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To the Stars

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Chapter 1: Fog

There were no stars tonight.

Acacia’s streets were lit only by dim kerosene lamps that glowed rather pathetically in the thick mist. The Kiri no Yoru, or Fog Night, blanketed the earthen streets like a wraith, cold and foreboding, hiding the dangers that lurked in the shadows. It was rarely this dark, Hoshimi Junna observed. Usually the stars were there, casting a soft light that helped her see, while in some fortunate situations even the moon would be there like a bright white mirror in the sky. Neither were present tonight and the darkness filled Junna with dread.

“Where were they last seen?” Aijou Karen asked as she flicked her sword. Though whether this was due to apprehension or excitement, Junna could not tell.

“They should be within the vicinity so please keep your guard up.”

“It’s awfully dark, don’t you think?” Tsuyuzaki Mahiru gripped her mace so tightly the angles of her knuckle bones were prominent enough to be seen.

Karen’s twin tails swung as she turned her head this way and that in order to survey their surroundings. “It’s okay, Mahiru-chan. I can see perfectly! I definitely won’t let those youkais get a jump at us. Besides, Junjun is also here and nothing will get past both of us.”

Junna frowned slightly, feeling that Karen’s faith was a little ill-placed given the situation. While she had no doubt in her ability to sense her surroundings, Junna was still worried that in this dense fog anything could happen. Moreover, their skill had more to do in seeing ki and less seeing youkai. After all, humans emitted a distinct wavelength of energy, while their foes absorbed ki. Youkai would simply look like dark voids in an already black backdrop.

Nevertheless, it was comforting to have Karen and Mahiru with her during this Fog Night. More often than not, they were deployed on their own or in pairs, but Junna supposed that after what had happened to Maya, it would be wise to be cautious. It was one thing to have one of the Hachi, the eight guardians of Acacia, out of commission, but to have the Tenkai unavailable during a Fog Night was especially worrisome. They were effectively without their top ranking warrior and leader.

Junna nearly jumped out of her skin when a resident’s child exclaimed from an open window, “Look, it’s them! The Hachi! Okaa-san, look!”

“Shh! Don’t bother them and close the windows. It’s dangerous!”

The three young women paused in their patrol, gripping their weapons even tighter than before.

“Hachi…” Mahiru spoke softly with worry thick in her voice.

Ever proud of their prestigious group, Karen stood akimbo and cracked a courageous grin, “They’re all depending on us! We shouldn’t let them down, Mahiru-chan, Junjun!”

Junna agreed. Of course, she did. Failure was not an option. Acacia only had them, the Seishouya, to fight against the youkai that plagued the town nearly every night. And among the ranks of these trained warriors, the Hachi stood at the pinnacle with enchanted weapons bestowed upon them by the mighty Kirin that allowed them to slay youkai efficiently.

Now if only there were actually eight of them. As it stood, they were only seven.

Six, now that Tendou-san is unable to fight.

Junna noticed a shadow moving at the edge of her vision as they rounded the corner. Karen and Mahiru seemed to have sensed it too as they both drew their weapons in a defensive stance. Junna immediately notched an arrow and instructed the other two to proceed with extreme caution. Youkai hunted in packs of nine, and it could prove fatal if they were not careful.

“I’ll drive them out and you can shoot down whichever I miss!” Karen exclaimed, her sword’s mirror-like sheen catching even the faintest lamp lights. “Mahiru-chan, keep Junjun safe!”

“Karen-chan, wait!”

“Karen!”

Junna groaned, frustrated that once again Karen ran off and dove headfirst into a fight. It was a dangerous habit, one that they have tried to convince the brunette to outgrow, but when Karen got excited, there was no stopping her. Junna would just have to make sure that her friend would not be vulnerable. With coattails billowing in the fog, she and Mahiru ran after Karen down a dirt road in between wooden houses. Even in near pitch darkness, Junna could tell that they were near the fishing ports of Acacia. She knew her hometown like the back of her hand and the scent of fish and algae were vivid signs.

Near the water by the docks, they saw Karen fighting three youkai.

