Kousetsu knew that he should have said early-on that Souza's plan had not worked, instead of allowing him to feel strengthened by the assumption that it had. However, he had chosen to wait for a time when his brother seemed more settled into his new life, and hopefully would accept the news a bit better.
He had decided the previous evening that he would explain the past during their early morning walk with Sayo. They would be away from others, and it would give Souza time to deal with the information throughout the day, instead of being forced to think about it fresh in the deep darkness of a lonely night.
The first cycle of the planet's sun had yet to start as they slowly wandered down a path that lined the main road near the orphanage. The soft blue glow that was given off by the final hour of the double-moons gave them plenty of light to see their way, and provided a refreshing coolness during their walk.
As they reached the end of their outward bound walk, the three turned around together, heading back to the garden where they started. Once Sayo had run ahead of them again, Kousetsu simply stated that the past was not what Souza believed it to be.
“What do you mean?” Souza stopped in the middle of the pathway. The tone of his brother's voice told him that this was not something he wanted to hear.
“Your efforts to save us, didn't work.” Kousetsu's eyes followed their younger brother as he wandered into a side patch of wild flowers.
Souza stood frozen as a cold chill ran through his body. Instantly his mind recalled the agreement he had made with Anu Gandou to join his court for the price of his brothers' freedom.
“But...they told me...”
“They lied, Souza,” Kousetsu couldn't make it sound any less harsh. “One week after I paid the final part of the false debt, just before we were to return here, the conscription army arrived. I had the proof that the debt had been paid fully. But they refused to accept it. The only concession I could get was to be allowed to keep Osayo with me instead of him being sent to a government camp. I agreed to take care of him myself with whatever I was given and to fight on his behalf.”
Souza let his brother to take his arm, guiding him down the path again.
“How long?” His voice sounded strained.
“I was able to fulfill both our obligations in six years.”
“How did you...” Souza knew the usual conscription contract was five years. However, if one was willing to return a portion of their meager earnings, and not take breaks, the time could be diminished. In order for two contracts, ten years, to be fulfilled, Kousetsu must have sacrificed every extra moment and earning he could. Again he felt a cold chill run through his body. Everything from what had been a beautiful morning, now seemed marred.
“It's in the past. We are safe, and finally all together again. That's all that matters.” Kousetsu tried to give his brother a positive point to focus on.
No, it wasn't all that mattered. Souza had already worked himself into a frenzy of questions, the foremost being related to Hasebe.
“If Sayo didn't have to fight, how does he know how to fight? And why is he considered a part of Hasebe's raid team?”
“I spent so much time fighting, I didn't see that he was harboring resentment for you leaving. As the years passed, he developed a mindset of revenge on those who took you away. I had hoped, that when we returned here and could start over, he would be able to let go, but that wasn't the case. He insisted on taking all the fighting classes at the academy and became very good. Hasebe came to me after he had seen Sayo during a demonstration day.”
“And you let him just take Sayo?” Souza stopped again, his voice elevating, not believing his brother could allow this after all the two had been through.
“No. At first I refused to let him go. However, I eventually realized that if I continued to hold him back, it might make his feelings worse. So, I allowed him to go on some missions, the ones that Hasebe assured were lower risk.”
Sayo appeared in front of Souza, handing him a collection of pink and white flowers, just as he did every walk. He looked down at small bouquet, trying to keep himself calm for his younger brother's sake.
“Thank you, Sayo.”
Souza refrained from asking any further questions in front their brother. Sayo seemed content and he wanted to keep it that way. Arriving at the orphanage garden, the Samonji brothers exchanged a few last words before leaving each other.
Walking the path that Sayo usually took when he came for a visit, Souza felt as if he was going to be sick. The usually sweet scent of the morning made him ill and the sounds around him suddenly felt deafening. This wasn't how it was supposed to be. By the time he was in the palace, his mind was filled with a heavy load of thoughts and the feeling of having failed his brothers.
Passing through the last hallway to his room, he saw a familiar figure walking towards him. His eyes remained focused on the approaching man, meeting him at the spot where the hallways connected near their rooms.
“Souza, you look unwell. You should go see Domo.” Hasebe frowned at the pale face that had lost the healthy glow it had developed over the past weeks.
