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23rd Century Postcard

Chapter Text

"Brother! What happened to your eye?"

His brother, who is blond and tall, brighter than the first person he saw, cocks his head and his smile falters a bit. He laughs, though. It'll take Hizamaru very little time to get used to that sound.

"Master should spend more time with newcomers," he says, almost as he's forgiving him for a mistake. "When you meet someone, you say 'It's nice to meet you!' or 'It's been so long!', and you shake their hand or bow to them."

His brother has a bloodied bandage around his left eye, a piece of cloth that makes his hair look silly and matted, and his arm rests on a sling. When he says that, Hizamaru stammers and takes a deep breath.

(The first of many times, in front of his brother. He will learn that, occasionally, he also needs to count to ten before speaking.)

"It's nice to see you again, brother."

"That's good too!"

Everyone is brighter than the first person he saw, he discovers when he crosses from the innermost part of that house to a kitchen that's near an open garden. When they come to him, Hizamaru realizes that he didn't need to be told how to introduce himself – it comes naturally, like that feeling that told him he was talking to his brother, when he met that battered man. He makes him sit at a table that feels too tall, and then serves him food.

He's slow, with just one arm to use.

"I can do it myself," he says. "I can... If you tell me what you're doing, I can handle it!"

"I'm done already, it's okay." And it wasn't much – he shouldn't think that, because it was nice of his brother to do that! He shouldn't think about that bowl of rice and that cup of tea, his first favor, as something small. Hizamaru gets constant, sudden flashes of knowledge and understanding, like figuring out if a blade is sharp just by the glint of it: he knows how to hold the chopsticks his brother forgot to get for him, he knows that crossing and uncrossing his ankles will calm that weird, bubbling energy in his brand new body. His brother watches him hesitate when he holds the bowl. "Master called me Higekiri."

"Is it... Shouldn't I call you 'brother'?"

Is it weird for them to use those words? For them , for spirits, he believes they are, even though his idea of spirits didn't include that needling pain in his midsection, or the need to swallow every few seconds when he looks at his food.

But he understood that too, that they were related. It's the word that feels best.

"Ah, that's okay. It is kind of nice, actually." Higekiri eyes the untouched rice. "Aren't you hungry? I was starving when I manifested!"

"What happened to your eye?"

Is that prying? If it is, Hizamaru doesn't mind – Higekiri's expression is still bright and he feels it shouldn't be, that he should be more in pain, that he should give him more reasons to worry. Easier reasons, maybe?

"You know that we're here to fight." It's a statement more than a question. Hizamaru takes his chopsticks. "I got too close to one of the monsters when I slashed it, but it'll be fine by tomorrow or so. It doesn't bother me."

"If it hurts, you should..."

You should , what? There isn't a sudden realization there, and it's scary. Hizamaru lets the sentence fall without finishing it, and Higekiri stays silent for a couple of seconds before speaking again.

"Now you got to see the worst thing of this place before you get to the nicer ones," he says, and he speaks of it like it's a personal achievement. It's hard to read his expression when he can only see one of his eyes, but there aren't any shadows on the parts that are visible. There's only something like a cloud on his gaze, the shine on his eyes where the light hits him like thunder, but Hizamaru will learn that to be usual on his brother. He can feel in Higekiri an echo of something he recognizes in himself – a wild, fanged thing that lets him know that the last place for him to be, for them, for everyone in that house is a calm kitchen, the quietness of a chair in front of a bowl of rice. "Try the food, you'll see!"

Somehow Hizamaru thinks, when he puts the first bit of rice to his mouth, that it's plain and mild. But his tongue is new: he tastes the clean water in the grains, the soft resistance of them and how their exterior is slightly harder than the inner part. When he catches a bit of salt, it sparkles on his mouth and makes him realize why his stomach was trembling, before, his body aching for something it didn't comprehend yet but had been wanting for centuries. He eats, he eats and swallows and he notices, midway through the bowl, that he's crying into his food, and he cleans up his tears on his sleeve.

His brother, Higekiri, is still smiling, resting his chin on the back of his healthy hand. There's an ugly hole in his jacket, too, and Hizamaru thinks his tousled hair and the dust of his cheek don't belong in that pristine kitchen, but he wouldn't have it any different.

"I cried too, the first time," he says. "But there's even better things to eat! There's this boy, the one with the little bow on his head you've seen before? He messes up all the time but when he does cook something good, it's great . He'll show you around later, too, you tell him that and you'll have another friend."

Hizamaru swallows his tears and the tea, when he's done with the rice. They're both warm and have a stronger flavor, bitter and nice – he almost has to bring his hand to his mouth with that wave like tree bark on his tongue, so lovely and welcome it is.

(He sees his own reflection on the tea. He doesn't know if he looks like his brother or not – he doesn't know if there's supposed to be much of a similarity. There is in humans, and maybe he wants that.)

"My name is Hizamaru."

Higekiri raises his eyebrows and tilts his head, again.

"That's nice, too!"

Chapter Text

Maybe his life would be easier if he managed to be meaner – it's something Kiyomitsu thinks a lot, when he finds himself with hands full of unfolded laundry, or up to his knees in mud, or with a slash on his gut that should have been fatal. But then people smile at him and thank him and pride and affection swell up on him like the sails on a ship, so he only manages to half-heartedly say he won't do it again, no sir!

To be fair though, Mutsunokami is only asking him to make true to a promise. Not so much a promise as an off-handed comment about doing things later, but still – inability to be mean, and such and such. Kiyomitsu is vaguely aware of why it's taken so long for him to approach his room again and can't bring himself to comment on that.

"I don't really think I have anything that suits you," Kiyomitsu says. He doesn't usually go through his make-up box with doubts, because he's the kind to decide before opening it. Plum is too dark, peach would just fade on his skin. He can't make his eyelashes even darker or longer. "You got this tan, and your skin is warmer than mine."

"Oh, I think you're plenty warm."

