

 

Still looking suspiciously between the three of them, Horikawa put down the basket of laundry at his feet and sat down cross-legged at the table with them. “Well...I’ll support whatever Kane-san decides to do. I want him to be happy, and Mutsunokami-san does make him happy, even if he doesn’t want to admit it.”

For the hundredth time that day, Tsurumaru exchanged glances with Yamatonokami and Kashuu. First Mikazuki, and now Horikawa. Why was it that everybody else at the Citadel seemed to know more than they let on?

 

“And besides,” Horikawa added, with a fond smile. “He makes Mutsunokami-san happy, too. So to me, it doesn’t really matter who makes the first move. As long as both of them are happy with each other in the end.”

 

No one said anything for a while, possibly a little overwhelmed at the affection with which Horikawa spoke. Then Tsurumaru realised what exactly he’d said and almost choked on his spit. “Wait—how did you know we were…”

At this, the soft look on Horikawa’s face faded, replaced by a wry expression. “Honestly, I’m not blind or deaf,” he said sternly, straightening to pick up his laundry basket again. “I do know things. Frankly, I’m offended that you think I wouldn’t find out.”

“It was Yamanbagiri,” Kashuu muttered. “He told you, didn’t he?”

 

The corner of Horikawa’s mouth twitched. “Just so you know, if Kane-san does confide in me on what happens on the expedition, I have no plans to tell you guys. They’ll tell us themselves when they’re ready - not when you guys go snooping.”

 

“We won’t,” Yamatonokami promised as Horikawa left the room. “Let you find out,” he added as soon as he was out of earshot.

 

Hurriedly Tsurumaru slid the shoji door shut, turning back to his conspirators. “Jeez, that was close.”

“Should’ve closed the door to begin with,” Kashuu remarked, shaking his head. “Forget Horikawa, what if it’d been Hasebe who walked by? Or even the Master? We could’ve gotten into so much trouble.”

“Hey, this is your room, I wasn’t going to make the decisions!”

 

“Quit arguing,” Yamatonokami hissed, flapping a hand at Tsurumaru to beckon him closer, and retrieving the notebook from the drawer. “Kiyomitsu? Did you finish counting it all up?”

 

“Yeah. Seven thousand and six hundred on Izuminokami—”

Tsurumaru sighed again. “Honestly, without Ichigo’s five thousand yen, this wouldn’t even be a competition anymore.”

“—ten thousand and three hundred on Mutsunokami,” Kashuu finished.

 

Yamatonokami looked pleased. “Higekiri was splurging quite a bit, he bet five thousand as well. I think Hizamaru would have done the same if not for the fact that they didn’t have another five thousand left. What the hell are they spending it on, anyway?”

“Hizamaru’s boots,” Kashuu supplied, helpfully. “Have you seen the new pair he got? Looks great. Stylish and good for battle.”

 

“Alright, Hizamaru’s spending habits aside - where should we keep the money and the records?” Tsurumaru interrupted. “We have to give it to someone trustworthy for safekeeping, who can keep this a secret and isn’t taking any sides.”

 

“Ishikirimaru?” Yamatonokami suggested.

“Good idea. I can hand it to him later - hopefully Hasebe won’t be around.” Grinning with satisfaction, Tsurumaru poured himself a cup of tea and raised it in a mock toast. “Well, gentlemen, I’d like to show my thanks for your acceptance of this endeavour. All in the name of a righteous cause, of course. From here on, it’s every man for himself.”

 

Yamatonokami looked slightly amused and Kashuu mildly puzzled, but they followed suit anyway, filling their cups and raising them.

 

Tsurumaru’s eyes gleamed.

“May the sharpest blade emerge victorious.”

Chapter Text

Mutsunokami was dreaming again.

 

He felt the dampness of the wooden handles under his hands as he turned the helm expertly, hearing the ship creak as it changed direction. He felt the cool ocean spray on his skin, could smell the scent of salt in the air, and relished the feel of the wind rushing about behind him and up into the sails above.

It was the same dream as before, he realised.

 

The same ship, the same sky and sea, and the same land that they approached. He made his way to the edge of the deck, and, just as before, his Master fell into step next to him. In the distance, he could see the same blurry figure standing silhouetted against the sun, a hand raised in greeting.

There was that feeling in his chest again: that feeling of longing, that he was home, as if whoever stood there waiting for him was pulling him towards them.

 

“Who is that?” Mutsunokami asked his Master.

She only smiled. “Home.”

“That’s not the answer I’m looking for.”

“Isn’t it?”

 

Mutsunokami looked harder - he could just barely make out their traditional-looking attire , but their face was still indiscernible…

 

“Mutsunokami-san, it’s time to get up!”

 

With a groan Mutsunokami rolled over in his futon, sighing as the person and the sea and the ship faded. Guess he wasn’t going to finish that dream, then.

“What is it?” he called sleepily, eyes still closed.

“The Saniwa wants everyone to meet at the cove down by the beach as soon as possible,” came Konnosuke’s voice from beyond the shoji. “And remember, you have to get ready too, so make sure you’ve got everything prepared.”

 

Mutsunokami sat up, suddenly wide awake, and all memories of his dream vanishing. The ship expedition!

I’m going to captain my very own ship!

 

“Alright, I’ll be there soon!”

 

Three days had passed since the news of the special expedition had spread throughout the Citadel like wildfire. Mutsunokami had been giddy with excitement, telling anyone who would listen (which mostly ended up to be Izuminokami, with some amusement) about his dreams of sailing the high seas, of exploring all the different countries around the world with his own ship and crew.

 

“We’re only going to an island off the coast of the Citadel,” Izuminokami had had to remind him, smiling. “Not Europe or Africa.”

Mutsunokami had shrugged. “Well, maybe this is a start, right? And there’s no harm wishing for it!”

 

As usual, they hadn’t talked about what occurred in the training hall. It was difficult to bring it up, anyway, because since the Saniwa had announced the details of the expedition, Horikawa had faithfully stayed by Izuminokami’s side at every moment, and Mutsunokami didn’t want to mention such an event in front of him.

 

Meanwhile, Horikawa was intent on making sure that his partner could handle himself for the upcoming journey without his help.

Apparently this was not about making sure he could dress himself or could brush his hair (as Yamatonokami and Kashuu had joked), but actually going over tricks on fishing, recognising edible plants, and even how to cook crustaceans. Shokudaikiri and Kasen had very quickly deduced that no amount of prepared food from the Citadel could last long enough throughout the expedition, and so Mutsunokami and Izuminokami would have to resort to acquiring food themselves.

It was more like a camping trip than an expedition, really. Like a miniature vacation.

 

Most importantly, Mutsunokami had pleaded and begged the Saniwa to let him see the ship. “Come on, just a quick peek!”

No. It’s a surprise.”

“What kind of ship is it? Is it a brig? Is it a frigate? Has it got cannons?”

“You’ll find out when you see it.”

“But I want to see it now!” He couldn’t keep the whine out of his voice.

The Saniwa rolled her eyes. “Not yet,” she insisted.

 

He’d even been forbidden to leave the Citadel, after being caught by a hawk-eyed Yagen for trying to sneak down to the beach and find the ship himself. No luck in trying to persuade Izuminokami to help him take a look too.

But today he’ll finally see it. Today they would finally set sail.

 

Just him, and Izuminokami.

 

Resolutely Mutsunokami packed his extra clothes and blankets, tied them in a cloth and slung it over his shoulder, and, after a moment’s thought, brought his camera too. Then he extinguished his candle and left the room.

 


 

 

“No fair, I want to go on the expedition too!”

“The Saniwa’s made her decision, and she chose me,” Izuminokami answered. He stopped in the process of folding his clothes, frowning at Yamatonokami. “Now can you stop being noisy and actually help?”

“Noooooooo.” The Okita sword was curled up in the corner of the room, sulking.

Kashuu was next to him, applying a new coat of scarlet polish on his fingernails. “Well, Yasusada might want to go, but I wouldn’t want to. Seawater on my clothes? No thanks. Besides, my hair would be a total mess. And my nails would be ruined.”

Yamatonokami stuck his tongue out from behind Kashuu’s back, and Izuminokami laughed.

 

His room had been a flurry of activity for the past few days. When the expedition was announced, first came Yamatonokami and Kashuu, barging into his room asking if it was true, and then asking, with some jealousy, why the Saniwa had chosen him, though for different reasons.

Yamatonokami simply wanted to go on the ship, too, and Kashuu didn’t want to go on the ship for the aforementioned reasons, but wanted the Saniwa to ask him nonetheless.

After about three or four hours of complaints and non-stop whining, Izuminokami learned to tune them out as they lounged about in his room and to only give them vague replies to appease them.

 

Next was Horikawa, ever so faithful, carrying a stack of handwritten notes containing information on outdoor survival. He slammed them down on the table with such force that Izuminokami, Yamatonokami and Kashuu all jumped.

“Kunihiro, what the f—”

 

“Information I gathered from the library,” Horikawa interrupted, cutting him off. “Everything that’s relevant and will be of use for you. Weather prediction reports for the upcoming days, a step-by-step manual on how to sail a ship, diagrams of ships and the names of all its parts and how to use them, and it’s colour-coded—”

“Oh my God.”

“That’s just the section on anything to do with sailing,” Horikawa said matter-of-factly, and pulled the top stack off. They all stared. There were at least four more stacks of paper underneath.

“Horikawa, did you get any sleep at all?” Kashuu asked.

“Of course I did. Kane-san, do you remember how to fish?”

“Er...yeah?” Izuminokami didn’t bring up the fact that he was planning to leave the fishing and the catching to Mutsunokami, who was clearly going to be more skilled at and also more excited to do those things. He was going to just offer to cook the food for them, since he’d spent hours in the kitchen with Kasen and Shokudaikiri last night brushing up on cooking skills.

Horikawa didn’t look convinced. “Okay, well, bring these notes anyway. There’s also a section here on the types of plants you can use for flavouring. I drew pictures to go with them so that you can identify them.”

“And this?” Yamatonokami lifted one of the stacks of paper.

“How to weave and set up traps, in case Kane-san gets tired of eating fish and crabs, and there might be animals to catch on the island.” Horikawa looked at Izuminokami sternly. “I don’t care if this journey is only going to take a few days, you’re going to get all of this down and I’ll be testing you before you leave.”

Izuminokami had only sighed. “As long as I don’t have to eat bugs,” he’d remarked, before pulling the notes towards him.

 

Kasen, too, came by with advice. “Seasickness is a whole different beast, and there is no shortcut to combatting it, only experience,” he’d said sternly, with the air of someone whose thoughts should be dictated as he spoke them. “You will learn to walk differently and move in tandem with the ship to keep your balance.”

“Sea legs,” said Izuminokami, who had heard Mutsunokami talk about them many times before.

“Yes.” Kasen sighed. “I trust that you will bathe yourself when you arrive at the island, and to do so properly - drying your clothes by the fire, and so on - but even so, seawater is not the best kind of water to wash oneself with. To think of having to spend a number of days at sea, trapped on that ship without a proper shower.”

Izuminokami frowned. “I’m pretty sure—”

“Regardless, personal hygiene aside, your health is also an important factor, which is why I have brought you this for your journey.” Kasen retrieved a cloth-wrapped box from next to him and set it on the table, pushing it towards Izuminokami.

Looking slightly wary, Izuminokami took the box and unwrapped it, peering inside, and he made a face. “Nosada—”

“No.”

“I’m not going to get scurvy from a four-day trip at sea.”

Kasen drew himself up regally. “You will be bringing these with you, and I will task Horikawa-kun in making sure that you do. No arguments.”

Izuminokami looked sullen. “Fine.”

 

Even Nagasone had visited, with a much more positive outlook to offer. “Congratulations on being chosen for this expedition. Our new master must think highly of you to have picked you. To take on such an important mission and be the first ones to board the Citadel’s very own ship is a great honour.”

Izuminokami had grinned back, albeit a little embarrassedly. “I’m sure we’ll all get a chance to sail together one day.”

“When we do, I’m relying on you to do the sailing,” Nagasone chuckled. “If I had to sail alone with Mutsunokami, he’d probably leave me down in the ship’s lower decks to throw up.”

At that, Izuminokami groaned. “Ugh, it’s gonna smell so bad, isn’t it.”