“Hasebe, you knew about my brothers' past.” Souza stated curtly, disregarding his concern.
“Yes.” So, Kousetsu told him. This explained the fragile look of the man facing him.
“Yet you said nothing to me about it, even after I remarked on that first night in the field how relieved I was that I had been able to see them.” A blend of irritation and aggressiveness could be heard in his voice.
“It wasn't my place to say anything.”
“But it was your place to take a teenager on dangerous missions even knowing his past?”
Hasebe looked at the tired eyes, knowing that he had to be careful with what he said next. Souza was on an emotional slide and anything that was said might be taken the wrong way, and could set him back to the being closed-off man who had arrived weeks before.
“I know you are hurting now, Souza; but trust me, it is possible...”
“Trust you?” Souza's brows lowered in controlled anger, “For what? You don't even know how it feels to have years of your life taken away by a lie. The comforting words that you told yourself to get through the days of hell being naught in reality.”
Hasebe realized he had made a mistake and said too much.
“You are right. There is no reason for you to trust me.” He agreed, “I must get ready for the day, so excuse me.”
Opening his door, he turned back to see Souza looking at him with a surprised face. If it were possible to continue the conversation, he would; but at this point, it seemed that leaving him alone to his own thoughts was probably best.
“Word of advice, if you don't want Kasen to mother you all day because he is worried, you should consider making sure you attend meals and try to hold some sort of conversation with him.”
The door to Hasebe's room shut with a click, leaving Souza standing alone. The manner in which the captain had responded to his snapping words had been unexpected. Not that he was even sure what he thought he might hear. How was the man even supposed to respond to something so presumptuous?
His day was only a couple hours old and it had already become a mess. What was he supposed to do now? Entering his room, he sunk down to the floor and buried his head into his arms.
Walking through the street to the Tanboro office, Nagasone wondered how the day was going to go with their visitors. Keeping in mind what Hachisuka had told him previously about the humans, he hoped they would manage with no major incidents.
“Okay guys,” He spoke as soon as he entered the office, “Everyone needs to get ready to spend the day out in the town.”
“What are we doing Nagasone?” Horikawa was eager to have an actual assignment.
“Hasebe and Shokudaikiri are bringing some of the human adults to town today so they can become familiar with the area. We need to be out there making sure everything goes smoothly.”
“What exactly are we supposed to do?” Yasusada wanted more instruction.
“Just circulate your assigned patrols, watch for anything that might be a potential problem; keep things under control.”
“Is this going to be all day?” Izuminokami asked.
“A good part of it, yeah. They plan to bring them in two groups to help manage everything better.”
“Morning!” Urashima stepped into the room carrying a large box, “I brought pastries from the Sparrow's Nest.”
Everyone surrounded the teen, grabbing a pastry before settling back in their seats.
“Urashima, shouldn't you be in class?” Horikawa inquired while handing a napkin to his partner.
“Not today. The Academy is closed until the new children can be sorted into classes. Headmaster Hitofuri and the head professors will be talking to them this afternoon, so we get extra days off. I'm going to hang out with you guys.” He explained happily.
“We're gonna be out though.” Kiyomitsu mumbled from his usual corner.
“Can I go too, Nagasone-nii-chan?” The bright face beamed at his brother.
“Yeah, that should be fine. You can go with Kiyomitsu and Yasusada.” At least until Hachisuka finds out, Nagasone thought with amusement.
“Mmm, maybe in the afternoon, I need to see how things are gonna work first.”
Pleased with the answer he received, Urashima grabbed the last pastry and found a chair near his older brother, listening intently as Nagasone gave instructions to everyone.
Ookurikara eyed the man sitting across from him. Although they were friends, any time Tsurumaru visited he felt he had to be watchful of the man.
“Why didn't Ichigo come to me with this request?” He asked.
“Oh, he wanted to,” Tsurumaru replied, “I just asked to take his place because I haven't seen you in a while.”
“There's a reason for that.”
“Aw, Karabou, why do you act like this.”
“You know the answer to that, too.”
“Ookurikara,” Kogarasumaru stopped by the table, “This was just delivered for you.” He held out a small envelope, leaving as quietly as he had arrived.