Junna immediately silenced Mahiru before she could call out to their friend and warned her that there would be at least six more prowling about. Focusing on her energy and dropping to one knee to remain hidden behind a stack of dilapidated fishing boats, she attempted to locate the others and in doing so she gained vital information about what they were fighting. The youkai were water spirits that were driven mad by the Fog. The three that Karen was fighting had long, scaly arms that reached all the way down to the ground, and skin that shone wetly under whatever light managed to find them. On their terrible visages were wide, leathery bills that took up most of the monster’s faces. In coming son, their beady eyes were almost invisible especially while shadowed by the tough, coriaceous cap-like appendage that covered the top of their heads.

“They’re slippery!” Karen warned as she hopped away from her enemies to gain breathing room. Junna was thankful for the warning but more so because it looked like the swordswoman had finally learned a bit about subtlety, at least in regards to their hiding spots. There have been many instances when Karen had unwittingly given them away due to her inability to keep her voice down and shouting towards their direction.

When one of the youkais lunged at her, the brunette then ducked and side-stepped to evade its long swings and pivoted last moment to land a decisive thrust into the monster’s gut. An undulating cry pierced Junna’s ears as viscous black blood dripped from where Karen had disemboweled the beast. “Kappas?” She muttered under her breath in disbelief. Kappas were usually not a threat to humans. They were not typically this big either. As far as Junna had researched, kappas only grew as big as a small child and only tormented those who had transgressed them first. But then, it was not like they were free of malice. They were known to drown humans at times and with the Fog so thick, they must hunger for human innards and blood.

The Fog must also be responsible for their abnormal sizes.

“Junna-chan?” Mahiru voice was small next to her, she must have heard her observations.

“I know what we’re fighting but I don’t know where the others are. Mahiru-san, help me locate the youkai that’s leading these Kappas while I assist Karen from the roof.”

Without another word, Junna quickly moved from where they hid in order to find a better place to shoot down the enemy. Karen was still fighting out in the open, her movements exaggerated and unpredictable. She certainly lacked the finesse of the other sword users of the Hachi, but she was resourceful and her swings were powerful. Claudine once commented that Karen’s swordplay was akin to that of a brute, but Junna had observed how much the brunette’s technique had improved over the years. Besides, during a Fog Night, artistry was rarely a deciding factor.

Instead, what mattered most was a warrior’s effectiveness in taking down foes.

And Karen was effective. She must have realized what they were dealing with at this point, and she had switched from targeting the massive, 8-feet tall youkai’s extremities and focused more on the kappa’s weak spots, their head. Unfortunately, the woman’s stature was not as stupendous as their other comrades’ and that made reaching the giant kappas’ caps a feat.

But that was where Junna came in. She returned her arrow into the quiver clasped on the small of her back and hung Hisuiya, her bow, around her torso. With feline-like agility, she took hold of a fishing shack’s rafters and pulled herself up on the roof where she would be able to fire her arrows freely. Steadying her stance on one knee, Junna notched an arrow and pour ki into the bow, making Hisuiya’s augmented emerald glow serenely in the mist. Aiming using her energy senses rather than her poor physical eyesight, the archer steadied her shoulders and let the arrow fly. It zipped through the thick Fog and found its target with an audible thud which resulted in a subsequent screech.

With one of the kappas motionless on the ground, Karen charged at the second one with great bravado. Known for her energy and stamina, she crouched and then jumped as high as she could in order to land a decisive blow to another kappa’s head with her sword, splitting the youkai’s cranium in half and spilling thick green liquid onto the dirt road.

“Hehe~ Nice one, Junjun!” Karen chirped as their foes fell lifeless on the ground.

“Focus, please!” Junna instructed rigidly as she notched another arrow.

Sure enough, another youkai burst forth from the river’s green waters. It roared and swiped its massive, scaly hand with so much force at Karen that she was thrown into a fishmonger’s store, where she ended up in a pile of wood and splinters after the impact destroyed the front furnishings and cracked the wall.

“Karen!”

Cursing under her breath, Junna shot at the offending youkai and hit it squarely on the chest. Though not its primary weakness, the holy ki imbued in the arrow burned through the monster’s flesh and it dropped on all fours. She shot at the others as well and felled yet another by a well-aimed arrow to the throat, making it double over gurgling blood.