(Kiyomitsu can't tell whether that's a compliment or a sly attempt to get him to try the lipstick he's holding on him. Mutsunokami just does that sometimes. Says those nice things and you don't know what he means by them – you just don't blurt out stuff like that, do you.)

"I mean," he sort of scoffs, "the undertone of your skin."

Mutsunokami laughs a little, his teeth showing. Explaining that kind of thing always ends up sounding silly – how you should check lipstick colors on your fingertips and not on the back of your hand, how you should dry it on your lips with a bit of paper so it doesn't stain your teeth. It's a bunch of useless nonsense, he thinks sometimes, but it's fun. It keeps him grounded, he wants to think.

( "I dunno," was what Mutsunokami said. He made a pause before he continued, his gaze shifty, and the corners of his mouth turned in a bit of a weird way – Kiyomitsu notices those because he's known him since forever, but doesn't understand them because they've never spoken about anything too personal, anything too close to the past. "'s just, you seem to have such a blast with it!")

And does he really? He has to remind himself not to frown in front of the mirror all the time, but if it's a white lie it's a good one.

"Just give me something... fancy-like," Mutsunokami says, sort of suddenly. "You never wear shiny things, but you oughta have them, right?"

"I..." God, he's got such nice eyes, though! All bright and big, so simple. Horikawa said people who look like that are good liars – but he thinks, when he looks at them, if he had such eyes he'd never close them. Being a good liar isn't a bad thing. "You know, we should to something about your mess of a haircut before we do anything about your mouth. Pins and irons work on anyone."

Maybe if he combs all those wild curls back and brings out the harsh cut of his jawline, if he makes his look a bit sharper. Maybe if he curls them more and softens the strong lines of his cheekbones. Maybe if he brushes his eyebrows a bit, just a touch of his fingers, it'd be easier to look at him clearly and decide.

Kiyomitsu's hand is midway to Mutsunokami's face when he snaps back into awareness. He is embarrassed, but Mutsunokami has that kind of presence that makes it easy to pass that as frustrated annoyance.

And if he notices he's a bit embarrassed, if he notices the warmth on his cheeks (unrelated to his skin tone, mind), of course he does! But if he notices, he doesn't say anything.

He goes back to the lipstick.

"Come now, I can't be that messy – you should just give me your best red, the one you're wearing. That's nice, it is. With dark blue – it goes well, doesn't it?"

Kiyomitsu's not wearing his best red – he doesn't like wasting things like that, but hey. Mutsunokami is right. He has those inspired insights, too, as if pulling from a knowledge he couldn't possibly have, but must have picked from an old diary, from an outdated book, from an ugly memory.

And it's just a bit of fun.

Chapter Text

Shizukagata is tall like a sunflower. He has a sort of odd way of speaking, with pauses that sound more natural thanks to the way he moves his hands, slowly and constantly. He doesn't usually call people by their names.

Honebami's not completely sure on how to feel about him. The first time they see each other, Shizukagata smiles and asks for his name and Namazuo's, repeats them to himself and offers his hands for them to shake: vigorously and with a laugh in Namazuo's case, steadily and quietly in his own.

"This is a bit unusual, but I like it more than bowing," he says. Did Hasebe teach him that? Yasusada? They're both fond of physical contact, and always fluttering around new people. "Your hands are so small!"

"Yours are just too big," Namazuo retorts. He prefers bowing or just flashing at smile at the people he meets. "But I can't hold it against you. Naginata are just built like that – to keep people at a distance, right?"

"We are, we are! It isn't bad either, being little as you are now."

Honebami will discover that he does switch to the plural on occasion, just like Tomoegata, but now it just sounds odd. It sits uncomfortably in him, like swallowing food he should have chewed for longer.

The words sit on the mouth of his stomach the whole day, impossible to digest.

 

But despite that Namazuo finds him in the kitchen.

"Mean!," he says. "If you're going for a midnight snack, wake me up properly."

"I haven't slept. And I just came here to sit..."

Namazuo's hair looks soft and tidy, as if he's never gone to bed himself. It has a way of falling, all straight and dark and shiny, that makes him look as if he should be taller – makes him look almost wrong, when he's standing by their brother Ichigo. When Namazuo tilts his head, it rolls off his shoulder.

"Are you okay? Want me to make you some tea?"

"How do you feel about being as we are now?"

Namazuo blinks. He sighs, runs a hair through his hair to leave it at the back of his neck, and pulls a chair so he can sit in front of Honebami. He has that weird way to work with formality, and Honebami thinks it's some kind of comfort to him, a shield or a weapon hidden under long-winded courtesy that dissipates when he's around family.

"Having a body is a hassle, but it's fun. I love eating, I love trying up my hair in the morning and undoing it at night. I also kinda like it when I scrape a hand trying to land, stuff like that." There's a pause. "Or you mean about not remembering?"

"I didn't like Shizukagata saying that it's okay that we're small."

(Being told it's okay , in general. When Honebami first came to senses, he didn't feel sad – there wasn't really much to be sad about, since he had nothing but his small brothers swarming around him, warm and ready to hold his hands and guide him into his body. Into his house.

But he did feel angry and robbed.)

"Don't hold that against newbies, brother." Namazuo says with a smile.

"I... I don't. I wish, you know..."

"I know, don't say it." They've talked about not remembering once, just the two of them. They haven't touched the topic with brother Ichigo, or with the dagger kids. They decided they weren't going to talk about it again, because there wasn't really a lot to discuss, much less to fill up several conversations. Namazuo just hand-waves everything, but his wrists have the strenght of a giant. "It sucks being so small, though, you're right. Good for us that we're cute too, so everyone gets us the stuff on tall shelves!"

Namazuo manages to make him chuckle, and when he passes by him he pats him on the shoulder to let him know he should go back to their room.

Inside his futon, Honebami pulls at the covers with his feet, as if they're too short to cover him completely.