The brooding dark-haired man sipped his coffee as he read the first page of the note, appreciating that Ichigo would anticipate his concerns regarding Tsurumaru being a messenger. Flipping the paper across the table to his guest, he took a bite of his breakfast while perusing the second page.
“Ah ha, well surprise! Ichigo doesn't trust me to deliver his request properly.” Tsurumaru had an entertained look on his face.
“Yeah, surprise.” Ookurikara muttered back, “So when does he want this done?”
“The Academy will close for the next week to make accommodations to move the human children into the classes. Can you do it in that time?”
“Yeah.” Folding the list, he leaned back in his chair to place it in his pants pocket.
Tsurumaru smiled as if he was hiding a secret. He wasn't, but he liked the wary look that Ookurikara would give him after a few minutes, as if anticipating a prank. Sometimes, not surprising the man, was the best surprise of all.
While his new friends Oodenta and Sohayanotsurugi walked a few steps in front of him, Otegine fell to the back of the group that was following Shokudaikiri and Hasebe into the main town for their first visit. The allocation he had been given to use for personal purchases jingled in his pocket, notably lighter than the coinage he had on Earth. They had been told that they had enough to purchase new clothes along with other things that would make them feel more at home. Since he was content in the small room that he now shared with Nihongou, he needed only the clothes and a pair of new boots. The rest of his money would be saved in order to move out on his own as soon as he could.
Looking around the area, he enjoyed the vast amount of trees and water he could see. The area to one side of the road was a large field of deep green grass that seemed to have a bit of a blue hue to it. The field was bordered by a line of trees that appeared to be many shades of red and pink, and maybe a bit of purple. From this distance he couldn't tell if the colored portions were leaves or blossoms, but the effect was pretty either way. The opposite side of the road held only the same colored grass until it met another road. Past this second road, he could see wildflowers and more trees. This view was a nice contrast to the beige sand and monotone colored foliage he was used to. He could see himself enjoying living here, even if only for the scenery. If the people in town were like the ones he had already met, he would most likely stay here, even if the others moved on to different places.
In town, after a brief explanation of the layout, the group was given a couple of hours to explore and were to meet at the Crow's Nest where they would be able to have lunch. Everyone disbursed fairly quickly leaving the three friends standing together, looking around, until Oodenta found the place he wanted to go.
“They have a library. I'm going to spend my time there.” He stated, “You going anywhere Sohayano?”
“I'll just come with you as long as you give me time to buy some new clothes.” The blond answered.
In agreement, and sure Otegine was fine on his own, they headed straight for the library.
With nothing to do except look for a place to buy clothes and boots, Otegine wandered slowly around town looking at all the shops. He was intrigued by the wide variety of items available in the shops, especially the types of clothes. After a visit to several shops, he had made his purchases and all that was left to do was to find some suitable footwear.
Standing in front of a shop window, he slowly tapped a bag against his leg as he looked at the boots and shoes lined up in neat rows. Even the most plain boots looked much fancier than his and not practical for the type of work he expected to be doing. Maybe he should consider shoes instead, although those looked uncomfortable as well. Squinting through the window he tried to see further options and when that yielded little help, he decided to enter into the shop.
As he was about to open the door, a hand reached out and tapped him on his arm.
“Follow me.” Ookurikara tipped his head and walked past him, not waiting for an answer. He knew the man would follow him just as he had at the barracks.
“Oh, sure.” Otegine smiled, relieved to meet someone he knew. Following quietly he found himself led down a side road that held smaller businesses.
“Here.” The quiet brunette stopped, pointing at the door, “They have good work boots.”
“Ah, thanks! I never would have found this place on my own.”
“I'll wait here.”
“Okay. Be back shortly.” Otegine entered the shop and was immediately talking to the shopkeeper.
Ookurikara sat on the railing watching through the large window. He could see short, wild strands of hair moving as the head was bobbing up and down, which meant that the Otegine was smiling. There was something oddly intriguing about the human, and even though he hadn't wanted to be friends with him, the affable man was one of the few people he didn't mind being around.