“Mahiru-san, please check on--”

Junna did not even get to finish her command when she saw a trail of blue light cutting through the thick Fog. Enraged by Karen’s fall, Mahiru had stepped up with a vengeance, twirling her heavy mace as if it weighed nothing more than a feather. She swung the weapon and bludgeoned the downed kappa so hard its skull gave off a sickening squelch, the innards wetly splattering on the ground. With a battlecry, the mace wielder then used the momentum of the weapon’s heavy head to wallop the nearest youkai’s jaw, making it fly clear off the earth and back into the water. Junna was sure that was one was dead too as she saw how its lower jaw was disjointed from its head with a crunch.

Without missing a beat, Junna set her attention to locating the other youkai that must be part of this pack. Youkai always attacked in sets of nines, mirroring the Kyuubi no Kitsune’s many tails. The demon fox was their master, the harbinger of the Fog and the demon of illusions. It was said that the Kyuubi ruled over the deep forest beyond Acacia, where the Fog was thickest.

As members of Hachi, Junna and her comrades trained night and day to fight this menace, to eventually earn the title of Tenkai so that they would be worthy of the Kirin’s blessing to challenge and defeat the Kyuubi. Tendou Maya was their current Tenkai, their leader, but ever since she had been defeated by the beast and rendered indisposed, their situation had worsened. Junna shook her head and resolved to put aside thoughts about Maya’s status now that she was unable to fight, for tonight there was Fog and when there was Fog, the Hachi fought.

And there were three of these monsters left.

She resumed her search, only to be alarmed by the black blotch directly underneath her. The tiniest of cracks was her only warning before the rafters she stood upon exploded in splinters as a huge clawed and scaly hand punctured it from beneath. Junna jumped away in time, landing on an adjacent house’s roof before the kappa could grab her. Without hesitation, she notched an arrow and fired at near point-blank range. The force of her projectile punched through the youkai’s eye socket and penetrated through to the opposite side of its head. For good measure, Junna pulled yet another arrow from her quiver and stabbed it through the kappa’s fleshy crest as well. She let out a brief sigh of relief when the monster lifelessly fell down from the hole it had made.

“Ow…” Junna heard Karen groan from where she had been flung like a toy earlier. The brunette shakily stood up, in pain but still whole, and used her sword, Chance, as support. “Don’t you really hate the sneaky ones, Junjun?”

Junna readjusted her glasses and responded, “A lot. Are you okay, Karen?”

“Karen-chan!” Mahiru was already by her best friend’s side with worry etched on her face. She lowered her fearsome mace and held Karen by the shoulders.

“Mahiru-chan, are you hurt?”

“M-me? You’re the one who was-- I should be the one asking that!”

Junna knelt on the roof closest to them, “We still have youkai unaccounted for. Do not let your guard down.”

“What about you Junjun? Are you hurt?”

The archer blinked, unused to the lower register of Karen’s usually energetic voice. “Yes, I’m fine.”

The brunette smiled up at her, though it might as well have been a grimace. “I’m glad.”

Junna could not help but return a small smile of her own before she sensed the rest of their query. Pushing up her glasses, the archer turned her attention to the swelling water of the river, where the kappas had crawled out from. The green waters rumbled and gurgled, bubbling and squelching until two youkai crawled onto the banks, their skin covered with a slippery sheen. They were also kappas, but Junna knew the final youkai to reveal itself would prove to be more of a challenge.

“Prepare yourselves,” said the archer as she stood, bracing herself for what was to come.

The remaining kappas ululated and their eerie calls sent a shiver down Junna’s spine. The water swelled as their howls intensified and a serpent burst out of the waves like a roaring geyser. With a long body lined with opalescent green and blue scales and a broad head sporting antlers, the kappa’s Oya revealed itself to the members of Hachi.

Junna clenched her jaw. This was not going to be an easy fight.

Even Karen was albeit taken aback despite her experience. “What is that?” The brunette shielded herself from the water being sprayed by the bellowing beast’s coiling body writhing above the surface.

“That’s a mizuchi,” Junna paused to take a deep breath in order to stabilize her nerves, “A river spirit.”

“But, Junjun, that’s a dragon!” Karen wailed as the mizuchi rose even higher and coiled around in mid-air before charging like a projectile towards the two Hachi on the ground.

“It is! Now, duck!”

Karen followed her command by instinct and narrowly dodged the 40-feet long serpent swooping down at her. Thankfully, Mahiru’s reflexes were sharp enough to save her grievous injuries as well, even though she landed on a heap of fishing nets on the the other side of the street. Junna jumped onto another shack’s roof and watched in horror as the dragon-like youkai plowed through wooden columns that held up the neighborhood’s many overhanging rafters.