Nagasone nodded gravely. “A mix of sweat and seawater.”

“There’s probably nicer cabins on the upper deck, right?” Horikawa asked, looking worried. “The Saniwa wouldn’t...I mean…”

Even though they continued to joke and laugh about what ship life had to offer, Izuminokami couldn’t help but think about what Nagasone had just said. Sailing alone with Mutsunokami.

 

They hadn’t had a chance to talk. Horikawa had been so intent on helping him, and tired himself out every night so much that he fell asleep in Izuminokami’s room. During the day Izuminokami went over the information gathered for him and worked hard on going through them and understanding everything he needed to know; and during mealtimes he was bombarded with questions and requests from the other swords, usually the overexcited tantou who wanted him to sneak them on the ship for a close look, or bring them souvenirs from the island.

Izuminokami had only caught glimpses of Mutsunokami in the dining halls, and sometimes across the Citadel’s inner hallways, but they barely had the time or the circumstances to stop and talk properly to one another.

If anything, Izuminokami felt as though Mutsunokami was avoiding him. Probably unsure of what to say to him after what had happened in the training hall.

 

I’ll have time to talk to him when we set sail, Izuminokami reassured himself, though the thought of it gave him goosebumps. An expedition with only the two of them…

 

“Kane-san!” Horikawa’s voice jolted him out of his thoughts. “It’s time to go!”

 


 

 

Even before Mutsunokami reached the cove, he could see the dark shape of the ship looming beyond the trees, and the sight of it made his heart skip a beat. Unable to stop the grin forming on his face, Mutsunokami instinctively picked up his pace, breaking into a run down the hillside towards the beach.

 

He almost tripped on the way down, but he hardly cared. This was, without the doubt, the most important thing to happen to him since he became human. He was looking forward to seeing the ship, and finally being able to sail - the things he and Ryouma had always dreamed of in the past. And now, with this body, he could finally do them.

And Izuminokami would be with him.

 

The cove was packed with people, with the entire Citadel having been emptied out to witness this, but Mutsunokami barely paid attention to them, only rushing past the sea of colours and voices towards the beach. Near the water stood the Saniwa, and Izuminokami; Mutsunokami only gave the two of them a cheerful grin before dashing forward, stopping where the sand sloped down to the waves that rushed in, and stared at the vessel in front of him, perched on the water several miles out at sea, almost picturesque. His breath caught in his throat.

 

The ship was a beautiful thing with two square-rigged masts, and sleek brown wood on the deck and sides. It stood regally with its beige sails folded, and Mutsunokami longed to take a closer look at it, to actually explore it and to feel it moving under his hands and beneath his feet.

 

“An 18th century brig,” he found himself saying. “Not as powerful as a man o’ war, but faster than a schooner, right?”

The Saniwa hummed. “You’ve been doing your research.”

“Are ya kidding me?” Mutsunokami beamed at her. “This is perfect! How fast can she go?”

“Twelve knots, I’m told. Obviously, in this era it's more of an antique, as there are more developed ships that travel faster...but I was able to acquire it easily and it still runs well. I thought it would give you good memories, and besides, you'd know how to sail it.”

 

“What’s it called?” he asked her breathlessly.

She smiled at him. “You tell me.”

“I get to name it?”

“It’s your ship, idiot,” Izuminokami remarked, and laughter rippled through the crowd behind them.

 

“The Leviathan!” Midare yelled.

“The Kraken!” Atsushi shouted.

Queen Anne’s Revenge!” went Urashima.

 

Izuminokami looked at Mutsunokami wryly. “Have you been telling them pirate stories again?”

Mutsunokami grinned sheepishly. “Maybe?”

“So what will you call it?”

 

Mutsunokami looked up at the ship in front of him, joy tingling through his whole body. My own ship, he thought. Ryouma, your dream - I can make it come true.

 

“The Altair,” Mutsunokami declared.

 

“Eh? What’s it mean?” Gokotai called.

“It means flying eagle,” Mutsunokami explained happily.

Nagasone snorted, crossing his arms over his chest. “You’re naming your ship after a bird?”

Hachisuka glared at him. “It’s his ship, he can call it whatever he wants.”

 

The Saniwa nodded approvingly. “It’s a good name.”

 

A hush fell over the crowd, and for a moment everyone’s gazes were drawn to the ship anchored out at sea, as if physically applying the name and the image to the vessel in front of them.

 

“Come on, then, are you just going to stand there all day or are we actually going to get on that ship?” Izuminokami nudged him playfully on the shoulder.

“Hell yeah, let’s go!”

 

The Saniwa stepped forward, holding out a bell in her hand. “This is a transmitter similar to the one Konnosuke uses. You can use it to communicate with me in case anything happens. I’m afraid that my powers won’t be of much use for this expedition, since you are travelling in the same time and space, and not in the past...but I will do my best to aid you nonetheless.”

Mutsunokami took the bell, pocketing it, and Izuminokami said gratefully, “We’ll be sure to succeed.”

 

“Have a safe journey, you two,” the Saniwa spoke fondly. “I look forward to your return.”

 

The murmuring from the crowd of swords rose into shouts as they approached the rowboat bobbing by the edge of the cove, to take them to the Altair.

“Good luck!”

“Be careful!”

“Bon voyage!”

“Take lots of pictures to show us!”

 

This was bigger than what any of them could have imagined. All along, in their human forms, the swords had had opportunities to experience life again. But that had always been in the past, on sorties or expeditions. In the present day, they had always been staying safely within the Citadel, only exploring the surrounding areas such as the city area or the grassy plains beyond. Now, they were able to go further than that.

And he would be one of the first to do so.

 

Izuminokami got into the rowboat first, carrying their supplies, and after handing him his sword, Mutsunokami pushed the boat from its perch on the sand into the water, quickly leaping into the boat as well as it slid atop the waves.

More people came forward to stand at the edge of the water. Horikawa, who looked worried; Kasen, who looked proud; Shishiou and Doudanuki, who both gave Mutsunokami simultaneous thumbs-ups; and the Shinsengumi swords, waving madly at Izuminokami.

 

Yamatonokami cupped his hands around his mouth. “You can do it!”

Kashuu was pointing at Mutsunokami. “Don’t wuss out!”

Even Nagasone was glaring at him. “Do what you gotta do!”

 

“What the hell are they talking about?” Izuminokami asked.

 

“How would I know?” Mutsunokami was squinting at Tsurumaru, who was motioning at him. First at him, then at the bag of supplies at his feet. The white-haired trickster had his signature shit-eating grin on his face, and with a sense of foreboding and a quick glance over his shoulder to make sure Izuminokami wasn’t looking at him, Mutsunokami bent down to unravel the bundle. There were his own clothes, his blankets, his camera, and something that wasn’t there before: a box with 0.03 marked on it.

Mutsunokami was not an idiot, and he could already make an educated guess at what Tsurumaru was playing at, the implication heavy, so he was very much aware that his face was practically aflame as he glared at Tsurumaru. Tsurumaru just grinned back and gave him a thumbs-up as if to say, “go get him, tiger”.

Mutsunokami quickly shoved it back within his belongings when Izuminokami spoke to him, “Did you forget something?”

 

“No.” Briefly Mutsunokami considered chucking the box into the sea. And then maybe Tsurumaru too.

 


 

 

The Altair looked even more impressive up close. Furled sails, its rigging hanging from the masts, cannons lining the gun deck. Even with his limited knowledge of sailing, Izuminokami knew this was a good, solid ship.

Mutsunokami had eagerly climbed aboard first, despite Izuminokami shouting at him to get down and be careful, and so Izuminokami was left to carry the remainder of their stuff from the rowboat to the Altair.

 

“Come on, come on, come on!” Mutsunokami was already jumping up and down in excitement as Izuminokami finally came into view over the edge of the deck. “I wanna get started! I wanna show ya everything! No, no, stop!” His voice rose in alarm, and Izuminokami froze, one foot in mid-air and wobbling a little unsteadily on the rope ladder that dangled down from the main deck to the rowboat below. “Not the left foot! It’s bad luck! Step with yer right foot first.”

 

Izuminokami rolled his eyes, but complied anyway. “Never thought you were the superstitious type.”

Mutsunokami huffed, hands on his hips. “Well, it’s my ship and I’m the Captain, so ya gotta listen to me, right?”

“Yeah, yeah, so am I your first mate?”

“Nope!” Mutsunokami answered cheerfully, and he grabbed Izuminokami’s wrist, pulling him forward. “Come on, let’s go see the poop deck!”

“What? What am I, then? And I know it’s called that, but can we call it something else? Also, we can’t just leave the rowboat down there!”

 

After they’d put away the rowboat within the ship, lifted the anchor with some difficulty, and unravelled the sails to get the vessel into motion, they finally got down to the exploring. They dumped their stuff by the masts, and Izuminokami let Mutsunokami drag him up to the stern deck (which Mutsunokami had grudgingly allowed its technical name, even though he pointed out that the “poop deck” was a French word and not what Izuminokami thought it was), approaching the helm.

 

Mutsunokami ran ahead with a whoop of laughter, placing his hands on the handles of the wheel, feeling it experimentally. “Yeah, this is what I’m talkin’ about! Izuminokami, ya wanna try?”

“Nah, I’m good,” he replied with a smile, crossing his arms and leaning against the wooden railings. It was enough for him to see Mutsunokami having fun, anyway.

 

“Don’t stand there! Stand over here!”

“What?” Mutsunokami was pointing to the right side of the helm, and with some confusion Izuminokami obeyed, walking around him to stand on the other side instead. “Here?”

“Yep!” Mutsunokami beamed at him. “Now yer my quartermaster!”

 

“Haaah? What’s the difference between that and being first mate?”

Mutsunokami shrugged. “Well, it’s still second-in-command. But “quartermaster” has a nicer ring to it, and yer also in charge of helpin’ me navigate the ship - so ya gotta ask me where we’re goin’!”

 

He looked so excited that Izuminokami couldn’t help but give in with a dramatic long-suffering sigh. “Oh, alright, fine. Well? What’s our present course, captain?”

“Due north!” Mutsunokami pointed, eyes shining. “We’re sailing for the island!”

 

The wind picked up, the sails expanded, and with a creak the Altair began to move forward.

 


 

 

After several hours, when the Citadel’s island had long since disappeared behind them, Izuminokami left Mutsunokami’s side at the stern deck and explored the rest of the ship by himself. It took him a while to get used to the rhythmic sway of the ship, and to be able to walk across the deck without stumbling this way and that.

 

There was the gun deck, though the Saniwa had warned them that under no circumstances were they to fire them; and had specifically turned to Izuminokami to say, “Don’t let Mutsunokami-kun get too trigger happy. You’re not allowed to use the cannons at all. I’ll know if you do.” Even so, Izuminokami admired the weaponry that the ship had been armed with. Swivel guns, cannons that could fire a range of bullets such as round or heavy shots, and a sturdy ram reinforcing the bow.

It was unlikely they would ever have to use the Altair in a real combat situation, but it would be good for the Citadel’s swords to learn how to use and sail it, in case the circumstances allowed it in their sorties to the past. They did learn how to ride horses and battle on horseback, after all, even if they didn’t take their own horses back in time with them.

 

The below decks of the ship were dark, lanterns swinging empty from the wooden beams that lined the area, and had hammocks stretching between the columns. The wakizashi and the tantou would probably have fun camping out here, Izuminokami mused, lying on the different hammocks huddled together, sharing stories. If the Saniwa was in the mood to allow it, the Awataguchi swords could have a sleepover here, provided that the ship was anchored near the shore and Ichigo was watching over them.

 

Behind him creaked the capstan - the Saniwa told them that this was the biggest change to the ship she had made prior to the purchase, that instead of a classic capstan to be manually pushed by several crewmates, it was exchanged for a hydraulically-powered capstan and so they wouldn’t have to power the ship themselves. Izuminokami was immensely glad for this and Mutsunokami had been a little disappointed, but admitted it was better off that way considering they were only a crew of two.

 

There were two cabins at the quarterdeck, one being the navigation room, furnished with lanterns and a wooden table laden with maps and all sorts of contraptions like compasses and pocket watches that made Izuminokami dizzy just looking at it; and the one next to it was what Mutsunokami called “the captain’s quarters”.