Once Otegine had purchased his boots, the two men ate lunch at the Crow's Nest, where Ookurikara brought up his job offer. He had already checked with Shokudaikiri to make sure he could hire him, and now explained what needed to be done. Once the offer had been accepted, he tried to provide more information, but found himself continually interrupted. First it was Kogarasumaru who came by to introduce himself, spending time in a conversation that appeared to delight both of them very much. Then Jiroutachi came with their food, and also introduced himself in his very effervescent manner that caught the attention of those around them. The final interruption was the appearance of Otegine's two friends, who joined them at the table. Feeling crowded, Ookurikara left the group saying he would come by the barracks early in the morning to get his new helper.
“Well that was a nice group. I don't think humans are so bad now.” Yasusada flopped down onto his seat in the office, adjusting his position to be able to see everyone.
“Yep,” Izuminokami leaned back in his chair, “They're a really nice quiet group. Don't know what we were so worried about.”
“Always good to be on guard, Kane-san. It's impossible to know how they might act. They might have become scared and panicked and do something rash.” Kunihiro sat next to him, visually inspecting what appeared to be a hole in his partner's tunic.
“Yeah, but it was still a piece of cake.”
“Oh, cake!” Urashima liked the idea of having another sweet, looking over at his brother expectantly, he offered to go, “I can run to the bakery to get some for us!”
“Hachisuka wouldn't approve; besides, we had pastries this morning.” He tried not to make eye contact with his little brother, knowing he would give in if he did so.
“But, Nagasone nii-chan, you had pastries for breakfast and dinner yesterday. Hachisuka nii-chan probably wouldn't approve of that either!”
Nagasone made a small groan, glancing around at the others in the office. He had been trapped by his own brother, and really didn't plan on letting this escalate any further. Pulling some coins out of his pocket he handed them to the wily, and grinning, orange-haired teen.
“Get enough for everyone. Tell Azuki I'll make up the difference if you owe anything.”
“Yeah!” Urashima rejoiced as he grabbed a pencil and paper. Once he had made a list for what everyone wanted, he quickly disappeared out the door on his errand.
“You're such a good brother, Nagasone NII-chan. ” Kiyomitsu smirked at him.
“Of course I am,” Nagasone retorted before abruptly changing the subject, “Now, about the next group, Hasebe said they would bring them in about an hour and a half. We'll use the same plan as before, but don't get lax just because we had such an easy morning.”
Souza spent the afternoon in his room, trying to let go of the cold feeling he still held in his heart. Nothing that he told himself seemed to make a dent in the pain he felt at failing. If he stayed with his brothers, he could have been useful to Kousetsu, not giving him the burden to carry of having to protect Sayo alone. Not only that, but had he been a fool and lost years of his life; and if it hadn't been for the Queen, he might have remained a slave forever and never been reunited with his brothers.
Rolling over on his pillows he hid his face from the light coming through his window. It was blindingly bright today and hurt his eyes. Maybe he should cry, but then, he hadn't done this since the day their parents had died. Tears showed a weakness he could no longer afford at that time, and he willed himself to never let a single drop pass down his cheeks again. Now that it might be helpful, he wasn't even sure he could do it. Amid thoughts of his past and trying to cry, Souza slowly descended into a restless sleep under the warmth of the sun that invaded his room.
Nagasone ignored most of the people in the second group once they arrived. However, his attention had quickly been attracted to three specific men, all of whom where tall and stoutly built. He was glad he chose to send Urashima out with Kiyomitsu and Yasusada again, just in case they were troublesome. Eying the three strangers as they walked through town, he considered the dark, burgundy haired man to not be an issue. Rather, it was the two with him, one who was already looking for the nearest bar, and the other one talking about stripping. Those two were potential trouble, especially the white-haired one.
Tonbokiri wasn't sure it had been a good idea to have both Sengo and Nihongou in the same group considering that both of them liked to be loud. But of course, the captains had no idea about what the two of them were really like, especially his brother. This left him trying to keep both of them out of trouble, knowing it was going to take a lot of effort. It didn't help his concern that someone had been following them shortly after their group split up.
“I want a drink.” Nihongou declared again, looking around the street, “Surely there's a place that serves drinks around here.”
“We need to get clothes first, then we can go straight to that place the captains told us about.” Tonbokiri explained.
“Pffft, fine.” He scanned the area for a clothes shop so they can move on to getting some alcohol.
“I don't need clothes, Tonbo; I am best without anythi...” Sengo was cut short by his brother giving him an exasperated look.