Chapter Text

There's sand in his shoes but Urashima waits a little before calling out to Mutsunokami. People's profiles cutting out of the water on the horizon always look nice to him, and they also make him uneasy – this time, it's a discomfort that piles up on leftover stress from battle.

It stings more than the scratches on his legs, still healing.

"Mutsunokami!," Urashima calls from the beach. He turns suddenly, surprised, like a wave. "I'm glad I found you!"

Mutsunokami combs his wet hair back and laughs.

"Sorry, sorry, time just escapes me here," he says. He speaks loder than Urashima did, because the sea drowns his voice instead of lifting it to shore. "Didn't mean to make anyone worry. You mind turning around for a second?"

"Huh?"

"'s nothing big, I'm just shy."

Urashima notices Mutsunokami's clothes on a black rock to his side, jutting out of the sand – they've been left in the hurried mess of someone who wanted to get into water as soon as possible. They're both laughing when Urashima turns and Mutsunokami gets up the rock to dry himself and get dressed again – Urashima only speaks when Mutsunokami has started whistling something under his breath, almost impossible to hear against the murmur of the beach.

"I got really... It got to me really bad too, on my first long mission," he says. He doesn't know if he can turn to Mutsunokami yet, and he doesn't know how much was he lying, when he said he was shy. A lot, probably, but Urashima prefers to believe the best of everyone. "I used to swim until I forgot too, but if you talk to master they might be able to help..."

Mutsunokami takes a bit to answer.

Urashima doesn't know him well. He's bad at reading people in general – he comes off as too impetuous, too nosy, and Horikawa of all people has told him he has to be more subtle about being concerned or happy or sad. But when he tries, no one understands him, so it's better to be upfront, even if sometimes it gets people angry.

Mutsunokami doesn't sound angry, though.

"Sometimes I forget you're not actual kids, y'know," he says, with a chuckle. "The sea helped you relax for real, though?"

"Not... really, no, but the exercise tired me out and it was good."

The sea is too ambivalent to help anyone relax, Urashima thinks, that's why he gets nervous when someone spends too much time in the water on their own. It's the kind of thing that changes completely after sunset, and even now, with the sun starting to set, it has some kind of ugly sheen that calls to him and against him. But there was, at the end of the day, some kind of familiarity in something that stayed the same no matter where they moved, no matter when.

The water's different, his brothers had told him. But it felt the same, and that's what mattered.

"I just needed to unwind a bit," Mutsunokami says. Urashima hears a short, swift flap of clothes – Mutsunokami ties his top siwftly, carelessly, sand still sticking to his chest. "I'm sort of glad you worried, I gotta say. No way your brother had sent you, you see, that I got! But I thought I might have spent hours there. This feeling of... time really flying does get better, right?"

"It does." It stings to hear how Mutsunokami mentions his brother, quick like pulling a hand away from the fire that burned it. "How come you hate brother Nagasone this bad?"

Mutsunokami raises his eyebrows, shifts his gaze. He looks towards a point behind Urashima, almost stern, and for a second, before he turns, he's afraid he has finally said something that upset him. But then he sees his brother on the shore.

He stands out almost as much as that black rock.

"Tell someone before you go and disappear," he says, and from the tone Urashima understands he's not talking to him. In any case, he goes to him – his brother ruffles his hair when he's by his side, says his name softly, an acknowledgement that doesn't hold the shadow of a reprimand, and pats his shoulder before turning away. "Next time, I leave you here."

Urashima waits for Mutsunokami to jump down the rock and reach him, and they leave together.

"Your brother hates me," he says, shifting the focus of Urashima's question, "because I make you worry."

Chapter Text

The rain outside is thick and layered, a cape of water over the shed, and the peonies outside have turned into small blots of color over a blur of dark green. Kasen's hair sticks to his cheeks but he managed to keep it, for the most part, dry – if he has to be truly honest however, maybe it wasn't as much his actions as Yamabushi pulling a coat over him and leading him to the shed.

"How did you know this was here?"

How come that shed was there, actually, since there shouldn't be any buildings in the grounds of the citadel. Kasen sits on a bench that was clearly made by well-meaning if clumsy hands, and looks out of the window to avoid looking at Yamabushi who is drying himself.

He talks to keep his mind from wandering where it shouldn't. It is something of an artist's vice, imagination: one can't keep seeds from flowering, there. One can only try and feed them too many words and drown them.

"We built it last summer," Yamabushi says. He sighs, and so does the towel falling around his shoulders – Kasen presumes this movement. "Well, I just helped Master with what he couldn't do himself. He comes so often to the mountains, and I worried he might injure himself or become lost if he didn't have a place to rest."

Master spends days out, sometimes. Kasen finds the habit unnerving, and being in the place where he apparently sleeps makes him strangely uncomfortable, as if he's stepped on holy ground. He just wanted to write about the peonies, the green darkening like storm clouds around them as summer pressed forward – maybe he jinxed it, with that image about storms. Maybe he should have gone alone.

(Does Yamabushi use that shed himself? Does he prefer to sleep under the stars, in those nights where he doesn't sleep with his brothers? When Kasen steals a look back to him, Yamabushi is drying his hair – the nape of his neck has lines like a mountain path, like tree bark, but it is soon hidden by the towel. It's almost stupid to notice that when his back is all exposed, stong and tender and still faintly humid, like an open shell. Kasen feels a kick of salt on the tip of his tongue, and inmediately turns to the flowers outside.)

"Are your materials safe, Kasen?"

Yamabushi's voice sounds by his side. The man has joined him on the bench and his look of concern is so honest Kasen is happy almost to tears, that his papers didn't get wet.

"Y-yes they are," he says. "But it'd be okay if they weren't, too. Now that I've seen the peonies themselves, it's all in my head."

Yamabushi smiles, again, openly and sincerely. Kasen has said something silly, he thinks, but that smile elevates his words.

"They truly are magnificent, those flowers. I wish I could put to words the way I see them, just like you do."