With some trepidation Izuminokami entered the room, and was immediately relieved to find that it was decently-furnished, with two beds on either side of the room, each with a miniature table of drawers and a window. At least they had a bed each, was Izuminokami’s first thought, and then chided himself: what was there to be embarrassed about, though? There wasn’t anyone else here on this ship, and Mutsunokami had made his feelings towards him very clear...hadn’t he?

 

Did he want there to be just one bed?

 

Pushing the intrusive thought out of his mind, Izuminokami dumped his stuff on one of the beds and shut the door of the cabin behind him, hurrying back up to the stern deck.

Izuminokami had to admit that the novelty of being on a ship quickly wore off, though clearly not for Mutsunokami.

 

He was still standing proudly at the helm, his expression distant, and looking as though he were somewhere else, in another world. Perhaps he was, Izuminokami thought, taking his place on Mutsunokami’s right and looking out across the sea.

Despite everything, the view was almost bewitchingly beautiful. Both the sea and the sky stretched endlessly before them, and with the ship picking up speed, Izuminokami couldn’t help but close his eyes as the wind rushed about them, whipping through his hair and bringing the scent of salt and droplets of ocean water.

 

“Don’t you get tired?” Izuminokami asked, glancing at Mutsunokami.

“Nah, I’m okay.” Mutsunokami smiled at him. “I can go on for a few hours. Ya can take a nap if ya want, we can switch out later?”

Izuminokami shrugged, freeing his sword from the kingashi tied around his waist. He drew out the blanket he’d taken from his belongings and laid it beneath him, and sat down cross-legged by the railing.

Mutsunokami stared at him. “What, here? Why not the cabins?”

“And leave you standing here by yourself?” Izuminokami scoffed at the look on Mutsunokami’s face. “It’s fine. It’s better if you’re not alone, right?”

 

Mutsunokami opened his mouth, then closed it. Izuminokami stifled a laugh and sat back, his blanket crumpled underfoot and his haori draped over him. “How long do you think we’ll take to get to the island?”

 

“The Master said that the ship can go twelve knots in a fair wind, right? And based on the distance...I think we’ll get there by nightfall.”

“Nightfall, huh…” Izuminokami squinted up at the sky. It was barely noon, the sun not even at its highest peak in the sky. “Wake me up when it’s around lunchtime, will you? Nosada and Kunihiro made us bento, we can have them together later. And when I take over the helm, you can go take all the pictures you want.”

“Ha, I’m holdin’ ya to that!”

 

There was a long comfortable silence, and then Mutsunokami began to hum. Izuminokami shifted slightly against the wood, and strained to hear the words that Mutsunokami was singing, just audible over the muted rush of the waves beneath the ship, his voice lone and lilting.

  

          Now we are ready to sail for the Horn,

          Weigh, hey, roll and go—

 

          Our boots and our clothes, boys, are all in the pawn,

          To be rollicking randy dandy-o.

 

          Heave a pawl, o heave away,

          Weigh, hey, roll and go—

 

          The anchor’s on board and the cable’s all stored.

          To be rollicking randy dandy-o.

 

He had never heard Mutsunokami sing before. There was something mythical about it, and when Izuminokami looked up at him, there was that faraway look in Mutsunokami’s golden eyes as he stood at the helm, as if his voice was weaving a spell that could calm the seas itself.

 

          Soon we’ll be warping her out through the locks,

          Weigh, hey, roll and go—

 

          Where the pretty young girls all come down in their frocks,

          To be rollicking randy dandy-o.

 

          Heave a pawl, o heave away,

          Weigh, hey, roll and go—

 

          The anchor’s on board and the cable’s all stored.

          To be rollicking randy dandy-o.

 

Izuminokami found his eyes drooping closed, and with a yawn he curled up on the blankets, letting Mutsunokami’s voice wash over him.

  

          Come breast the bars, bullies, heave her away,

          Weigh, hey, roll and go—

 

          Soon we’ll be rolling her down through the bay,

          To be rollicking randy dandy-o.

 

          Heave a pawl, o heave away,

          Weigh, hey, roll and go—

 

          The anchor’s on board and the cable’s all stored.

          To be rollicking randy dandy-o.

 

He felt his grip loosen on his sword beneath his haori, and let sleep overtake him, his dreams filled with saltwater and flame-coloured eyes.

Chapter Text

“So why the Altair?”

“I said it meant flying eagle, didn’t I?”

“Yeah, but why’d you choose that name?”

 

Mutsunokami didn’t answer right away, instead clambering up the ship’s main mast to work on the sails. Izuminokami could just barely make out his shape on the yard, pulling in the ropes to close in the swathes of fabric. “Full sail to half sail”, he’d called it. Izuminokami didn’t really understand the terms, but stood obediently at the helm while Mutsunokami got to work.

The ship began to slow, the roar of the wind lessening and the crash of the waves below them becoming more distinct.

 

In the distance they could see the island that they were bound for, close enough that Izuminokami could see the thick trees that lined it, and the smooth, water-worn rock cliffs next to the sandy beach. It was just visible in the night fog; the sun had set several hours ago, and they had had to light the lanterns around the ship to continue their navigation safely, and so Izuminokami was relieved to see that they were close to their destination.

 

With a grunt Mutsunokami jumped down from the masts, brushing dirt off his hands. He made his way up the stern deck, taking the helm back from Izuminokami, explaining, “Half sail means we go slower, but it’ll be easier to move the ship since there’s less wind pushin’ us along. We’ll go close enough before the ship runs aground, and find a place to anchor. We can settle down here for the night, then look for the Saniwa’s stuff tomorrow…”

Izuminokami said nothing, knowing that Mutsunokami was more talking to himself than to him directly, and waited until his mutterings had faded. Then he asked, “You haven’t answered my question.”

 

They did a lot of talking throughout the day. Things that they usually talked about, like gossip around the Citadel, news they heard from other Citadels. Sometimes Mutsunokami would talk about something by himself, all bright eyes and giddy excitement about stories of naval warfare and nautical myths; leaving Izuminokami content to listen to him. The one thing they didn’t talk about was the Omiya mission. He couldn’t figure out how to bring it up without seeming insensitive, so he kept the conversation flowing with the most harmless topics he could think of.

 

Mutsunokami chuckled a little. “Yer not gonna laugh at me for naming my ship after a bird, are ya?”

“Nah, Nagasone-san already did that,” Izuminokami responded with a grin. “But seriously, why an eagle?”

Mutsunokami shrugged. “They’re powerful birds, don’t ya think? They’re predators, and they fly higher than any other bird. They can go anywhere they want, and travel the whole world, and nothing can stop them. I guess I kinda wish that being on this ship is like that, too. That I can take it to any place that I wanted, and be free.”

 

Izuminokami stared at him. “And leave the Citadel behind? What are you talking about? You can’t do that.” He knew he shouldn’t be angry, but he couldn’t help it, feeling the unease prick at his skin and his hands clenching into fists. “What about the Master? And us?”

 

What about me? he almost added.

 

Mutsunokami glanced at him out of the corner of his eye. “Hey, don’t worry! It’s just a thought, anyway. Besides,” he added, with a small smile. “I wouldn’t leave ya behind.”

Izuminokami froze. “You—”

 

He broke off, half from the lack of any coherent thought in response to that, and half from the fact that the ship suddenly jerked, sending both of them pitching forward a little, and a loud rumbling noise rose from underneath the Altair.

“Shit, we’re running aground,” Mutsunokami swore, turning the helm fast. “Let’s back up a little...I hope the bottom isn’t all scraped already. Help me with the anchor, will ya? We’ll stop here for the night and head out tomorrow morning.”

The conversation thankfully forgotten, Izuminokami scrambled to his feet and got to work.

 


 

 

“Here.” Mutsunokami dumped the bagful of food on the floor with a heavy clunk. “This was all I could find in the galley.”

“This” amounted to a meagre supply of preserved food ranging from biscuits, preserved food and some tins of nuts. Izuminokami wrinkled his nose but took a can of preserved beef anyway, inspecting it as Mutsunokami went to find a knife to open it with. “Well, that’s something, at least. We can have this with the last bento that Nosada made us.”

 

In any case, Izuminokami was glad that Mutsunokami seemed to pick up on his unease and discomfort of being on a ship, and made the whole process feel more like a vacation. He was the one who’d suggested they clear out the galley and bring all their food to eat in their room instead of in the kitchens.

 

Dinner was a little quiet, both of them unused to the strange silence around them, with only the sounds of the calm waves and the creaking of the ship rocking slightly. There were the old patterns, like Izuminokami studiously picking out all the stewed vegetables in his bento (“Did Kunihiro really think I was still going to eat these if he’s not here to watch me do it?”) and giving them to Mutsunokami, and Mutsunokami burning his tongue on the flask of hot tea.

 

When they’d finished their food they went together to the kitchens again to wash up (“Ya don’t think the ship is haunted, do ya?” Mutsunokami had teased him upon his suggestion that they go together; Izuminokami had only stomped hard on his foot in response, but was still grateful for Mutsunokami staying close by his side), and afterwards they returned to the cabin, and Izuminokami sat peeling mikan for them (courtesy of Nosada, who believed that they would get scurvy if they didn’t have their fruit after dinner every night) while Mutsunokami dug out writing materials to do the daily report for the Saniwa.

 

“I thought we can just use that bell to report to the Master?” Izuminokami asked, gesturing to the said item dangling from a cord at Mutsunokami’s belt.

Mutsunokami shrugged. “It’s only for emergencies. Otherwise I think she’ll be okay with a classic handwritten report.” He took the fruit that Izuminokami offered to him with a grunt of thanks, smiling ruefully. “Kinda wish we had ice cream daifuku with us.”

Izuminokami groaned. “Do not talk about the food that we do not have here.”

“You know what would be great right now?” Mutsunokami grinned. “Shokudaikiri’s yakisoba...a hot plate of karaage…”

“Shut up.”

“A nice bowl of miso soup…”

Izuminokami threw a pillow at Mutsunokami, making him yelp in laughter. “Alright, alright, I’m sorry!”

 

“Even so…” Izuminokami sighed. “I kind of miss home already.”

“Home, huh…”

Izuminokami glanced at him. “Something wrong?”

“Nah.” Mutsunokami raised an eyebrow at him. “We’ve been away for what, a day? We’ve had sorties to the past that take longer than that.”

“It’s still different, you know? It’s like...I know that the Citadel is nearby. But I’m just not there right now.”

“Do ya wish ya were there instead of here?” Mutsunokami tossed the pillow back at Izuminokami as he said it, casually lobbing the question at him. Izuminokami knew this wasn’t a challenge. It was a genuine question. And…

“No,” he answered, simply and truthfully. “I want to be here.”

 

The smile that spread across Mutsunokami’s face was so warm and full of joy that Izuminokami had to avert his gaze, even though he couldn’t help smiling, too. “Alright, don’t make me say that again.”

“Please?”

No.” Aware that he was beginning to blush, Izuminokami busied himself with gathering up the mikan peel that they’d finished, avoiding Mutsunokami’s hopeful gaze that was akin to an excited puppy. “I’m throwing these out. You’d better get changed before I get back.”

 

“Changed?”

Izuminokami stopped at the door, rolling his eyes. “You’re not going to go to bed in your battle armour, are you?”

“Oh. Right.” Mutsunokami leaned back on his palms, giving him a look. “What’re ya so worried about anyway? We’re both guys. It’s not like we got stuff to hide.”

 

Izuminokami ignored him and left the room, heading down to the galley to dump the peels into a barrel and trying to collect his thoughts together. Jokes aside, he was a little homesick. He missed the chatter of the dining hall at the Citadel and having Kunihiro by his side, he missed hanging out with Nosada and writing poems as they drank tea, he even missed Yasusada and Kiyomitsu’s bickering, rough as they were.

 

Yet he did want to be here. It was different, just having Mutsunokami as company, and he liked it.

I should say something, he thought, thinking back to Kunihiro’s words, and what had taken place in the training hall with Mutsunokami. If we feel the same towards each other, there must be something more we can…

But he was also afraid. Being alone with him terrified him because he didn’t know what to do or say.