“Sengo, we talked about this, you can't be saying things like that on your first day here.”
“You talked about it Tonbokiri. I just listened.”
“Mehhhh, let's just go get the clothes.” Nihongou was ready to get this over, “You can strip in your room.”
Sengo didn't necessarily care for the idea, but with two against one he gave in, remaining dressed and quieting down his soliloquies on stripping, at least for a little while.
Within an hour they had clothes and were sitting in The Crow's Nest, waiting for their meals to be delivered and talking about parts of the town they had managed to see. Nihongou already had his first drink, and content with the way it tasted, had told the server to bring refills often.
Sengo was tugging at his shirt, drawing his brother's attention.
“Sengo. Not in here.”
“I'm just going to take off my shirt. Although, I really should just take everything off.”
“Oh, that sounds delightfully entertaining,” Kogarasumaru appeared next to him, “I'm sorry my establishment is not prepared for something such as this.
“Huhu, no preparations are needed for stripping! Let me show you.” Sengo started to unbutton his shirt as Tonbokiri grabbed his hand under the table.
“Please excuse my brother.” He apologized.
“It's fine.” The owner smiled graciously across the table, “I'm sure your brother is just happy to share.”
“Please don't encourage him.”
“I do have lots of talents under my clothes.” Sengo agreed proudly.
“So do I.” Kogarasumaru replied back to him in a smooth tone, “But this place is not the best for revealing them all.”
“Can I join?” Another voice asked.
“Ah, Nagasone, you're just in time for introductions.”
Tonbokiri recognized the man as the one who had been following them. He hoped that his brother's actions hadn't caused a problem.
“Take a seat.” Nihongou nodded to the empty chair next him, holding up his empty glass just as his next drink was delivered.
“Here you are!” Jiroutachi set a new drink on the table, “Nice and cold like you wanted!” He grabbed the empty glass, lyrically responding to a nearby table that he would be right there.
“Yeaaahhh...” He swallowed several gulps, “Paaaaahhh. Good stuff. I'm Nihongou.” He introduced himself without looking up.
The rest of the men at the table made their own introductions, and after a few comments, Kogarasumaru left to greet others who had come in.
“What can we do for you?” Nihongou asked Nagasone between drinks.
“Nothing, just thought I would meet you.”
“You followed us all through town.” He pointed out, setting his glass on the table.
“It's my job to keep everyone safe, you're just the ones who piqued my interest.” Nagasone answered.
“Stripping isn't dangerous. I would be delighted to show everyone there's nothing to be afraid of.” Sengo interjected.
“Sengo.” Tonbokiri's called him down, “I don't think you're helping.”
“Don't worry, we won't cause problems.” Nihongou assured him.
“Alright. I'll take your word for it.” He quietly hoped he didn't regret saying that. “Just remember that I don't like to be troubled.”
“Got it...Now, can you tell me what kind of alcohol this is? It doesn't taste like what I had on earth, but I really like it.”
Nagasone was happy to explain about their version of what the humans called beer, especially since he enjoyed it quite a bit himself. By the time Hasebe and Shokudaikiri arrived to escort everyone back to the palace grounds, Nagasone had decided the three men were good fun, and had already promised to teach them how to play Shadow King some time in the future.
Souza left his room and walked quietly to the bathing room. Since the first day he had come to the palace, he had bathed alone late at night after everyone else was done. At first, it was simply because he hadn't been able to do this for years. Now it was because he wanted to hide the mark of his first owner. It was large and noticeable, on the left side of his chest; and although there was a time when he flaunted it as a something important, in reality it only served as a reminder that he was once a slave.
Finished with his shower, he waded into the large bath, going to his usual spot against the side. He leaned his head back, closing his eyes, wishing he could start the day over without having to hear what Kousetsu had told him.
Hasebe had watched Souza from the moment he had entered the bath area. He had heard about the mark, and hadn't expected it to be so large; yet, aside from the trauma it must have been for the man who was forced to live with it, there was nothing unpleasant about seeing it. The only thing that seemed to startle him was how heavily burdened the thin-framed man appeared to be. There was no proud stance of square shoulders and a lifted chin; these had been replaced by a look of defeat, with a slumped body and downcast head. Now he was glad that he had chosen to come speak with him in the baths. At first it seemed to be a bit under-handed to wait for Souza to appear in an effort to talk to him. But this was the only place where he could have a chance to say what he thought needed to be heard. There was the inevitable risk that this could back-fire on him, but he thought this was his best opportunity at getting through the wall that Souza had put up.