“We have to bring it away from the townsfolk!” Hollered Karen, who had just regained her composure.

Junna agreed wholeheartedly. She notched and drew an arrow, expertly following the mizuchi’s swift and erratic flight. She let loose but only managed the graze the beast’s long watery mane. It was enough though. The serpent bellowed and circled back, baring its teeth.

To her comrades, Junna shouted, “I’ll lead it away!” But then she noticed that Mahiru and Karen were both preoccupied with the remaining kappas by the river. Hardening her resolve, Junna hopped from one rooftop to another, finally landing on the walkway by the riverbank where the mizuchi would do less damage. Expertly, she pivoted and shot two arrows at the monster, one after another. One of the projectiles embedded into the serpent’s neck. However, without a quick moment to pour ki into the bow as she fired, Junna knew that the arrow barely hurt her foe. She turned and ran once again, carefully thinking of her next move.

The river serpent was catching up to her lead, diving into the water where it moved even faster. To Junna, that was a blessing in disguise. She used the moment to skid into a halt and jump up an overhanging tree branch while the youkai was unaware. With arrow notched and drawn, the archer poured ki into the Hisuiya and its emerald began to glow once more just in time for when the mizuchi sprang out of the water. Junna fired and the energy infused projectile flew true but the agile serpent twisted its body just enough that her ki only managed to rasp off several scales from its hide.

The mizuchi roared and spat a powerful stream of water from its mouth, forcing Junna to jump from her perch. To her horror, the youkai caught her leg by its talons and dragged her higher and higher into the air. It made her lose her grip on Hisuiya and the bow fell towards the ground below.

The archer screamed in fright now that she was within her foe’s grasp. She must think fast! If the serpent dropped her from this height, she would not survive. The mizuchi continued to spiral upwards, its long coils looking frighteningly beautiful in the bleak darkness, its scales like green and blue jewels.

It reawakened a closely treasured memory.

Blurs! Everything was a blur! Her glasses, where were they?

An image flashed in front of her eyes. A picture of fog, of fear and uncertainty, but also of a brilliant figure cloaked in white and gold. The towering silhouette spoke in kindness but Junna could not see its face clearly. Its eyes though, she would never forget. Jade green they were and as gentle as a breeze on a meadow.

“That was very brave of you,” the bright tower told her, “It’s okay. Everything will be okay.”

That memory from her younger days allowed Junna to recenter herself. At 21, she was older now, more experienced. Though she would forever be thankful of that miracle, she had vowed that she would better herself and become a Hachi of worth. She quickly secured her glasses, which had been dangling precariously from her forehead, and reached down to her waist where she kept the memento of that fateful day.

The tanto sang as it left its sheathe, the blade shining like the mizuchi’s scales. Though gravity worked against her, Junna swung wildly from the dragon-serpent’s clutches until she was able to pull herself upright and, with a desperate cry, bury the blade into the beast’s shoulder. The youkai screamed in pain, coiling so fiercely that Junna was forced to cling onto its mane as it made a mad dive back down towards the river.

Junna could not even spare a moment to feel triumphant that her tanto managed to pierce the serpent’s hide for she was screeching at the sensation of freefall and the fast approach of the water’s surface. Instinctively, she knew that colliding with the water’s surface tension would knock her out if not kill her, so in a mad decision at self-preservation, Junna yanked the tanto from the beast’s flesh and jumped from the plummeting youkai towards a thickly leafed tree at the water’s edge. Twigs snapped and leaves were torn from branches but the tree broke Junna’s fall well enough, although that did not make her landing very graceful or painless. She was lucky to get away from her stunt with mere scratches.

“Junjun!” Though dizzy, it was difficult to ignore Karen’s loud voice. Junna groaned and sat up from where she landed and fixed her glasses that were now cracked by the fall. She was infinitely thankful that it was still usable.

“Are you okay?”

She could only answer with another groan.

“Junna-chan!” Mahiru soon joined them. “You scared me!”

Taking Karen’s offered arm, Junna shakily stood up and refocused her vision. Once she realized what she was holding, her face immediately contorted in disgust. “Why are you so slimy?”

“The kappas were slimy!” Karen retorted indignantly, feigning insult. She was covered nearly head to toe with kappa blood and goo. With a pout, she fired back, “You’re not looking too pristine either!”