 

By the time he went back to the cabin he was no more prepared than before, and Mutsunokami was standing with his back to him, tying a sash around the pale yukata that he changed into. His battle armour lay haphazardly at his feet in a pile, though his gun and sword were placed neatly side by side on the bed.

 

Quietly Izuminokami closed the cabin door and made his way to his own bed, pulling out the bundle of clothes he’d stowed underneath it and retrieving his own yukata. Neither of them said anything for a while, and Izuminokami was in the process of removing his haori and armour when Mutsunokami spoke.

“Were ya afraid of seeing my scar?”

 

Izuminokami paused, his hands going still. They both knew it was true, and so he only replied, “It brings back bad memories for me.”

“For me, too.” Mutsunokami gave a low snort. “It’s not pretty, I know. Scars are scars, and they don’t go away. They just stop hurting.”

 

Izuminokami couldn’t help it; he turned to face Mutsunokami, who was lying down in his bed, facing the ceiling with hands folded behind his head. “And has it? Stopped hurting, I mean.”

He remembered what the Saniwa had told them. That the reason Mutsunokami’s scar started hurting that day was because his body remembered the events of Ryouma’s assassination, and it remembered Izuminokami as the one who damaged it. And so it had continued to hurt Mutsunokami, a searing pain that pounded away at his blood, until he could accept what had happened.

Mutsunokami shrugged. “Yeah. It doesn’t hurt anymore.”

 

There was nothing Izuminokami could think of to say in response that wasn’t I’m sorry, so instead he opted to turn away, continuing the process of undressing himself. It was strange to do so without the privacy of a screen, which they all had back in the Citadel, but he forced himself to push his unease away.

 

First was the haori, which he folded up and laid on the bed. He swept his hair forward over one shoulder, tugging the ribbon so that it came away in his hand; and then he removed his earrings, laying them on the table with a faint clink.

After that it was the other ribbon that tied his braid, and he undid that too, running his fingers through his hair where it had become slightly lumpy from being wound for so long. He pulled his black gloves off, placing them next to his earrings and ribbons; and unfastened his armour, where he spent some time folding it up in its respective sections, before setting it on the bed with his haori.

 

Next was his hakama and kimono. As he brushed his hair back to settle over his spine, there was a faint prickling at the back of his neck that indicated Mutsunokami was probably looking, and Izuminokami tried to ignore it. He wasn’t naked underneath that - he still had his han-juban, and his black leather suit.

Yet there was a reverent feel in the air as he undressed himself, the silence so heavy that Izuminokami couldn’t help but be acutely aware of every movement he made in Mutsunokami’s presence.

 

Izuminokami untied the knot at the front of his hakama, and let it fall to the ground at his feet, unravelling the ends of the scarlet kimono tucked underneath it. He stepped out of the hakama backwards, and loosened the sash that held his kimono together. Instead of letting his kimono fall too, he shrugged out of one shoulder first, holding it with his other hand and keeping the material upright so that it wouldn’t crumple.

He slipped out of his boots, placing them side by side next to the bed, the toes facing outward. And the white han-juban, too, came away easily, undoing the knot that secured it, and Izuminokami was left in the black leather suit that covered most of his body, save for his bare shoulders and stopping just above his ankles.

 

When the feeling of being watched persisted, Izuminokami stopped, turning around with a huff, feeling his cheeks warm. “Are you still looking?”

 

Mutsunokami looked alarmed. “Oh, I, uh—” He coughed. “Sorry.” Quickly he rolled over in his bed, lying on his side and facing the wall, though Izuminokami could see that the tops of his ears were red.

 

A little unnerved but relieved, Izuminokami unlatched the fastening at his throat and unzipped the back of the suit, stepping out of it and into his own yukata. It was a weird feeling, another emotion burning in his body that he had not experienced before. It wasn’t like he was one for modesty - his long hair covered most of his back, and it’s not like they hadn’t seen each other undressed before, with the Citadel’s baths - but he was embarrassed nonetheless.

For someone to look at him too long like that was...and not to mention, it was Mutsunokami of all people…

 

Better not think about it now. Just go to bed.

Putting away his armour and weapons, Izuminokami crawled into the bed - a Western-type bed, not a futon - and reached to extinguish the lantern hanging at the window. “Good night,” he said, putting out the flame.

“...good night,” came the quiet reply, and once the room went dark, Izuminokami curled up on his side, facing the wall as well, his blankets wrapped snugly around him.

 


 

 

But sleep didn’t come. Not for either of them - Izuminokami knew this because he knew Mutsunokami was a loud snorer, and there was only silence on the other side of the room. The creak of the ship, the rush of waves, an occasional shuffle of blankets as one of them adjusted their position on their beds.

 

Izuminokami turned stiffly on his bed. His body was exhausted, but his mind was wide awake. He wanted to say something. They couldn’t avoid the topic forever. Now that it was only the two of them, with no one else listening or interrupting—

 

“It really doesn’t hurt anymore?” Izuminokami found himself saying. The scar. There was no need for clarification.

He heard Mutsunokami laugh softly. “Ah, well. Sometimes it stings a little. Just a bit, though.”

“I’m sorry.” It was the only thing to say.

 

“Yer still on about that? There’s nothing to be sorry about—”

“That night…” The words came out before Izuminokami could stop them. “When I heard Ryouma’s voice, I hesitated.”

 

Mutsunokami was silent. Izuminokami took a deep breath. His heart was pounding. “He sounded so much like you that I...it was like having to raise my blade against you personally. And in a way, it was. I gave you that scar and caused you so much suffering. I hesitated when I saw you, too. When Ryouma retrieved you to defend himself.”

“I only…” Mutsunokami cleared his throat. “I only wish maybe he’d kept me closer. Perhaps he would have had a nobler end.”

 

There was a creak, and Izuminokami turned to face Mutsunokami, who’d sat up in his bed, propping himself up with one elbow and looking at him with luminous golden eyes, like candlelight in the dark. “But it was still Ryouma’s time to die. Nothing will change that. So stop beating yourself up over it.”

Izuminokami swallowed hard. “But you said it still—”

“Then I’ll endure it,” Mutsunokami interrupted fiercely. “I’ll live with the pain. Don’t you remember what I’ve said before, about suffering? You can’t fix it. You just bear it. And so the next time it won’t hurt as badly.”

 

And the pain means we’re alive. It means we’re human. How could Izuminokami forget?

 

“It’s true that I’ve suffered. But so have you.” Mutsunokami shook his head. “I’ve had enough of all that. Enough of the past. I just want to look forward - to my future, to my dream.”

“And what’s your dream? Set sail and see the world, like Ryouma wanted?”

To his surprise Mutsunokami threw his head back, barking out a loud laugh. “I don’t know, I haven’t figured it out yet! That’s not a bad idea. But I guess anything works as long as you’re there, too.”

 

Izuminokami’s breath caught in his throat. Maybe now, he could… “Mutsunokami, I—”

 

“Anyway, it’s getting late.” Before Izuminokami could say any more, Mutsunokami was already shifting back into his bed, burrowing into his blankets. “Let’s talk tomorrow. Good night, Izuminokami.”

 

Izuminokami frowned, but whatever determination he had had a moment ago faded, and he exhaled a resigned sigh. “Good night.”

 

Tomorrow, he told himself, hearing Mutsunokami’s gentle breathing. I’ll definitely say it tomorrow.

 


 

 

It was almost noon the next day by the time they got to the island. Much of the morning had been taken up with trying to get Mutsunokami to get up (he slept like a log and Izuminokami couldn’t shake him awake, so in the end he had to splash water on him and Mutsunokami woke up with an ugly sound that was a cross between a confused snort and a startled “wha?”), and after that they both took their time washing up and getting ready. They gathered their things and left the ship behind, taking the rowboat to the island.

 

As usual, Izuminokami sat at the front of the rowboat, while Mutsunokami sat near the back, oar in hand and keeping the boat moving forward. They didn’t speak for the entirety of the journey to the island, and to top it off the silence was so stifling that it made Izuminokami uncomfortable. Normally he didn’t mind it when they kept quiet, for sometimes there was nothing to say and they both acknowledged that, only enjoying each other’s company. But now there was something between them, thoughts hanging in the air as if challenging one of them to speak up first.

Hesitation was what made Izuminokami hold his tongue. There was so much he wanted to say - and that one thing in particular - but he didn’t know how to bring it up. He couldn’t find the words, and he was afraid, too, of the consequences. He wondered if Mutsunokami was thinking the same, as well.

In the end neither of them said a thing until the boat reached the island.

 

Izuminokami was looking forward to getting back on something solid and unmoving. If the ground wasn’t made entirely of sand, Izuminokami would have probably kissed it. But he didn’t, and instead kept his composure as he stumbled out of the rowboat, struggling to catch his balance on the surface beneath him that no longer swayed.

“Finally,” he gasped out, collapsing on one knee. “I thought we’d never get to land again.”

 

Behind him, Mutsunokami roared with laughter. He hopped out of the rowboat and easily tugged it further up the beach, already unravelling the rope to tie it to a tree. “Guess ya never really got yer sea legs in the end, didja?”

“Shut up!” Izuminokami threw a handful of sand at him.

 

Mutsunokami stumbled away, still chuckling. He finished winding the rope around a tree, pausing for a moment and looking out over the sea. His face broke into a grin. “She looks beautiful from here, doesn’t she?”

Izuminokami straightened, following his gaze to the Altair, riding high in the water, like a sleeping giant, sails furled on the yards, the masts reaching proud into the sky like castle turrets in fantasy stories, its shape defined and silhouetted against the sunlight. “Yeah. She does.”

 

Mutsunokami eyed him carefully, then bent to secure the knot of the rope, dusting sand off his hands once he was done. “When we finish this mission and go back, I’m gonna ask the Master to let us take the ship out again every now and then.”

“Speaking of that. The mission...what exactly are we supposed to be looking for?” Izuminokami crossed his arms. “I know the Master said it’s a package of documents, but what does it look like? We’d be searching the whole island for it otherwise.”

“Calm down, the island’s not that big.” Mutsunokami thrust a pile of bundled clothing and metallic objects into Izuminokami’s arms. “Let’s go set up camp and I’ll tell you all about that.”

 

“Camp?” Izuminokami looked desperately at the tools in his arms. Horikawa hadn’t told him anything about this. On sorties they went to inns, or if they had to stay outdoors, just slept on the ground. “How long are we staying here? I thought we were just going to get the package and go back to the Citadel? I need a bath! And a proper bed! Oi!”

 

Their “campsite” turned out to be a cave set into one of the smooth rock cliffs. How Mutsunokami had found the place so quickly when they just got here was beyond Izuminokami, but at least the cave was dry. It was out of reach of the waves below, and its wide mouth offered a good view of the Altair from above.

Just behind the cliff was the forest, jungle, whatever it was, and not for the first time Izuminokami was glad that he wore so many layers out of habit. He shuddered to think of all the insects and muck that might have touched his skin if not for all his clothing.

Though he was already beginning to sweat from the walk up here, while Mutsunokami barely looked out of breath.

 

“Why do I feel like we’re only spending the night here in a cave because you wanted to?” Izuminokami grumbled, flinging his things down unceremoniously, then himself on one side of the cave. Instead of choosing the opposite side like he’d expected, Izuminokami was surprised when Mutsunokami put his things down next to him, too, but he didn’t say anything.

Mutsunokami grinned. “Nah, why would ya think that of me?”

“...you bastard, you’re definitely camping out here just for the fun of it.” When Mutsunokami started heading out of the cave again, Izuminokami stared at him. “What, are we going already? I just sat down!”

 

“Camping’s serious business, Izuminokami! There’s food to gather and firewood to light, so let’s get going!”

What? Do you even know how to light a fire? Hey, get back here!”

 

Naturally, in all his excitement, Mutsunokami had forgotten several things, such as running off in the direction of the nearest waterfall to “get some water” without even bringing the cups or bottles that they’d brought with them, and Izuminokami insisted on bringing along Horikawa’s notes in their food-foraging efforts so that they wouldn’t end up poisoning themselves on some inedible fruit, though Mutsunokami almost immediately popped lunged for the closest berry bush and Izuminokami had to pull him out of the thorns.

It was like dealing with an overexcited toddler. He was beginning to understand how Horikawa must feel.