Those two lines have more poetry to them that the lines Kasen has saved into his pockets. If he was braver, he would try and get closer to their source – but it's too soon, he thinks, and one should not touch ancient beauty directly. At least not on their first... outing together.

But...

"I think," Kasen says, and the rain outside is letting down a bit, so the peonies look brighter and wilder than ever, a thousand hearts beating around them and he can hear them all, "you should try."

Chapter Text

"Tomoe, you're still there?" Kashuu Kiyomitsu's arm is on a sling and his posture is not very autoritative. Since Tomoe is sitting, however, his voice comes a bit from above, from a mildly uncomfortable superiority; that, and the inherent seniority of the first sword, is what compels Tomoegata to stand up. "You don't have to watch him sleep, you know. You'll get a headache if you stay here for too long."

Yamatonokami stirs a bit in his sleep, as if he can hear them, but he doesn't wake up. For a second, it looks as if he will turn to the side, but maybe he is too bandaged up to move like that – he seems to just shudder, like a leaf precariously hanging from its branch. But Kashuu is right. There's an energy in the healing grounds that gets into their bones even if they do not need it, and that ends up prickling at their guts and mind like spoiled food.

"Hm. Let's go back, then."

Once he is walking by his side and Tomoegata can look down to him, Kashuu is once again a presence he has gotten used to. There is no one in the citadel taller than Tomoegata, but maybe it is all the nameless souls that supposedly make him – all those blades, pushing at his form for more room, for a bigger size. Kashuu is a singular blade, sleek and sharp. Yamatonokami too, even if he is softer and gentler in his shape, and has hands like a young noble.

"So, I was thinking..." Kashuu Kiyomitsu starts. He is the kind of people who appears uncomfortable with long silences. "Maybe I shouldn't have called you 'Tomoe' all casual, back there. It's just, you know Yasusada talks about you with me, right? He calls you that. But he's your friend proper , I guess. Sorry?"

It is a weird apology.

Tomoegata only corrects himself in his ways if he is told to do so. He might not have a history that supplies him with precise knowledge like some of the other, but he understands quickly, and enjoys listening and looking at what happens around him. He tends to be right, because people tend to thank him or praise him.

(Yamatonokami sometimes looks at him, or listens to him, and says "Oh, really?" or explains an anecdote that while innocuous has something acidic, out of place. He speaks so, so frankly, only faltering around his other friends who sometimes laugh at him or gently mend his stories.

"But Tomoe agrees! Right, Tomoe?"

Not always, but it is nice to say no, every now and again.)

"We don't mind," he says. Kashuu does not comment on the plural that sometimes slips by in his words. "But I believe I should call you 'Kiyomitsu', in turn."

Kashuu, maybe Kiyomitsu, raises his eyebrows and smiles a bit.

"It sounds so weird when you say it!"

"Do you prefer I stick to 'Kashuu'?"

"Nah, it's okay, we just have to talk more often so I get used to it," he says. There is a subtle, subtle warmth in how he speaks that echoes the feeling of Yamatonokami casually grabbing at his clothes and sticking by his side. He wonders if Kashuu would laugh at his every word when he has had too much to drink, too. "What does Yasusada say about me?"

Yamatonokami is a very bad liar, Tomoegata has noticed. He is not any better, but it is because he thinks there is no use in lying at the citadel. He has nothing to hide, and important matters are always better our in the light. In Yamatonokami's case, it is because he does not know what should he hide.

But one of his first lies stuck to him. It was more like a half truth, maybe it is because of that. Tomoegata could not pick what makes it not completely false, but there is something there.

It concerns Kiyomitsu, though, so he talks.

"He said that we make the same sound when we walk."

Chapter Text

The rustle of steps on gravel is fast but careful – the steps that follow him belong someone who is more used to walking with a different cadence. Still, Ishikirimaru recognizes the rhythm of them, and his question is more like a greeting.

"Who goes there?"

He doesn't turn, but he doesn't think his smile is lost. Even if there's no one else with them, on that path to the mountains that watch over the festival. The rock is gray-orange with sunset.

"These are dangerous hours to ask that, Ishikirimaru," says Nikkari. Ishikirimaru waits for him, let him join him and walk by his side. "When the sun goes, you never know who might answer."

"Shouldn't I trust you?"

Nikkari laughs, fingers hidden in the front of his obi. The clothes he's wearing are too bright on him, but Master might not have found anything else that fit on Nikkari's narrow frame. The small men's obi, dark and simple, holds under the line of his stomach like a turbulent spring river.

Ishikirimaru could link their arms if he wanted.

"Oh, of course you can trust me," says Nikkari. "But spirits grow restless in summer, you know?"

Nikkari's profile looks a bit nebulous, on that lonely mountain path. His ponytail sways almost too lightly, weightless; his steps are too silent. Ishikirimaru can hear the murmur of the festival already, a bubbling of voices that will be visible once the sun goes away. From that path, the lights on the stalls are like fireflies. The faint ringing of wind chimes echoes every time a breeze rises up. Shadows look so long at sunset. Nikkari's black silhouette on the ground before him, slim like the snakes that follow you if you whistle at night, is like a line on wood.

Ishikirimaru's is more like a solid stain of ink that can't be washed away.

"Ishikirimaru?"

Nikkari's voice doesn't carry his smile anymore, but the form of his lips changes when Ishikirimaru puts and arm around his shoulders. He brushes the nape of Nikkari's neck with his thumb.

"Hm?"

"You looked lost," Nikkari says. "If I hadn't joined you here, something else would have spirited you away."

"I thought spirits only took interest in humans," Ishikirimaru says, half serious. He feels uncomfortable around lots of people, so the idea is foreign to him. "Didn't you say we weren't as tasty?"

Nikkari raises his eyebrows. His steps sound closer now, and Ishikirimaru notices, in the already nocturnal light, a bug bite under his clavicle, red and mundane. The music from the festival, louder and louder, has that electric scratch of modernity that interests Ishikirimaru so much and turns him away at the same time.