Junna had no doubt she looked as disheveled as she felt and the scratch on her cheek stung a bit but there was no time to dally. She sheathed her tanto and said, “It’s not over yet. I need to fetch my--”

Karen grinned and held up Hisuiya with her other hand, “Already fetched, Junjun. Mahiru-chan and I already defeated the kappas. It’s just the Oya left!”

“I-I was only able to salvage a few of your arrows though, Junna-chan.”

That was right, when the mizuchi grabbed her by the leg, her store of arrows were scattered leaving her quiver empty. Junna gingerly took the handful of projectiles from Mahiru’s hand as trepidation crept up her arm as goosebumps.

This night was getting better and better.

The serpent erupted from the water a moment later, bellowing in fury. It immediately launched itself at the three Hachi with its fangs bared and ready to devour them once and for all. Karen looked as unfazed as ever, Junna noticed. The brunette feared no youkai, and it was that courage and tenacity that made her an icon of the Hachi. In comparison, Mahiru shrank back even though she showed a brave front and held her mace defensively.

Junna could hardly blame her.

“How dare you take Junjun like that?” Karen shouted her challenge and swung her sword in defiance of the youkai’s terrifying roar. Chance’s augmented ruby flared in the darkness of the night as the brunette poured a significant amount of ki into the blade. “I’ll never forgive you!”

With a formidable cry, the swordswoman attacked. Karen used the railing by the river to launch herself into the air with her sword drawn back. She then rotated her shoulders until the blade was overhead, as the foe drew closer and was mere feet away. She slashed diagonally, intent on slicing the youkai in half through its mouth but instead of biting into flesh, the sword was deflected by the beast’s armor-like scales that protected its head. Karen’s unmitigated force still sent it crashing down onto the ground, however, allowing Mahiru to swing her mace and break one of the youkai’s antlers.

But that was not enough and only served to anger the dragon even more.

“It’s so tough!” Karen barked after she tried to stab the serpent’s flank with her sword. With ki, the sword wounded the demon, but the mizuchi’s flesh healed nearly as fast as it was punctured.

“This is a river guardian, Karen-chan!” Mahiru hopped away to a safe distance. “I don’t think we can defeat it like we did the kappa.”

“So what do we do?”

Junna had been wondering about the youkai’s insusceptibility since even her ki infused arrow could not completely penetrate its hide. The Hachi’s weapons were created solely for the purpose of slaying youkai, and thus they were highly effective against the demons. However, it must be possible that if their foe was a benevolent spirit driven insane by the Fog, their weapons were rendered inefficient.

This was an observation that must be studied later. First, they must finish their business.

“Stand back,” she instructed her comrades, “If killing it won’t work, I’ll attempt to purify it.”

Mahiru paused and took several steps away from the growling but stunned serpent on the river bank, “Purify? But Junna-chan that’s--”

“We don’t have much of a choice.”

Junna disliked using her family’s gift for it drained her of so much energy. The Hoshimi and Hanayagi Clans of Acacia came from a long line of holy men and priestesses, and were taught various rituals. Junna was not an exception to this tradition, especially after she had been chosen to represent her clan in the Hachi. She was not very good at it though, as she was not from the main branch of her clan, but she was nothing but determined.

Junna held Hisuiya close, her lips nearly touching the emerald on its tip. She whispered the incantations she had memorized long ago and began to feel the gem syphon energy in such an accelerated rate that she felt weak in the knees. Yet, she persisted. She would not allow this mizuchi to continue its rampage, and if it was indeed once benevolent, she would end its suffering. So Junna chanted, her mutterings fueled the stone, making it glow brighter and brighter until it illuminated like a green star. The wind picked up despite being bogged down by the Fog and encircled her, teasing her disarrayed fringe.

The mizuchi sensed her power and rose, whipping its talons and mighty tail. But Junna’s comrades have struck it hard so it remained disoriented.

It gave her just enough time to perform an acceptable purifying chant.

Junna parted from Hisuiya’s gem and notched three of her remaining arrows at the same time. As she drew back the projectiles, their silver tips glowed with magic. Carefully, she aimed at the mizuchi’s crest, heart and belly, and let the feathers fly. The arrows turned into beams of green light and they travelled at a beautiful arching trajectory before finding their marks. They pierced through the serpent, leaving only light in their wake.