 

Water and berries were one thing, fishing was another. Mutsunokami insisted on doing things “the right way”, which was to fashion a spear out of a stick of wood and stand knee-deep in the river by the waterfall, his body still and the spear poised, his brows furrowed in concentration before slamming the spear down on the unsuspecting animal. As a result their fishing rods lay forgotten, and in all honesty Izuminokami wasn’t entirely sure if that was the right way to do it, but Mutsunokami looked like he was having fun and it worked sometimes, so he didn’t object. Instead Izuminokami stayed within the vicinity of the river, making sure he could still see or hear Mutsunokami while he searched for firewood in the undergrowth.

That was another challenge, too, because any wood that was even slightly damp or covered in moss wouldn’t light and therefore didn’t work. Izuminokami couldn’t recall having worked this hard even at the Citadel when on field duty. He had to tie up his hair and his sleeves back as he went, and he felt as though he was working up a better sweat here than any chore at home. At least he was glad that he left his haori at the cave.

Though one more thing that worried Izuminokami a little was the undeniable sign that the forest was inhabited by creatures larger than the insects and birds that had been bothering them. Markings, pawprints, slain prey left rotting. “Probably wolves,” Mutsunokami had commented brightly, and when Izuminokami shot him a look, he added quickly, “We’ll be fine as long as we have our swords with us, right?”

 

For all their inexperience, though, it was fun to do something like this, so much that the hours went by without Izuminokami noticing, and it was almost sunset by the time they got back to the cave for the umpteenth time that day, having finally gathered everything they needed for the night.

Izuminokami bathed at the waterfall after Mutsunokami did, taking his time there and watching the sky darken and his skin wrinkle before finally getting up and drying himself. He hummed to himself as he wrung the water out of his hair,  an idea forming in his head, and returned to the cave with the help of the fading light.

Maybe I could...

 

They had a neat pile of berries and herbs in one cloth, half a dozen fish skewered on sticks, full decanters of water, and Mutsunokami was working on getting the fire going, a pile of firewood next to him. Tutting, Izuminokami picked up the wood and moved it out of the way.

“Still nothing yet?” Izuminokami asked, dropping the wood atop the pile on the other side of the cave. He knelt next to their belongings, rummaging through it to look for what he needed.

 

Mutsunokami, who was crouching in front of the wood pile with two sticks in his hands, frowned. “Nah, this is harder than I thought. Ya got a lighter or a match on ya?”

“What the hell? I’m not Konnosuke.” Removing his sword from the kingashi around his waist, Izuminokami sat down across from Mutsunokami, squinting at the wood pile as he placed the sword next to him. “You sure you’re doing that right?”

“Yeah, of course!” Mutsunokami rubbed harder. “I’ve...almost...got it…”

 

Izuminokami sighed. “Okay, you know what, you have fun with that. I’m going to go look for that package. Just tell me what it looks like.”

 

Mutsunokami sat back on his heels, looking up at him. “It’s in a white box, stamped with the Saniwa’s seal. But I thought we were gonna look together tomorrow?”

“I won’t go far,” Izuminokami assured him. “Just a quick look around. I’ll stay close by.”

“But it’s getting dark…”

“There’s still light out.” What was he so worried about, anyway? “Look, I’ll be back as fast as I can.” He hurried out before Mutsunokami could say more, going further into the forest until the cave was far behind him.

 

Only when he approached the waterfall did he slow his footsteps, reaching within his sleeve to pull out what he’d smuggled from the cave: Mutsunokami’s camera.

It was the most high-tech item that the Citadel owned next to the Saniwa’s time-travelling devices, and Mutsunokami’s treasure, so Izuminokami knew he had to treat it with care.

It only took him a few minutes to figure out how to turn it on (which was an accomplishment, really, when all he did was prod at different buttons and almost dropped it when the lens activated with a whir), and after that he walked more slowly through the forest, paying attention to anything he could take a picture of and bring back to Mutsunokami to see.

Sights that they didn’t have back at the Citadel: a flower bush here, a colourful bird there, and once a open clearing where the dying sunrays streamed in just right. And of course, views from the island itself. A shot of the ocean and the Altair from the cliffside, the beach in the sunset, and by the time Izuminokami went back to the waterfall within the forest he’d lost track of time.

 

I should head back soon, he thought idly to himself, though the idea quickly vanished when a spark of light caught his eye. Izuminokami turned in surprise, seeing with a jolt that the waterfall now glowed with greenish-yellow lights: fireflies.

Unable to stop the grin from spreading across his face, Izuminokami followed, the camera raised to find a good angle. He hoped Mutsunokami would enjoy these.

 

Just thinking about it and imagining Mutsunokami’s pleased smile made Izuminokami’s stomach flip and his knees weak. Quickly he wiped away the dopey grin on his face and hurried forward to get closer to the fireflies.

 

It was several pictures later that Izuminokami looked up from the camera, distracted by the glowing insects, and his gaze panned up the height of the waterfall to see how far the water went, and he spotted something white and square in the darkness, jutting out from the rocks above. When he’d left the cave he hadn’t really been intending to go find the package, but…

He squinted at it, taking a step closer, and thought about using the camera’s zoom lens to take a better look. He lifted the camera up to his eyes—

 

The growl that sounded behind him gave him precious few seconds to react and spin around, sidestepping instinctively to avoid the blur of grey that flashed past him and hit the ground with a thump.

The creature shook itself and got back on its feet, growling with its lips drawn back, ears flattened.

 

Wolf. Izuminokami’s hand went to his side, then his throat went dry when his fingers clutched empty air.

 

My sword—

He’d left it at the cave.

 

The wolf struck again. Heart thudding in his chest, Izuminokami stumbled away from it, his left arm curled protectively over the camera.

You idiot! He wanted to yell at himself. Traipsing about the forest without a care, practically asking to be attacked from the undergrowth like that. And to be caught unarmed, having left his only weapon back with Mutsunokami—

 

Mutsunokami. He was at the cave, close by. Could Izuminokami get to him, so that they could face the wolf together, or hope that it would flee if it was outnumbered? No, it was still too far, and the wolf would outrun him, it would be upon him in seconds if he even turned his back. There was even the possibility that this wolf was not alone, and its packmates could come help at any moment. Or he could yell, yell as loud as he could, and pray that Mutsunokami would hear him and investigate…

 

But that was all he had. Praying, hoping that help would get here in time. If it didn’t...if Mutsunokami couldn’t get to him…

He could die here.

 

As that thought crossed his mind, Izuminokami shook his head. No. Not now, not here.

 

He searched the ground quickly, trying to grab on to something that could serve as a weapon - a stick, a rock, anything - and once his hand closed around a tree branch by the riverside, Izuminokami lashed out with it blindly, feeling it hit something heavy and knock it away with a whimper. He’d managed to catch the wolf mid-leap, and it slid several feet away, teeth bared.

 

As if suddenly realising that its prey was going to fight back, the wolf didn’t attack again immediately, but circled him, and Izuminokami weighed the branch in his hand, trying to calm his breathing and to think clearly.

 

Holding it with only one hand was unwieldy, but it was the best Izuminokami had got, and he could use it similarly to a bokken, even though it was shorter than he was used to. It was sharp and jagged on one end, so if Izuminokami was lucky, he could sidestep the wolf when it struck again, and bury it into its neck.

If he was unlucky…

 

With a roar the wolf leapt. Izuminokami braced himself, and took a step back to turn his body sideways—

—and slipped. He’d forgotten his training in his panic, to always watch for his own surroundings, and the foot he’d placed behind him to reposition was on a patch of ground that was slick from the river water that flowed from the waterfall, and Izuminokami swore as he went down.

 

His back hit the ground hard and knocked the breath from his chest, his hair tangled beneath him. A dull pain shot up his shoulder, but the sound of the wolf’s pounding footsteps towards him dashed all thoughts from his head.

Instinctively Izuminokami thrust the branch outwards, jamming it lengthwise between the wolf’s jaws, and it let out a ragged snarl as it fought to get to him.

 

The camera slid from his grasp and fell into the water with a splash. Izuminokami felt his stomach flip at the sight of it, but there was no time to worry about that now. With his other hand now free, he grabbed the branch with both hands to push the wolf away from him, but it was heavier than he had expected and he couldn’t summon the strength to throw it off.

His heart was thundering in his chest and his arms screamed with pain. He had to do something, anything

Its heavy paws grappled against his chest and arms, claws tearing through the fabric of his yukata and scratching at his skin, and he gritted his teeth as he turned his head away from it, trying to distance himself from its yellowed fangs, so close that Izuminokami could see blood stains and strips of flesh lining its teeth, and smell the rot on its breath—

 

There was a bang like thunder, and the wolf went limp.

 

Izuminokami froze, trying to comprehend what was going on. His ears were still ringing from the sound and he fought to catch his breath, his mind light and spinning.

He felt blood drip on his face, and looked up to see the bloody hole between the wolf’s lifeless eyes, smoke still rising from the wound.

 

As soon as he realised what had happened, his arms went slack, both the branch and the wolf collapsing on top of him, and somewhere in the distance he heard footsteps and something crashing through the undergrowth, and then Mutsunokami’s face appeared above him, face creased in worry. “Izuminokami? Talk to me! Are you okay?”

 

The sight of him made his body relax, and Izuminokami drew in a breath, reaching up to touch Mutsunokami’s face, pausing when he realised his hand was bloodied, too. “Mutsunokami...your camera…”

 

“Forget the camera!” Mutsunokami stowed his gun away and pushed at the wolf on Izuminokami’s chest, rolling the dead animal off. “You’re hurt...come on, we gotta get you back and fix you up…”

 

A numbness was spreading through his body, and Izuminokami closed his eyes as he felt arms slipping underneath him, lifting him up. He leaned his head to Mutsunokami’s chest with a sigh, succumbing to the warmth around him, and his last thought before he lost consciousness was Mutsunokami saved my life and then everything went dark, leaving only the faint earthy scent of the person carrying him to safety.

 


 

 

Izuminokami awoke again to the sound of crackling fire - oh, good, so he got it going in the end, he thought - and blinked wearily as all his senses returned to him.

 

He was back at the cave, lying on his back and on the blankets that they’d laid out earlier. He was glad for the heat of the fire, because he quickly realised that his upper body was bare, though he could feel stiffness around his arms and shoulders. His suit had been unzipped down to his waist, where it crumpled above the top of his hakama, and his hair had been swept to one side instead of being squashed underneath him, gathered neatly next to him.

He laid still for a moment, gaze trained forward at the dancing firelight on the grey stone above him, before turning his head to look around him. His kimono, han-juban and gloves were folded on a pile on his right, and beside that lay his sword and the rest of his belongings.

 

Mutsunokami sat by the mouth of the cave, staring out into the distance. He’d shrugged off his sunset-coloured kimono, too, leaving him in only the black sleeveless han-juban underneath and the armguard on his left shoulder. His hair was down, too, most noticeably on the right side that was usually swept up. From here there was something forlorn about the way Mutsunokami looked, less threatening and more vulnerable, that made Izuminokami’s heart ache, with the dark night sky beyond him and the full moon above.

 

Night. How long had he been out?

 

Quietly Izuminokami tried to sit up, to reach for the pocket watch piled together with his clothes, but his arms stung with the effort and he couldn’t help but hiss in pain. Mutsunokami turned around, looking surprised.

“Oh, you’re awake!” Hurriedly he scrambled over, pressing a hand to Izuminokami’s chest in an attempt to push him back down onto the blankets.  The warmth of his touch on him made Izuminokami’s heart skip a beat, and obediently he let Mutsunokami move him to a slightly elevated position against the wall, hoping he couldn’t feel his heartbeat hammering. “Careful, you’ll reopen your wounds, you oaf.”

 

It was only then that Izuminokami looked down at himself and realised what the stiffness in his limbs were - bandages wound around his forearms, and smaller, singular pieces on his shoulder.

“What the…”

“Nothing serious, but ya got a lot of scratches on your arms, and your shoulder’s bruised badly, too. Don’t worry, I checked your blade, ya haven’t cracked so you’re okay.”

 

“How long has it been?” Izuminokami rubbed uncomfortably at his neck, noting how dry his throat was; Mutsunokami handed him a decanter and sat watching him as Izuminokami uncorked it and drank the water gratefully.