"Oh," Nikkari says, and laughs. "You can't ever know. Maybe there's someone else out there, with taste as bad as ours."

When they kiss it's night, the lights of the first stalls reach them.

Chapter Text

The kind of heat that turns colors more vivid and makes the outlines of objects runny falls on the citadel like blankets on him at night: nicely at first, almost suffocating later.

Izuminokami cuts all his hair on the first week of July, and knows he will be doing this for the years to come. Sweat drips from his nose and stings on small cuts, but at least he can feel the breeze on his back when they're working in the field.

Master has taken to growing sunflowers. She looks at them from the highest balcony in the citadel, and sometimes she waves from there, silent like a queen. Izuminokami is still a bit uncomfortable around her. The house is so big and so empty, the rooms echoing with steps and any conversation that's not held in whispers, and she has such a slight presence.

Kunihiro, pushing a water bottle to his neck, also makes him shudder.

"Damn!"

He murmurs an apology, but Izuminokami is only half sure that he means it.

"You were spacing out, Kane-san."

The shadows that falll on his face from the wide hat he's wearing are so deep and black they look wrong, but it might be the contrast agains the clear sky. There isn't a cloud and still it looks almost shiny white.

The sunflowers (taller than Kunihiro, with their earthy greens and yellows and browns) are a nice change of landscape, but he follows Kunihiro when he gestures that they move to the shade. Some of the flowers are facing downward, heavy with seeds. They aren't a nice sight - the field looks like it goes on forever, like every other part of the citadel but this one, being so new and golden, is almost unnerving. From the place that they're sitting, away from the line where the flowers start sprouting, it looks less inviting than any battlefield they've been to.

(There's too few people in the citadel to go back there, and Master is too weak to keep up with bad injuries. She looks away, pale, at Kunihiro's hand that's missing two fingers. They're not important ones, and Kunihiro doesn't care, but that early wavering in her is unsighty.

"She'll get better," he says. "This is a first for all of us.")

"I don't know much about plants," says Kunihiro. "Is there anything in particular we should be doing with them? Water them, maybe?"

"I was just goint to cut the dead ones," Izuminokami answers. "They can't be good for the others."

"Well, if they rot, maybe they become good fertilizer..."

Kunihiro doesn't have a bandage around his hand anymore. Izuminokami has almost become used to seeing it like that, but there's something wrong in the blurry shape of it, seeing through the ripples in the water bottle.

Izuminokami has a deep cut on his cheek with the same angle than Kunihiro's wound. It could have been deeper. He could have been beheaded, and Kunihiro would be all alone, lost in the sunflowers.

He reaches for his good hand, on the ground by the three. It's their first summer and from a distance they must look like friends that are too close for comfort.

Chapter Text

The cookie box is fresh, so opening it with one hand is kind of a hurdle. Nagasone tears the protective strip with a nail and flips the lid with his thumb, and offers one a cookie to his brother – Urashima immediately beams up, so he decides he's actually going to give it to him instead of taking it for himself in the last moment.

"Does this mean you're not mad, brother?," he asks. "I mean... You always say I shouldn't hold back, but, you know."

"It doesn't hurt that badly." Nagasone can press the folded bandages to his nose pretty comfortably, so it'll just swell and bruise a bit when it stops stinging. Blows to the nose always make him cry, though, so Urashima stopped the second he groaned, surprised more than actually pained. He's... kind of touched he did, honestly. "You know Horikawa, right? The first time I got paired up with him to spar, he broke my arm."

"Woah." Urashima laughs a bit. "That's more my style, though, the nose thing..."

"Yeah, it's something he would do. Listen, it's a good and legitimate strategy!"

Nagasone bites into the cookie, but it tastes a bit too much like blood still to be enjoyable. He finishes, though, because he can stand the ugly taste of rust in his mouth better than the shade of worry in his brother's eyes.

"I think I got you" Urashima starts "because you're too... big? I felt like you were still trying to find your own space. You usually use this ample movements, brother, but they're not super useful in, well, tiny rooms and stuff. The short swords out there are bigger than me, though, so it should be fine if you don't really close onto how... Did I say something wrong?"

Urashima's laughter, his soft, short hands and the way he sits, with a leg crossed on the other, his height and his hairdo, all of them are those of someone you hold tight and back , because they're still learning, they are the ones who are still finding their space. Urashima jumped to Nagasone's arms the second he saw him on his first day at the citadel and apologized to master for his rude behavior. Urashima sometimes uses words Nagasone can't quite make the sense out of and then corrects himself.

(There is... maybe was , some kind of wedge between them, like a door left half open or a box untouched. Urashima nestles against him after hard missions and asks him about the name of stars, even if Nagasone doesn't know them.)

"No, you're right. I'm just used to being on the other side of the conversation." He grabs another cookie. This one tastes better. "Can't help being big, though. You have to point out things you can change , Urashima, that's how people learn."

"Okay, okay. Then... you're slow and think too much about things, and you shouldn't--"

"Hey, now."

Urashima lets Nagasone ruffle his hair, although it doesn't make much of a difference on his unruly bright strands. Maybe that's why he lets him do that? Nagasone has never noticed before, how Urashima's head kind of follows his hand sometimes, but his brother's laughter is natural and quick like a swallow.

"I was going to say you shouldn't have another of those," he says, when Nagasone is digging on the box again for another treat. "Shokudaikiri told me you like those, but also said I shouldn't let you have more than two or they would ruin your appetite."

"Aren't I lucky, having all these nice big brothers!"

He laughs hard enough blood flows out of his nose again, but it doesn't hurt at all.

Chapter Text

Late August is hard on poetry – most sunflowers still push their black centers towards the sky, the chirping of cicadas is deafening, and sweat beads and rolls down Kasen's cheeks. Horikawa Kunihiro has brought him a small teapot and a tall glass full of ice, something that also still tastes too much like summer. And it'd be vulgar, to write about that. It's kind of an embarrassing thing because he thought he'd hate to do that to good tea, drowning the taste in sugar and water, but he ended up liking it.