The youkai howled in pain so loud it was deafening. The wounds it suffered from the arrows slowly began to disintegrate its body, burning it away with holy energy.

Junna could only stand and watch with her friends as the mizuchi disappeared with one final bellow into the Fog.

“Wow!” Karen exclaimed, mesmerized by the spectacle. “No matter how many times you or Kaoruko-chan perform that, it’s always amazing!”

Junna let out a sigh of relief, though she wondered where Karen stored all her energy. Frankly, she was exhausted. In fact, image be damned. She allowed herself to fall on the grass, utterly drained. This was certainly one of her more involved youkai extermination missions to date.

“I’m improving at least…” she rested Hisuiya on her lap and readjusted her glasses. She thought about Kaoruko and how fast the other woman could deploy a similar spell. After all, Kaoruko could seamlessly fight while chanting. Hers took way too long. Was it because she was not a member of the main branch of her clan like Kaoruko was to hers? Was her blood so diluted?

She could already hear the Hoshimi matriarch’s sneer.

“You are weak. If there was another choice, you would not be standing amongst the Eight.”

Junna took a deep breath, pushing those toxic thoughts at the back of her mind. Those were nothing more than ghosts from her past. She was now a full-fledged member of the Hachi. Though her journey to her current station had been fraught with danger and challenges, she conquered them all. This was just another obstacle in her path to greatness like everything else.

She needed to work even harder.

Karen knelt in front of her with an encouraging smile, “Improving? Junjun! You’re definitely one of the best!”

Junna smiled softly, grateful of Karen’s honesty, and glanced at Mahiru, who also looked as exhausted as she was but happy all the same. “Thanks...but that’s that.”

“Mission accomplished?” The brunette teased.

She nodded, “Mission accomplished.”

Karen hopped back onto her feet, squelching due to all the kappa goo that covered her, and offered a hand. “Come on, Junjun. Let’s join up with the others. The sun’s almost up!”

Indeed the Fog was gradually lifting. This meant that the others have also defeated their foes on the other side of town near the forest. Junna was sure that with a team that included Saijou Claudine, Isurugi Futaba and Hayanagi Kaoruko, a youkai pack or even more would not have lasted for very long. In fact, the three women must be heading their way now as Junna’s group took far too long to dispose of their own targets. A quick ki scan certainly revealed as much. The others were only a few blocks away from them and approaching fast.

“Oi, Karen!” Futaba’s unmistakably boyish voice soon caught their attention. She and Kaoruko were crossing a bridge that spanned a nearby canal with their halberd and naginata resting on their respective shoulders.

“Futaba-chan!” Karen waved back with both arms after she sheathed her sword. Truly, Junna envied her stamina sometimes. Compared to the brunette, she was ready to just collapse on her bed.

Futaba and Kaoruko eventually joined them, looking none the worse for wear. Clearly, they did not have as much trouble as Junna’s team. The shorter woman surveyed the place and whistled, “This is one hell of a wreckage.”

Junna winced. As the sun rose and gradually lit up the townscape, the damage to the shops and homes by the river became more obvious. The residents were also emerging from their homes and appeared unhappy with the destruction. However, Karen the Optimist did not balk. She was already proposing a plan for a reconstruction to her fellow Hachi as if they did not spent the majority of the night fighting a powerful youkai.

“We’ll definitely try to make that work, Karen-chan,” Mahiru rested a hand on her best friend’s shoulder, “But for now I think everyone deserves to rest.”

“I agree,” Junna seconded but then noticed that Claudine was missing. “Where is Saijou-san?”

“A-ah…” Futaba scratched her cheek and looked worried, “She kind of took it too far last night. To be honest, the other side of town also suffered collateral damage.”

Kaoruko’s usually smiling mouth also turned downwards, “More from her than the youkai. Kuro-han is still very angry.”

“Yeah, she screamed challenges to the Kyuubi the whole time. The Kyuubi didn’t show, of course, but that only frustrated her even more.” Silence swelled for a brief moment before Futaba continued her tale. “Kuroko… she hasn’t--couldn’t-- accept what happened to Tendou-san. She slaughtered the youkai, ripped them apart with more cruelty than necessary.”