“About three hours? I’ve eaten already, but I’ve been heating up your food for ya. I hope ya don’t mind that you’re gonna be having fish stew instead, since you’re injured and all. Can’t say much about the taste, but I copied the recipe that Horikawa wrote in those notes of yours, so it shouldn’t be terrible.” Mutsunokami scooted away from him, fiddling with the pot dangling above the campfire.

 

“How did you know to come find me?”

 

“You were taking an awfully long time. And you wouldn’t have actually gone far enough to search the whole island, especially not while it’s dark. When I saw that you’d left your sword behind, I got worried, and came out to look for you. Then I heard the wolf, and…” He trailed off and didn’t finish.

 

Izuminokami sat up more slowly, favouring his left side where the worst of the pain in his shoulder was.

That was where he’d hit the ground first, when he’d slipped...because he was trying to protect the camera in his left hand. The camera that Mutsunokami treasured, that Izuminokami had taken, and had broken…

“The camera, is it…”

“Ah, well, don’t worry about it.” Mutsunokami gave him a smile, though Izuminokami could tell it was forced. “Master can always get me another one.”

 

Izuminokami grimaced, guilt rushing hotly through him. “If only I’d had my sword with me, I could’ve easily dealt with that wolf. I wouldn’t have broken your camera.”

“Ya can’t help what’s happened.” Mutsunokami turned away, ladling soup into a bowl, but Izuminokami couldn’t shake off the feeling that he was still angry about something.

“...I’m sorry about the camera,” he tried meekly. “I’ll buy you a new one myself, with my own earnings from missions, and a better one too—”

 

“Will you shut up about the camera?” Mutsunokami snapped suddenly, slamming the bowl down on the ground, liquid spilling across the stone. Izuminokami went quiet, startled. “I’m not pissed about that! I’m pissed about you!”

“Me?”

“Yes, you. What the hell did you think you were doing out there by yourself?”

Izuminokami flinched away from him; he’d never seen Mutsunokami this angry before. “I wanted to surprise you...I just wanted to go and take pictures around the island of things you’d like.”

 

“What if I hadn’t gotten there in time? That thing was so close to tearing you apart. Did you know how scared I was? I was shaking so much that I was worried my aim would be off and I’d miss the wolf, or even hit you by accident. All for a bunch of pictures.” He shook his head. “You could have died out there, Izuminokami.”

“I was doing that for you!” Izuminokami retorted. “It’s important to me!”

“Why? Why does it matter so much? How is it worth risking your life?!”

 

Izuminokami groaned. All this arguing was giving him a headache, and he was in no mood to dance around the topic. “Why do you think?”

Mutsunokami stared at him, his eyes bright. “Because...you said you liked me.”

“First of all, wrong, I never said that.” Izuminokami jabbed a finger at Mutsunokami’s chest. “Second of all, you’re an idiot.”

“What? You’re the one doing all this dumb stuff! Why am I the idiot? Why are you doing all this for me?”

 

Izuminokami gave him with an exasperated look, with his messy dark brown hair in choppy bangs framing his face, sticking up wildly in tufts like a puppy’s ears, and his glowing amber eyes full of open honesty, and wondered how he lost his heart to this man.

He sighed.

 

It was now or never.

 

“I did all those things because I love you, stupid.”

Chapter Text

Mutsunokami felt his breath catch in his throat, hardly daring to believe the words he had just heard. “You…”

“Don’t tell me you’re surprised.” Izuminokami muttered, looking defensive at Mutsunokami’s reaction. “It would be really uncool if it turned out I’d been misreading the signs all along.”

 

Mutsunokami blushed. “You weren’t wrong!” He looked away, fidgeting a little as he muttered, “It’s just...I...you...as well…”

What?”

“Shut up, you know what I mean!”

 

All of that worry, all of what they had done: it meant something. Wanting to be around Izuminokami all the time, wanting to spar with him and eat with him, wanting to protect him and make him happy, it meant something and here Izuminokami was, telling him that he felt the same.

The joy and elation in his chest grew, and he couldn’t help grinning.

 

“Since when have you...?”

“When?” Izuminokami laughed a little, scratching at his cheek. “Um...well, when I was at Okehazama without you, I realised I liked you...and then the Saniwa’s mission happened, and maybe it was then that I knew it was more than that. That was why I accepted the mission, though I didn’t have a word for it then.”

“And when you called me Yoshiyuki, at Edo that time.”

 

“That was a slip of the tongue,” Izuminokami retorted defensively, but he was smiling. “It won’t happen again.”

“It won’t?”

“No.” Izuminokami raised the bowl of soup to his mouth, averting his gaze.

Mutsunokami scooted a little closer, and Izuminokami tilted his head further. Mutsunokami came closer again, and Izuminokami looked away more, and this continued until Mutsunokami’s face was close enough that Izuminokami could feel his breath on his face.

 

When he looked to see the fondness in Mutsunokami’s expression, Izuminokami’s cheeks pinked and he turned his face away shyly.

“...I’m not saying it.”

“Please?”

No.”

Mutsunokami made a face. “Why not?”

“It’s embarrassing!” Izuminokami protested.

“It’s only the two of us here, though,” Mutsunokami pointed out. “When else are you gonna say it?”

“I’m not going to say it.”

“Cheh,” went Mutsunokami with a pout, making to turn away.

He was pleasantly surprised when Izuminokami sighed, putting down the bowl. He grabbed him by the collar of his vest and tugged him back. “I wasn’t finished. I said I wasn’t going to say it, but—”

 

Whatever he was going to say next, Mutsunokami didn’t let him finish. He leaned forward as Izuminokami pulled him, and kissed him.

 

This wasn’t really how Mutsunokami had imagined his first kiss to be like: not so much with their noses mashed against their cheeks, both their mouths too dry and Izuminokami’s tasting a little too much like fish, and as quickly as those thoughts ran through his mind Izuminokami had drawn back, looking startled and flustered. “What the hell was that?”

Mutsunokami grinned at him, happiness making him braver by the second. He hadn’t really planned that, but it felt right to have done it. “Was that what you were gonna do instead of saying my name?”

Izuminokami gaped at him in a way that indicated that it was indeed what he had planned to do, and Mutsunokami felt a surge of triumph that he’d gotten one over him.

 

“Okay, first of all, that wasn’t fair.” Izuminokami found his voice after a moment, a little hoarse. “Second of all, that was shit.”

“What? You were shit.”

“Haaah?” Izuminokami’s eyes narrowed. “That wasn’t even a proper kiss.”

“Yeah it was! Are ya kidding me? You were the one who was horrible!”

“I’ll have you know that Hijikata-san had quite a record with women,” Izuminokami crossed his arms over his chest, his chin tilted imperiously. “I know how to kiss, and that wasn’t it.”

Mutsunokami snorted. “Yeah, and Ryouma was married, so I think I’m more experienced in that department.”

 

Izuminokami’s face was an embarrassingly cute shade of pink, Mutsunokami noted, even as his eyes flashed challengingly. “Well, maybe you should show me how it should be done.”

 

He didn’t shy away this time when Mutsunokami came closer, not even when his hands came up to frame his face, rough palms on delicate skin, fingers slipping beneath Izuminokami’s long hair. In response Izuminokami closed his eyes, almost leaning a little into Mutsunokami’s hands. How long had it been? Mutsunokami wondered, tracing Izuminokami’s cheeks, the corner of his mouth, and his thumb brushing over the healing cut on his jawline. His heart was practically pounding out of his chest, both in nervousness and in disbelief. How long have I wished to touch him like this?

 

“Kanesada?” he whispered.

Izuminokami opened his eyes. When Mutsunokami was this close, he could see just how long his lashes were, and just how beautiful his eyes were. Blue and green, like jewels in hidden treasure, and like the ocean: sometimes calm and mysterious, sometimes wild and treacherous, and always deep and full of secrets. The light from the campfire was reflected in them, streaks of amber in teal, and a silent demand in them.

 

To his surprise Izuminokami reached up, too, running his hand through Mutsunokami’s unruly hair, his palm sliding to the back of his neck to pull him closer. It made Mutsunokami’s breath hitch, and Izuminokami’s voice was soft. “You’re gentler than I had imagined.”

“I wanted to be sure I wasn’t dreaming.” Mutsunokami smiled, feeling warmth in his heart, and how it spread throughout his body, foreign but not unpleasant. “You know, it might take me a long time to teach you how to kiss properly.”

Izuminokami gave him a wry look. “Well, you have all night, don’t you?”

 

Laughter rumbled through Mutsunokami’s chest as Izuminokami pulled him down into another kiss, and timidly Izuminokami’s hands crept beneath the folds of his han-juban, fingers cool on his hips above the bandages covering his scar. His touch was hesitant, despite the bravado in his voice earlier, and Mutsunokami felt a rush of fondness through him at Izuminokami’s uncertainty. A low growl escaped him as he pushed Izuminokami down to the blankets with a gentle thump.

 

Izuminokami’s gaze was open and full of surprise, and Mutsunokami felt an apology rise in his throat. “I’m…I’ve never…you’re the first I’ve…”

To his joyful surprise, Izuminokami huffed softly. He looked beautiful like this, with his hair spread out beneath him, his cheekbones flushed pink. “Me neither. But you want this too, don’t you?”

 

I do . Mutsunokami laced his fingers together with Izuminokami’s, lowering to mouth at the column of his neck, and he felt Izuminokami arch into him, a quiet gasp breaking the silence. I do want this. I want more. I want to be closer. I want—

 

I want you. Though they started off shy and exploratory, gradually they fell together with no thoughts for anything else but each other, finally content, as the moon watched over them silently.

 


 

 

It was dawn when Mutsunokami awoke, the air still around them, tangled in Izuminokami’s arms. He could hear the birds chirping in the distance, and see the pale orange light in the horizon as morning came, slowly. He could smell the firewood, and see the faint wisps rising from the campfire that was burning low. Izuminokami lay next to him, his long hair fanning out behind him, his breathing slow and steady as he slept, the blankets rumpled messily around them.

Mine, he thought.

He could have lost him yesterday.

 

For a moment Mutsunokami was happy with just watching Izuminokami sleep, before realising that Izuminokami was clinging to him like a koala, and idly remembered that this giant brat never slept without hugging his own pillow tightly even at the Citadel. As a result Mutsunokami was stiff and sweating, though he couldn’t say he despised the feel of Izuminokami’s cheek squashed by his shoulder and legs wrapped around his waist, naked skin cool against his.

 

Gingerly Mutsunokami lifted Izuminokami’s arm off of him, and Izuminokami mumbled sleepily, “Where are you going?”

“Just wanna see the sunrise.”

“Mm…give me a second...”

 

Together, they moved from the makeshift futon to the mouth of the cave, where Izuminokami draped blankets over the both of them, on their shoulders and on their laps, and Mutsunokami leaned against him.

Several long minutes passed, neither of them saying a word.

 

Mutsunokami was in the process of gathering Izuminokami’s long hair and combing through it with his fingers when Izuminokami spoke. “Gotta be honest with you, I didn’t think this would happen.”

Mutsunokami blinked. “Eh?”

“You know…all this.” Izuminokami gestured vaguely. “Ending up this way. I used to think our human emotions were a burden. But now I’m grateful that we have them, to help us along. It…it feels right.”

It did. Mutsunokami ducked his head to hide his smile. “Me too. I’m glad I got this life, as a human. And I’m glad I got you.”

 

Izuminokami hummed. And after a minute he added: “I don’t want this moment to ever end.”

 

Mutsunokami lowered his hand from Izuminokami’s hair. Izuminokami leaned away from him a little, letting his hair fall behind his back instead, and Mutsunokami let his gaze linger on the curve of his neck and the slope of his shoulder, on the marks on his pale skin that would later be covered by his suit. “Ya never struck me as the sentimental type.”

Izuminokami shrugged, not offering a jibe in return. “I almost died yesterday. Seems like a good time to start treasuring what I’ve got.”

 

With a smile Mutsunokami slid his fingers along Izuminokami’s forearm, over the bandages and up his palm, linking their hands together and resting his cheek against his shoulder. “...Yeah. Same here.”

Izuminokami sighed. “It’s too bad we’ll be going home soon.”

Mutsunokami looked at him indignantly. “Are ya kidding? Even when we go back to the Citadel, I’m not gonna let ya go. Ya still got plenty of lessons to take from me, ya know.”