Maybe Horikawa will bright some snacks later. That's isn't a vulgar thought, because Horikawa enjoys taking care of people, and Kasen's ankle is still recovering from a slip in the battlefield. And food, even the kind one has to take out of brightly colored packaging, is autumnal enough for the page.

Kasen takes a sip of his iced tea and sighs.

(All his poems about spring turned... into something else.

He didn't exactly remember the peonies the most, from that outing to the mountains. The heavy rain on the dark red was lovely and it managed to mostly respect his ink and papers, even though the pen was too humid to write – but once Kasen got to the room, he could only think on Yamabushi's arm around his shoulder, when he rushed them both into that shed, and on how he cared more about covering Kasen's papers and pens than sheltering himself from the rain. On the sudden revelation of the color of his skin, rougher and tanner than Kasen expected, full of small scars that ran, pale pink, over his red tattoos. On the slow trickling of rainwater down the dip of his spine.

Those images were too bright to write on paper. They had too many lines, like thick strokes in a callygraphed word, that Kasen couldn't hope to reproduce.)

"Kasen!"

Yamabushi comes with his arms full of hydrangeas.

At the end of summer, the faded white and pink of their blossoms has deepened and become rich and red like the blood that flows into Kasen's face when he sees him. He tries to stand up and winces a bit when his ankle complains.

"Please do not force yourself to move, Kasen," says Yamabushi when he reaches up to him.

Kasen slides the tray with the tea so that Yamabushi can leave the flowers, guided by instinct more than by thought. Bunched up like that, with stems and leaves and all, they look as if Yamabushi just brought him the whole bush.

"What... Sorry, I, I do appreciate them, thank you!" Even those small words feel harder to compose than songs. "I just don't... understand?"

"Oh, I apologize, I should have told you," Yamabushi explains. "My brother Horikawa has mentioned that you had trouble with artistic inspiration, as you can't walk around the gardens or the mountain right now. I remembered our time with the peonies last month, and I brought flowers to you – the peonies have died, but I hope these will suffice?"

The round clusters of petals of the hydrangeas feel heavier and fuller than the whole world and they gather like that, at his side, by Yamabushi's side. They don't bring inspiration to his hands, however. Kasen's hands, small and delicate, can't hold all that yet – maybe some day, he hopes, but right now they're enough to grip on Yamabushi's shoulder while he's still crouching by his side.

It's as if the flowers are pushing them together. Yamabushi's breath is still a bit labored, and when Kasen touches his shoulders he turns to him – it's so hard, to hold level with those eyes and that mouth, those lips like apple skin.

"It... does suffice!," Kasen says. The flowers frame Yamabushi. "They must, they must have inspired you, too! They're... really well chosen. I will show you the fruits of your inspiration soon enough!"

That line is crooked even outside of the paper, and Kasen laughs flatly.

"You flatter me," Yamabushi answers. "But this is payment enough."

Yamabushi takes one of his hands – and then, like a god, strong as the summer sun that insists on shining even off season, delicate like the soft shuffling of the leaves by their side, then Yamabushi brings Kasen's hand to his lips and how sweet, how warm!, Kasen can feel the drops of sweat on Yamabushi's lips on his knuckles, and the poor words born from the hydrangeas bursts like fireworks into confessions he can't let go yet.

Chapter Text

Ichigo undresses in front of the alcove like a moving framed picture. His arms intersect with the beams of the room: deep brown cut by white; then, by a shallow weak red, by scars that look stitched on and don't fade, and then by white again when his hand moves to fold his shirt.

Ichigo has his back turned to him. Mikazuki shouldn't be looking.

"I'm afraid the clothing I have is not your style, Ichigo," he says. "We will have to bear with you being less gallant for an afternoon."

"As long as I can move comfortably, I don't really mind... Sorry, I shouldn't be saying that. You're lending me something, I can't be choosy, right?"

Those rights of his are always worded like genuine questions. Ichigo's eyes are the color of foreign tea and they have a similar effect in him – they're too strong, they're missing some bitterness and edge. He tests along the lines of niceness in a way Mikazuki couldn't bear to do.

He's too careful. He comes across too strongly. There's something almost animalistically unguarded and innocent about him, something uglily young.

(Correct me and complain more. Relax your back. Don't ask for permission before entering my room – or at least act as if you already know the answer.

Yes, yes, always.)

"That's right," Mikazuki laughs. "But don't let anyone else help you with this, okay, Ichigo? At least not until you learn to get angry at Tsurumaru."

Ichigo has been living for a week and knows the taste of blood only in theory, he should hope. Mikazuki thinks one only learns actual anger in battle. When Ichigo's little brothers ruined his clothes with mud and dead leaves, he laughed and held them close – and Mikazuki can not have anything against that, can he? Laughter in the gardens is a familiar thing, even if it is too loud and it is shaky and interrupted by small screams.

(Maybe soon it will turn deep and low and gentle. It it does not, then it does not. The memory of it is a privilege and he should not resent it.)

Ichigo accepts the clothing Mikazuki lent him and dresses quickly. His arms and hands seem to recognize the fabric: they don't fumble with the fastenings like the did with zippers and buttons, they move seamlessly like they would with the clothes he first manifested in. The broken white of Mikazuki's spare kimono covers the ugly parts of Ichigo's skin as well as the parts Mikazuki knew, and the cotton falls off his shoulders on his sides like a broken wing.

With his uniform, Ichigo looked small and tall at the same time. His figure was too thin and exposed, like the inner layer of a tree trunk, black as if turned to coal. His gaze was frank, however, easy to read – when they saw each other for the first time, something wavered in his pupils, and his smile faltered but only for a second; a passing cloud Mikazuki could ignore.

With his clothes, he looks...

"Aren't they comfortable?," Mikazuki asks. "They're a little like the ones we wear to bed. Easy to move in, very breezy."