“Five years, three months, twenty-seven days.”
Souza froze as he heard the words emanate from the shadowed corner nearest him. Why was Hasebe here? He could feel his heart pounding and wanted to leave, yet there was no way he could do that without making a scene.
“Five years? For what?” His could barely form the words, only forcing himself to do so in order to try to sound normal and calm.
“Five years, three months, twenty-seven days,” Hasebe repeated. “That's how long I had to serve in Anu Gandou's conscription army.”
“Oh.” Souza felt his stomach turn, recalling his remark earlier that morning. He had assumed that Hasebe had grown up in or near the palace as the others had, being privileged with an easy life.
“I wasn't even given the choice of being there,” The voice from the shadows went on, “In fact, the whole reason I was in Tarcqa in the first place was to please my father. I had apprenticed myself to a man he had a very high opinion of after seeing the wealth the man had obtained from such a small business. The apprenticeship was to be for six years. I would work my way up from the bottom, and be able to learn how to do everything at each level. But my father had no way of knowing that the great riches the man had came from gambling, and not his business. Eight months into my agreement, the man gambled away everything; this included my contract, which ended up being sold to the conscription army since the man who won the agreement didn't need an apprentice.”
Hasebe took a breath, running his hand through his hair. Not hearing anything from Souza he continued.
“At first I was upset, but then I realized that this could all be in my favor since I had always wanted to serve in the military. I thought that if I could get my training through the conscription, then when I returned home I could apply to the academy fully prepared; and for a while things worked well. I made it into the Anu's first unit and worked my way up. He constantly told me how sharp and strong I was, which flattered me, so I worked even harder. Two years later, after our most successful campaign, I was suddenly sent to serve the remaining time on my contract under a general at a far outpost. It wasn't even a top general who had received honors or medals. To this day, I have no idea why I was sent there.”
“I'm sorry.” Souza didn't know what else to say.
“No need to be. I didn't tell you that to receive pity. I just wanted you to know that I do understand, to an extent, how you are feeling right now.” Hasebe stood up from his seat and stepped out of the bath, allowing water to drop off the towel tied around his waist.
“As I was saying this morning, it does hurt, but it can get better. You can choose to take your past and use it to strengthen your future, or you can let it destroy you. And although I really don't know you very well, you seem like the kind of person who is inwardly strong. So instead holding on to the fact that your plan didn't work as you had thought it would, you should see that it doesn't change the value of your sacrifice or love for your brothers.”
Hasebe walked away, having finished speaking. There was no need to wait for a reply since it wasn't his goal to have a discussion on either his advice or his past.
Souza stared at a spot in the water before him. Hasebe's last words had felt like cold water splashed onto his face; not a shocking splash, but rather the kind that felt cool and refreshing.
“Souza.” Hasebe had returned dressed in a robe, “One last thing, if the only reason you take your baths this late at night is to avoid others seeing your mark, you're being unfair both to yourself and those who have befriended you. No one cares about it other than if it brings you pain. They would rather see all of you, marks and all, than only the parts you think are pretty enough to be shared.”
Souza was soon left along again with his thoughts. He sat for a long time, letting what Hasebe had said sink in. Was it even a sacrifice? Although he had been essentially an owned possession, he had never had to kill anyone, or worry about food or shelter. This was the one part he could not agree on. However, the other two points, that he loved his brothers and he should use his past to make a better future, those made sense to him. He would have to work at this, since his past was all he knew, but he would try his best and maybe he could find the peace that Hasebe seemed to have found.
Standing in front of his room a while later, he glanced back at the door across the hall. The light was still on, which meant Hasebe was most likely awake. It would be a good idea to properly apologize for what he had said that morning, and to thank him for his advice. Yet, he couldn't bring himself to move in that direction, hesitant that he might make things worse.
Perhaps he could do it in the morning, by then, hopefully he could at least feel at peace with himself and his past choices.