“What the hell? You have lessons to take from me too, you bastard.”

“Oh? Like what?”

“Yeah, quit pulling my hair so hard when—”

 

There was the sound of a bell jingling, interrupting Izuminokami, and they both stared at each other for a moment, puzzled, until a look of understanding passed Mutsunokami’s face and he turned around.

 

Mutsunokami-san. Izuminokami-san.” It was Konnosuke, sitting neatly with his tail over his paws.

 

Izuminokami gave a startled yelp and jumped up as if he was on fire, grabbing the blanket that was draped over his shoulders and hopping a distance away, hiding behind the wall of the cave with the blanket wrapped around his waist.

Mutsunokami stared at him. “What’s up with you?”

“It can see us, idiot!” Izuminokami’s face was red, peering out from behind the stone at the fox.

At that, Mutsunokami burst into laughter. “You’re adorable, Kanesada.”

“Don’t laugh at me!”

“It’s a projection, ya silly idiot. It can’t see us. It can only transmit audio and it can’t hear us until one of us is holding the bell. We gotta be in contact with it to use it, dumbass.” Still chortling, Mutsunokami rolled onto his stomach, reaching out to grab the bell and holding it between his fingers. “Hey, Konnosuke.”

 

The fox’s ears twitched. “Good morning, Mutsunokami-san. I hope I haven’t woken you?”

“Nah, we were up anyway.”

“The Saniwa would like a brief progress report, if possible.”

Mutsunokami hummed, kicking his feet in the air lazily. “Well, we got to the island just fine! Camped out in a cave for the night. There’s a pretty waterfall nearby, which is nice. Oh, but there’s wolves here. Which wasn’t so nice.”

“Wolves? Are you two alright? Were you attacked?”

Mutsunokami glanced behind him, where Izuminokami was tiptoeing towards the pile of clothes, retrieving his kimono, taking a second to admire his long legs in profile. “Just a few scratches. We’re fine.”

 

“That’s good to hear. As long as the two of you are fine. And the package?”

“Tell him I found it yesterday,” Izuminokami called from the other side of the cave.

“Eh? Oh, uh…we found it yesterday? So we’re gonna grab it today.” Mutsunokami frowned at Izuminokami, who only nodded and continued pulling on his clothes.

“Understood. And you will return home afterward?”

“Based on the distance and wind speed, the journey might take us a day or two. Does the Master need the documents urgently?”

“Not too urgently. Just be careful with the package. It is very important.”

“Got it. We’ll update you if there’s anything else. Otherwise, we’ll see ya again when we come back.”

“Thank you, Mutsunokami-san.” Konnosuke flicked its tail. “Master says she hopes you two are enjoying yourselves.”

 

Izuminokami choked and Mutsunokami grinned. “You bet. See ya later.”

 

The fox disappeared and Izuminokami muttered, “I didn’t think we were that obvious, even at the Citadel. Even Master noticed?”

Mutsunokami tossed the bell aside, letting it clink against the pile of bowls and cups in the corner. “It’s fine, though, isn’t it? Yamatonokami and Kashuu are dating, too.”

Izuminokami spluttered. “I—you...anyway!” He turned away with a huff. “I wasn’t lying when I said I found the package yesterday. It was right before I got attacked. I saw it by the waterfall, at the top near the rocks. We should go pick it up and then head back to the ship.”

 

Mutsunokami grunted. “Guess you’re right. Hey, what were ya gonna say earlier?” His expression broke into a cheeky grin. “About me pulling your hair when—”

 

“SHUT UP.”

 


 

 

“So it’s up there, huh?”

 

They were back at the river and the waterfall, and the sun was steadily rising higher into the sky. Upon coming back, the first thing Mutsunokami had done was to bury the dead wolf; it hadn’t been moved since the night before and was beginning to smell, but Mutsunokami decided to honour it anyway. “It’s just an animal, a predator. It didn’t know any better. It’s not its fault it died and there’s no reason to treat it like trash.”

Izuminokami only stood to one side, awkwardly toeing the river stones. The first thing he had done was to scour the riverbed and try to look for Mutsunokami’s camera. But the river was deep and the water rushed fast downstream, and eventually he had to give up, accepting that it had probably been washed away during the night, and again promising to buy Mutsunokami a new, better camera.

 

Now they stood together, looking up at the white box that jutted out from the rocks. From here Mutsunokami could just see the corner of a familiar golden seal on its surface.

“Good thing it didn’t land in the water,” Izuminokami muttered, from next to him.

“I’m surprised you saw it yesterday when it was dark.”

“Yeah, well.” Izuminokami shrugged. A second passed, neither of them moving, and he nudged Mutsunokami. “Go on. Aren’t you going to get it?”

“What? Why me?”

“I’m the one who’s all sore because of you,” Izuminokami said peevishly. “I’m not climbing all the way up there.”

 

Mutsunokami blinked, and broke into a happy grin. “Aw, ya could’ve just said so.”

“Just go!”

“Fine, fine!” Bashful and proud at the same time, Mutsunokami ducked to hide his smile and hurried over to the rocks.

 

After surveying the wall in front of him he began to scale it, searching for cracks in the stone that he could grab onto and use as footholds. Eventually he reached the box and eased it out carefully. It was about the size of a shoebox, tightly wrapped in gold twine and its seal clear on the surface.

Briefly Mutsunokami considered throwing it down to Izuminokami to make his descent easier, but thought the better of it - he was hurt, anyway, he reminded himself with a dopey smile - and climbed down more slowly, the box tucked under one arm. Once he was close enough to the ground he jumped down, hurrying over to Izuminokami who was sitting beneath the shade of a tree waiting for him, along with the rest of their belongings.

 

“You have it?”

“Yeah, this is definitely it.” Mutsunokami patted the box. “Well, that’s mission accomplished. Time to go home?”

“Time to go home,” Izuminokami agreed.

 

They’d cleared out the cave before they came here; extinguishing the campfire properly, disposing of the cans and leftover food, and cleaning up their supplies. They travelled more lightly than they did upon arriving, having gotten rid of the extra pots and dishes that they wouldn’t use again, as well as dirty cloths and medical supplies that Mutsunokami had used.

 

Mutsunokami wrapped the box in another cloth and slung it over his shoulder, and with a smile, took Izuminokami’s hand as they walked.

Izuminokami stiffened a little, but didn’t break away, only averting his gaze almost meekly.

 

This felt right, too. Holding hands.

 

Together they made their way down from the forest and the cliffs to the beach, to the rowboat that looked no worse for wear, untying it from the tree that secured it from being washed away and pushing it out into the waves.

Too soon they were leaving the island behind them and with a bump the rowboat had reached the Altair , looming over them majestically, waiting like a silent beast.

 

Izuminokami climbed up the rope ladder first, and Mutsunokami followed more slowly, listening to him talk as he made his way to the cabins, dropping off their things there and removing his haori. “Right, there’s a lot to do. There’s practically no wind, so let’s hope the capstan gets us moving...ugh, where did I put Kunihiro’s notes? And let’s pull up the anchor, too, or it’ll take us forever to…”

 

Mutsunokami was barely listening. He stood still on the quarter deck, the rope ladder in his hands, paused midway of pulling it in, and his gaze drawn to the island. He wanted to remember every detail of it: the white sandy beach, the rock cliffs, the cave where they stayed. And the things beyond that were not visible: the flowers, the river, the waterfall.

Next to him Izuminokami stood by his side, worry in his tone. “What’s wrong?”

 

“Nothing,” Mutsunokami gave him a rueful smile. “It’s just...I realised this place gives me memories, too. Since it was the place where you first told me you loved me.”

 

It was embarrassing for him to say it out loud, but he didn’t care and it was always a treat to see Izuminokami’s face turn pink.

“W-well…” Izuminokami turned away, sounding gruff. "I'm not going to miss it because I nearly died here.”

 

“Really?” Mutsunokami teased. “Even if it was also the place where we first—”

“I really hope you’re not going to keep up with teasing me like this in front of the others when we get home to the Citadel,” Izuminokami cut in warningly, some of his old fire returning. “Or I’ll—”

“You’ll what?”

“Or I won’t call you Yoshiyuki anymore,” Izuminokami announced, grabbing Mutsunokami's hands. “Or tell you I love you anymore. Or kiss you, or…”

 

He was cute like that, Mutsunokami thought. Like when he got defensive over nothing.

He interrupted him with a quick kiss on his mouth, making Izuminokami trail off, his words fading. “Alright, but it’s fine if I kiss ya or tell ya I love you or call ya Kanesada—”

Not in front of the others.”

“Are ya that worried?” Mutsunokami frowned. He couldn’t help feeling a little disappointed. There was nothing wrong with what they were doing, was there?

 

Izuminokami took a step back, though he didn’t let go of Mutsunokami’s hands, and instead cast his gaze down to them, as if immersing his attention in tracing the callouses there. “No, but...Nosada and Nagasone-san...you know how they are, how they feel about you. I just want to make sure things go smoothly with them when they find out that we’re…”

“Together?”

“Yeah.” Again with Izuminokami’s blush. Mutsunokami had to admit he really did enjoy the sight of that.

 

Feeling warmth expand in his chest, full of fondness, Mutsunokami smiled, “Don’t worry. I know that they mean a lot to you. I won’t mess things up.”

Looking relieved, Izuminokami exhaled a sigh and leaned forward, so that their foreheads touched. “Thank you.”

 

After a pause, Mutsunokami added with a devilish grin: “So if I’m not allowed to tease ya in front of the others, that means I can still do it when it’s just the two of us?”

“Hm?” Izuminokami looked up.

“I mean…” Mutsunokami reached up, taking Izuminokami’s braid between his fingers and curling it slightly. “Ya can’t expect me not to ask the Master to let us stay in the same room after we get back.”

 

Izuminokami’s eyes widened, and he backed off quickly, brushing Mutsunokami’s hand off. “That’s...come on, we should get going!” He hurried away, the redness in his face reaching down to his neck.

 

Mutsunokami let out a laugh. “Don’t look so worried! Hey, come back here, we gotta get the rowboat towed astern! And the anchor too!”

 


 

 

It was just after noon when it came upon them.

 

Izuminokami didn’t think much of it when the first gust of wind hit. But the second gust rocked the ship and he had to hold on to the side of the railing to keep his balance. This wind didn’t feel right. It didn’t look right, and it didn’t smell right.

He glanced at Mutsunokami, staring wide-eyed into the distance, and when their gazes met, Mutsunokami mouthed one word at him: “Storm.”

 

The floor beneath Izuminokami swayed suddenly; he stumbled forward with a yelp and hit the ground on his knees, wincing as his sore arms stung, straining to keep his balance.

In seconds Mutsunokami had crossed the deck and was by Izuminokami’s side, hands on his shoulders to stop him from falling backwards. “I got ya - get up, there ya go. I got careless, I wasn’t payin’ attention - hope this storm’s not a big one, or we’ll be blown off course.”

Izuminokami looked up, seeing the clouds gathering, slithering across the sky and blocking out the sun in a patches of grey and blue. “We can time how long it’ll take to get to us by counting the delay between the first few gusts,” Mutsunokami was still saying by his side, leading him back towards the helm.

 

“It’s just a storm,” Izuminokami frowned. “Can’t we still navigate our way home?”

“We can, but that’s not the problem. We only brought enough food with us from the island to last a day or two. Any longer than that, those fish will spoil and we may not have enough to eat on the way back.”

“Oh, shit.” Izuminokami braced himself as the wind whipped at them, growing stronger with every gust, and the ship rocked harder. The sky was darkening fast and rain was beginning to fall. “What can we do?”

 

Mutsunokami gritted his teeth. “If it’s coming up behind us, we’ll have to outrun it. We’ll stay ahead of it just so that we can use its wind and momentum to push us along. But if we’re not fast enough…”

“Great,” Izuminokami deadpanned. “Second time I’ll almost die in two days. That’s a great record.”

Even in the dark, Mutsunokami flashed a grin at him, one full of confidence. “Don’t worry about it. We’ll get out of this. I promise. You trust me, don’t ya?”

 

Izuminokami took a deep breath. “What can I do?”