Ichigo lifts an arm, artfully holding onto the sleeve.

"Well," he says. "It's just for a day."

Mikazuki smiles and puts his drawers in order again, and waves to the children that come to his room unannounced. Yagen offers him a little apologetic nod, but Akita and Gokotai pay him no mind.

"Big bro is all good now," says Ichigo. "But these clothes, we can't get dirty, okay?"

Mikazuki thinks he talks to them a little condescendingly, that they are not really kids so they can handle a man talking in the first person – but their faces light up, and Mikazuki can understand the relief and fullfilment of playing pretend with Ichigo better than anyone.

He thanks him again before going, and Mikazuki sighs like a lonely lover at dawn.

Chapter Text

The exchange of business cards is strictly professional (hard to make it otherwise with someone so tall): the photographer's card is sleek white and his name is stitched in a round, easy to read typeface.

"Is Tomoe your surname?," Yoshiyuki asks, and he keeps his words firmly on the correct ladder of formality, but his tone is always too chipper. Well, people like that. "My card is from the agency, by the way. Just in case you want someone else after this shot."

"Tomoe is my surname."

The photographer has a very matter-of-fact way of speaking. That's what catches Yoshiyuki's attention, because he otherwise looks like any other photographer: colored hair like fresh paint, round-rimmed glasses and the shiny, proud countenance of a diamond on an early wedding band.

(Yoshiyuki likes them, in general, really! But nervousness has this habit of turning cold and growing into non-chalance, and Tomoe reminds him of that, of a first meeting.)

When he tries to scribble his telephone on another spare card, Tomoe rejects him, mentioning that that would be "hardly professional", and Yoshiyuki crosses his fingers three times so that they can meet again.

 

***

They meet again.

A couple times more, actually.

Tomoe can crane the spotlights with one hand, like he's petting a big dog, without having to leave the camera – his arms are long and can reach high. He tells Yoshiyuki to tilt his head so you look a bit less friendly, but to keep his hands as relaxed as he can on the chair because otherise you'd look tense. He's careful with details and fiddles with them in silence and Yoshiyuki feels like a small bird in a nest that's still being finished, when he touches up props around him, lifts brown flowers to his hair to compare color, adjusts the shade of the lightbulbs. He fixes Yoshiyuki's hair without a shadow of shame and looks at him so directly it's almost embarrassing.

"You shouldn't comb it so much, I will tell the make-up team. It looks so unnatural; that isn't good in a male model."

In the fabricated darkness of the studio, Tomoe's hair looks pleasantly dull, and his square cheekbones and chin get lines so bold he looks like a comic character, all black and colored ink in the shape of a person. Yoshiyuki looks at him framed by the bits of hair he just freed.

He looks so nice behind the camera, he should be in front of it.

That thought must seep into his words, since Tomoe does accept his telephone number this time. He lifts his eyebrows, but the rim of his glasses is so exaggerated they stay under it, almost shyly.

 

***

 

"How come you took up photography, Tomoe?"

Tomoe doesn't talk much about himself – he asks questions like he gives orders in the shoots, directly and quickly, his camera exchanged for a tall cup of coffee. And then, he listens intently.

(So intently, Yoshiyuki feels like he's taking his clothes off for him, like in a dirty rumour. He tells him about his history degree on the side and every grade he's proud of shines under Tomoe's attention like a button undone under a soft orange lamp. He tells him about his boss and the innocent, spirited anecdotes take the laughter out of him in bouts small as the empty holes on a belt. He mentions an old crush – Tomoe, then, says he doesn't have a lot of experience.)

"It helps me learn," he says. "If I can have something fixed still, I can look at it for long, and think about every detail." Yoshiyuki blinks. Tomoe, in silence, takes a sip from his coffee. "I normally shoot landscapes. With people, it's better if you do it in person and ask questions."

Yoshiyuki has a camera and some manuals at home, since neither his looks or his degrees can sustain him for long. When Tomoe leaves, he takes a shot of him with his cellphone, and Tomoe smiles while waving goodbye.

Chapter Text

 

Ishikirimaru avoids the kitchen, ironically.

Nikkari asks him about it, once, his head resting on his wide shoulder – it is rude to talk to someone without meeting their eyes, Kasen tells him all the time, but it should be alright if it is just the two of them. Nikkari has realized intimacy allows for a comfortable disdain of certain rules.

"I prefer eating to cooking," Ishikirimaru answers and laughs, shaking lightly like a flowervase during a earthquake. "Didn't you say you liked that, Aoe?"

"Oh, I think the man I go to bed with has better qualities."

"I meant watching me eat!"

(It was an odd sort of confession. As casual as a sentence can be when it floats from someone resting his chin on his hands and someone who can barely hold a bowl, his arm ruined and fresh stitching still burning on his face like mountain fire. As casual a sentence can be when tone is too high and breath is short.

"I love watching you eat, Ishikirimaru. Can I ask that you don't take that pleasure from me?"

And it was almost a miracle, how meaning could be taken from that. Ishikirimaru brushed the hair away from Nikkari's face and promised to kiss him when he wasn't hurt anymore, with those vague and comforting pronouns.)

The conversation dies before it even truly starts. Words are short-lived, when their mouths are so close – they barely have any distance to cover and be misunderstood. And neither of them is the talking sort, so dull chatter at night always melts into kisses into empty dreams.

And when Nikkari wakes up, he finds himself cold and alone. He runs both hands through his hair and sighs and stretches awake, but does not bother standing up yet. Ishikirimaru wakes with the sun. Nikkari, since he is a creature of darkness, can afford lazing around for a bit, at least until the day Ishikirimaru's light seeps into his bones completely and turns him industrious and wakeful like an old soldier.

Oh, the cloying sentimentality of spring seems to have got him already, however. He should move and shake it off.

He is opening the windows to let new sun and air in when Ishikirimaru slides the door – for a second, Nikkari has the impulse of pulling the flaps of his yukata more close, as if he has anything to hide, and realizes that maybe he is interiorizing some of the rules Kasen idolizes.