Mutsunokami’s gaze roamed the ship’s entirety, and abruptly he grabbed the back of Izuminokami’s kimono and dragged him forward, taking his place in front of the wheel. “Stay on the helm! We have to keep going southward. I’m gonna batten down the hatches. Then I’m going up the ratlines.”

“The what?!” Izuminokami yelled, but Mutsunokami had already leapt over the railing to the quarter deck below.

 

Muttering under his breath, Izuminokami drew out the compass from within his robes, winding it around the railing on the binnacle so that it laid flat for him to see, before looking behind him. He could see the storm approaching, a mass of black clouds travelling steadily over the steel-grey waves, and the wind and rain that lashed at his back along with the ocean spray.

 

Another gust of wind hit them hard, but this time it hit true, fattening their sails with a whomph, and pushing the Altair forward. Izuminokami almost stumbled forward as the deck beneath him rocked, but he held on tight to the helm.

He had absolutely no idea what Mutsunokami was on about, but he trusted in him that he knew what he was doing, and that he could get them out of this. Izuminokami could see him scaling the foremast and main mast with ease, pulling the sails out as far as they could go to make use of the storm’s winds, and back down to the deck to secure the cabin doors and the cannons. His movements were smooth, almost practiced, as if he had done this thousands of times before.

 

The air seemed to grow colder around them, and Izuminokami suppressed a shiver. Mutsunokami returned to the stern deck, taking the helm back from him. “We should be able to stay ahead of the storm now.” Mutsunokami practically had to shout to make his voice heard over the roaring wind. His hair was in disarray, plastered to his face, and his amber eyes wild. “You should stay inside in the cabin, where it’s safe. And make sure the Master’s box stays dry, if we get it wet or lose it, we’re screwed.”

 

“What? Go back? And leave you out here by yourself?” Izuminokami snapped, feeling annoyed. “Not a chance.”

“I said it’ll be safer there, and you’re injured—”

“And you said I was your quartermaster, didn’t you?” Izuminokami challenged. “That means I stay right here, next to my captain.”

 

Mutsunokami stared at him for a couple of seconds, the corner of his mouth twitching as Izuminokami went on, “You said you didn’t want to lose me, right? I don’t want to lose you either. So I’m staying. And I trust you. We’ll be fine.”

 

They looked at each other for about half a minute, until the ship rocked again and Izuminokami stumbled forward, clumsily falling into Mutsunokami’s arms, who caught him by the elbows to steady him. When Mutsunokami spoke again his voice was quavering a little, “Have I told you how much I love you recently?”

Izuminokami rolled his eyes. “Are you seriously crying? You’ll be in more trouble if the Saniwa finds out you prioritised me over her stuff. Now hop to it, captain, or we’ll be dragged down to our deaths, and Kunihiro will probably murder you in the afterlife if he finds out I drowned in the ocean too.”

 

“Alright, alright, fine.” Mutsunokami released him and faced forward again, grinning. “Let’s give it a shot!”

 


 

 

It took several hours (and several attempts from Izuminokami not to throw up from the wild rocking of the ship), but the Altair managed to outrun the storm, though as Mutsunokami predicted, it threw them off-course slightly. As a result it took them an extra day to plot out a new course to return home, extending their journey at sea from two days to three, and somehow they managed with what remaining food they had to sustain themselves.

 

Despite that, the ship still took a beating. The foremast, thinner and not as sturdy as the main mast, kept creaking afterward when the wind buffed its sails, and the hull was scratched in places. The rowboat, normally secured at the rigging, had come loose during the storm, and so it hung haphazardly to one side, swinging dangerously in the wind.

The storm had lessened into a light drizzle, and though Izuminokami had suggested that they wait until it had stopped raining, Mutsunokami insisted that he had to fix it or the rowboat might fall and they would lose it. After a while Izuminokami relented, accompanying him out to the deck, and Mutsunokami had to climb up there and fix it while Izuminokami watched worriedly from the helm, annoyed that he could never do anything but look on.

 

“It’s because ya don’t know enough about ships in general,” Mutsunokami called down at him from the rigging. “Ya barely knew how to sail, and ya don’t know anything about keeping the ship in good condition.”

Izuminokami huffed in response. He was holding his haori above him like a makeshift umbrella, shivering a little as the rain soaked through the cloth. “Well, you could teach me.”

“Nah, I can handle it myself. Besides, you’re too unwieldy to do stuff like this.”

Izuminokami spluttered. “Unwieldy?”

“Yeah, you’re wearing, what, four layers, and a hakama to boot? How are ya gonna climb the rigging and the masts? You’d fall over before ya get anything done. Plus, you’re injured.” Mutsunokami jumped down, landing cat-like on the deck, and bounded forward to Izuminokami’s side, smiling happily as he ducked under the haori into Izuminokami’s arms. “And it’s fun for me to do it, so where’s the harm?”

Izuminokami scoffed, still looking displeased. “I just don’t like standing around doing nothing.”

 

Mutsunokami’s eyes sparkled, and he leaned in, his hands sliding up to Izuminokami’s hips, taking advantage of Izuminokami’s arms being raised to lift the haori over them, and pulling him closer. “Well, if you’re bored, we could always go back to those lessons that you need—”

“Ah, I don’t think so.” Deftly Izuminokami lowered one arm and covered Mutsunokami’s mouth with his hand, stopping him. “We are not doing that on a ship.”

Mutsunokami looked to protest, his breath warming Izuminokami’s palm, and then he sneezed. Loudly. Into Izuminokami’s hand.

 

“OH MY GOD.”

“I was going to say it but you were covering my mouth!”

“WHY? WHY ARE YOU LIKE THIS? UGH, IT’S ALL OVER ME.”

 

As it turned out, Mutsunokami got a cold from the storm. So did Izuminokami, though not as badly. Reluctantly they stayed indoors, mostly wrapping themselves up and curled up against one another. Mutsunokami had pushed his own bed across the room to join with Izuminokami’s, and Izuminokami fussed over Mutsunokami much like the way Horikawa did, swathing him in blankets (and his haori) and plonking a pillow in his lap.

 

“Kanesadaaaaaa….” Mutsunokami whined. “I’m bored…”

“Go to sleep. You need rest.”

“You’re sniffling too.”

“Yeah, but I'm not as sick.”

“I want to play a card game.”

Izuminokami blinked. “You brought cards?”

Mutsunokami sat up happily. “Yep! I think I left them in the next room though.” He smiled sheepishly. “In the navigation room.”

 

They hadn’t gone into the navigation room since the storm before. With all its fancy equipment, Izuminokami couldn’t bear to think of the mess that was probably inside at this point, thrown all over the place thanks to the ship rocking. Even so, Mutsunokami had kept the Saniwa’s box of documents in there, locked in a wooden chest to protect it from getting wet in case the rain or seawater had gotten into the room during the storm.

 

“Ugh, fine. I’ll go get them.” Izuminokami stood up, draping an extra blanket on his shoulders over his yukata. “It’d better not be wet in there.”

“I’ll keep the bed warm for ya,” Mutsunokami added cheerfully, and Izuminokami scoffed, hiding his smile as he headed outside.

It was colder out here, since they had lit all the lanterns inside the cabin and drawn the blinds to make it cosier, and Izuminokami shivered a little, intending to grab the cards from next door quick and head back inside to Mutsunokami’s warmth.

 

Then something caught his eye, and Izuminokami looked out across the quarter deck, a hand raised to hold back his hair from getting into his vision.

 

In the distance loomed an island, lined with trees, and atop the hill rested a familiar-looking building, in traditional architecture—

 

“Kanesada?” Mutsunokami’s voice rose. “You okay?”

“Home,” Izuminokami breathed. “Mucchan, we’re home! Look! It’s the Citadel!”

 

Mutsunokami stepped out, the blankets still wrapped around him, and he squinted at the island in front of them, eyes narrowed. A strange look came over his face then, and when he said nothing Izuminokami asked, “What’s the matter? Aren’t you excited to be home?”

 

“Ah, well.” Mutsunokami seemed to shake himself from his reverie, smiling up at Izuminokami. “Anywhere is home for me as long as you’re there.”

Izuminokami’s cheeks went pink, and he looked away, embarrassed. “What’s with that?”

 

Mutsunokami hummed. “I’ve been having this dream, see. It’s always me on a ship, with a full crew, and the Saniwa was there, too. We're sailing back into port after a long journey, and I’d be yearning to get back on land. And in my dream, there would always be someone waiting for me at shore. Someone that seemed to pull me towards them. I’d ask Master who it was, and she’d just tell me “home”. I didn’t really understand what she meant, and whenever I tried to get a closer look at that person, I’d always get woken up. But I think I know who it is now.”

The implication was clear in the way Mutsunokami looked at him, his expression soft, and Izuminokami fought the urge to look away, instead meeting his gaze boldly. “Even after everything I’ve done?”

Mutsunokami didn’t waver. “Even after that.”

 

He took his hand, drawing Izuminokami back into the cabin; and for a while they did nothing but lie together, their card game forgotten. As if suddenly realising that they’d be going home soon, with hardly any time to themselves (except at night, Mutsunokami kept reminding Izuminokami, with the same cheeky grin), they laid side by side on the beds, tangled together, only breaking the silence with brief conversation and an occasional sneeze.

That night Mutsunokami curled up next to Izuminokami, his head resting on the slope between his neck and his good shoulder, and his legs around Izuminokami’s longer ones. One arm was stretched across Izuminokami’s chest, playing with the lock of hair that he usually braided, twisting it around his finger.

Izuminokami let him, despite him being embarrassed about it due to how intimate the action was, though after a few minutes when Mutsunokami tried to tickle him with the tendril of hair, he attacked him back playfully, wrestling until Mutsunokami managed to catch Izuminokami’s wrists. He pulled them clear of his face and planting a clumsy, apologetic kiss on his lips; grudgingly Izuminokami accepted it, and shifted so that they faced one another, just inches apart.

 

Izuminokami didn’t notice it yesterday when it was dark, but now from this distance he could appreciate the light dusting of freckles across Mutsunokami’s nose, how his messy brownish hair was lighter at the ends and how it curled at his neck, and the way his eyes were the colour of the sunset. Even the way he smelled: earthy and warm, sometimes with just a hint of the ocean salt.

All of this, now his.

 

He must have gazed at him too long because Mutsunokami cleared his throat delicately. “I thought I wasn’t allowed to kiss ya cuz I was sick.”

“Well, we’re both sick anyway,” Izuminokami shrugged, smiling loftily. “I’ll make an exception.”

Mutsunokami only yawned in response, and Izuminokami wrinkled his nose. “Ew. Your breath stinks.”

“Yours too.” Mutsunokami’s eyelids were beginning to droop.

 

Izuminokami, too, felt exhaustion begin to overtake him, from the heat in the room and Mutsunokami’s warmth. Sleepily he murmured, “Mucchan?”

He could hear the smile in his voice at the nickname when he replied. “Mm?”

“Can you sing for me?”

 

Though Mutsunokami’s voice was a little nasally from his cold, he obliged and began to sing, a sorrowful song that made Izuminokami’s heart pang.

 

          Of all the money that e’er I had,

          I spent it in good comp’ny.

          And all the harm that e’er I’ve done,

          Alas it was to none but me.

 

          And all I’ve done,

          For want of wit

          To mem’ry now, I can’t recall…

 

          So fill to me, the parting glass,

          Good night and joy be with you all.

 

Boldly Mutsunokami reached out, taking Izuminokami’s hand in his so that they intertwined their fingers together.

 

          Of all the comr’des that e’er I’ve had,

          They’re sorry for my going away,

          And all the sweethearts that e’er I’ve loved

          They’d wish me one more day to stay.

 

          But since it falls

          Unto my lot

          That I should rise, and you should not

 

          I’ll gently rise, and softly call:

          Good night and joy be with you all.

 

          Good night and joy be with you all.

 

When his words faded, Mutsunokami yawned again, and then snuggled close to Izuminokami until he could feel his heartbeat, steady against his skin. “Love you,” Mutsunokami mumbled, eyes fluttering closed.

Oh.

Izuminokami waited until Mutsunokami had fallen asleep, when his breathing had evened out, before lifting their laced hands towards him and pressing his lips to Mutsunokami’s knuckles, smiling against the worn skin, rough with callouses.

 

“…Love you too.”