Ishikirimaru carries a tray with him and gestures to Nikkari so that he sits down on the futon again. When he joins him, he sets the tray between them, and while Nikkari could smell everything from the door seeing the food is both an incredible discovery and a slight disappointment.

Having no particular taste for presentation, Ishikirimaru's breakfast looks plain, a dull mix of greens and browns and whites against the black and red lacquer of the bowls and chopsticks. There is two of everything and Nikkari looks from the food to Ishikirimaru's face, openly embarrassed and proud.

"You made this?"

Usually, good morning is nothing more than knuckles brushing his cheek or lips against his temple.

"I wanted to show you that I do, indeed, have a lot of qualities apart from eating well."

Nikkari grins – then, he cannot help the laughter, that comes from his nose at first and then almost erupts. Ishikirimaru blinks but his expression does not change, and it is truly a shame! Because that is also a quality, how his face becomes lovely and open when he just woke up, reflecting every variation of his mood into wrinkles at the sides of his mouth or his eyes.

And eating like that is eating like the first time, flavors intense and wrong. Nikkari catches Ishikirimaru staring at him sometimes, too.

"I thought this was not something us weapons should do," he says, and his words are light and healing like a pill on the tongue. "And I think I am not too good at it yet."

Nikkari drinks his soup slowly. It has a cloudy sort of taste, delicate and bitter like the air in their room after a storm, and it warms him up just the same.

"You should not worry about that," he says. Ishikirimaru, fortunately, does not look up from his plate. "We have all the time in the world."

To fit into those nice human molds, he thinks, while keeping their own shape.

Chapter Text

The room smells like a grave after the rain: of leaves and water, of incense ash turned into mud.

And the first memory he recalls, regains, goes:

a blade cutting into the space between his ribs

a blade cutting through his ribs

then nothing.

Well, he remembers the bubbling taste of blood on his tongue, rust going up his teeth and down his chin. If all bodies break down the same, that's a relief, he thought, that's something he can understand easily.

Yasusada closes his eyes. His hands are almost uncomfortably aware of the fabric of the bedding that covers him. There is so much white around him. White, and the comfort of dark wood breaking into it in the breams of the ceiling. There is too much white around him so he lets the things he remembers flow again into him, finding their space in the corners of him. The body is supposed to remember everything, right? Maybe he will always feel that foreign steel in him, even if his skin is all nice and smooth now.

His body will remember dying and coming back and his body suddenly makes him remember Kiyomitsu's hands, firmly on his shoulders.

"Yasusada, look at me. Look at me. Yasu."

His arms twitch a lot in battle, they do, filled to the brim with years on years of reflecting about fighting. A sword alone cannot move, but Yasusada quickly understands how to pull himself, itself, his weight of steel, with the new soft shapes of his human muscle; too quickly, maybe, it's a blur of slashed and slashing monsters and creaking tatami and sliding doors and ascending, descending stairs. Now, then Kiyomitsu grounded him.

He grounds him.

You need that to stop. A hand that wasn't his. On his shoulders and then on his elbows and then on his hands, on his handle.

"Yasusada? Come on, breathe with me."

That comes naturally to them. The air goes in, the air goes out and Kiyomitsu's face came into focus at the fourth exhalation, which was louder and almost vocal, like a sigh of relief.

"I'm okay," he said. "Sorry."

"Don't apologize," Kiyomitsu didn't sound pushy. "Just make sure I don't have to come with you every time, alright? Master will have me babying you until you learn to handle a bit of blood."

"I can handle that!"

He said that, he did, he remembers.

He doesn't have Kiyomitsu in that room that smells like a funeral and looks like a snowstorm but he can also remember the rise and fall of his chest, and he imitates it until the air doesn't hiss anymore while passing between his teeth.

 

Yasusada dresses himself like the first time he was manifested, with borrowed knowledge. It's so silent in that side of the citadel it feels like he's the only person left on the planet, but his own legs are telling him to leave that room once he's done, as quickly as he can. The air is heavy with something, there. It sticks to him, and he bows deeply at the door so it understands he is leaving and it recoils into the corners again. Whatever it is, it slowly drips off him while he walks into the living quarters of the building and by the time he's hearing voices it's not with him anymore.

He can't remember what was the first thing that came to mind in the healing rooms anymore. Some kind of itch at his side, maybe, a sore muscle after sleeping in a weird position.

The first person Yasusada sees is Kiyomitsu. He's lazily tying down a strip of colored fabric at his shoulders, to hold his sleeves in place – Yasusada realizes it's still early morning, and the air is still crisp. He sees his reflection on Kiyomitsu's mirror. Kiyomitsu must have, too.

"I'm back from the expedition!," Yasusada says, quick like a spring. There's some sort of weird catch at his throat.

Kiyomitsu turns and stands up and pulls him into a hug that hurts, it hurts because it's too tight and close and because Kiyomitsu is digging his nails into his shoulder; he moves a bit and his closed fist digs on Yasusada's back, his fingers pull at his hair. Kiyomitsu's sleeves flap at his sides, untied.

"You...! God," Those are different sentences, different pieces of a sentence. They're interrumpted by a small hiccup. "I wish I could hold anything against you, you idiot. You, you, you...! Yasusada. Yasu. Yasu."

Kiyomitsu's words trickle down broken and punctuaded by quiet sobs, and Yasusada brings his arms to his shoulders – Kiyomitsu does something like a short whine and twists the bits of Yasusada's clothes he can get a hang of.

He didn't think much of it. It's alright if they hurt you in battle, as long as you keep the blade safe, had said Master when Yasusada had met her the first time. He hasn't seen her much, after that, but he has taken those words to heart.

It's alright, it can be fixed. It was fixed, wasn't it.

Kiyomitsu's elbows push painfully against his ribs – they hurt worse on the left side, for some reason.

"I'm okay," Yasusada says, again. "I'm sorry."