The victorious mood suddenly fell at the reality of the Hachi’s situation. Junna saw firsthand how Claudine took in the sight of Maya being brought in by Futaba after her fateful encounter with the Kyuubi. The blonde was inconsolable and violently demanded that she be given the chance to slay the creature who had rendered Maya half-dead with wounds and burns. As Maya’s partner, Claudine went as far as presenting her appeal to the Kirin itself. But the Kirin’s blessing never came.

Junna could only imagine her rage. She had never had the privilege of having a partner, for the Hachi currently had an open slot and was missing a member. She would work with the others often, but those temporary arrangements could not compare to the bond between actual pairs. Claudine and Maya have been partners for as long as Junna could remember. From training to taking their oaths as members of the Hachi to Maya becoming the Tenkai, they were both fierce rivals and loyal friends to each other and that made them a force of nature.

“Is Saijou-san safe though?” Junna asked out of concern.

“Well, given her disappointment, she’s probably off to vent somewhere.” Futaba sighed raggedly and rubbed the back of her neck. “Don’t worry, I’ll go find her. You lot can all go back to Seishouya.”

Junna nodded her assent for if there was anyone who could convince Claudine to lay down her sword for the day, it would be Futaba. She could place her faith on the reliable halberdier and carry on. After all, fighting youkai was not their only responsibility. Hachi was also the symbol of hope for the people of Acacia no matter how much of the town was ravaged by monsters.

Later, they must help mend their hometown but for now they would put aside their weapons and rest.

As the Hachi turned to go, Junna lingered for just a few seconds more to watch the sunrise. It always heralded salvation and hope after a night of Fog and evil. To her, it was the brightest star and she basked in its nurturing warmth.

Seeing it made her job worthwhile, made her feel triumphant.

Even more so than any glittering objects in the night sky.


 The blade pierced through the air, so fast and so vicious that she almost faltered.

Almost.

The dual swords crossed just in time to block the rapier’s fang, though the sheer power behind the assault propelled her a fair distance away. She dug the heels of her boots into the ground, managing to keep her stance to parry yet another relentless onslaught.

Tendou Maya.

That was the name that the Tenkai announced before charging at her with the terrifying calmness of a seasoned warrior. The ponytailed woman moved fluidly, each and every single step precise and deliberate for a consequent purpose. The soft hue of her lavender eyes belied the ruthless intent in her fatalistic stabs as they locked upon her form.

A quiet growl left her throat even as she tried to keep her expression aloof. She acknowledged that the Tenkai was the toughest opponent she had ever crossed blades with, and irrefutably the most persistent one to date. How she wanted to sneer at their foolish attempts on her life, when she could have easily destroyed them all.

The lust for carnage churned rather painfully within her chest at the prospect of ripping this woman apart with the true power she wielded. Growling again to clear her mind, she deflected yet another jab with her katana and swerved her wakizashi towards Maya’s shoulder to disable her.

For the first time since their duel began, Maya’s brows furrowed ever so slightly as displeasure flickered in her sharp gaze. The rapier glided along the edge of the katana in a cacophonous metallic screech while the thick hilt clashed against the tip of the blade just as she leaned back at a near impossible angle to avoid the shorter sword’s slash.

She stumbled forward, unprepared for such change in momentum for her blade did not sink into flesh as expected. Pain erupted as Maya’s steel-reinforced boots drove into her sternum and flung her back. Coughing, she stuck her katana into the ground to steady herself and instinctively swung her wakizashi to parry the next stab.

The rapier barely missed her jugular while her shorter blade grazed and locked at the complex hilt. Instead of disengaging, Maya shifted with the intention of ramming her pauldron at her chin. With her katana still embedded in the ground, she was forced to raise her arm diagonally to brace herself against the charge.

The tackle knocked her one step backwards but she persisted and quickly grasped at the Tenkai’s cape. However, Maya saw through her plan and twisted her rapier, shearing off a few strands of her hair as it licked against her cheek. If it weren’t for the wakizashi gouging into the hilt and adamantly keeping it at bay, she would have at the very least lost an eye.

Now, within the stalemate of their perilous embrace, she finally saw what she tried to ignore since the beginning of their encounter.

Her opponent wore a phantom of a smile, possibly amused at her consternated expression or simply thrilled at participating in this deadly dance.

But no, she knew that it was more than that. This wasn’t the first and it will not be the last she witnessed this unadulterated emotion.

The Tenkai could already taste her victory over the horrible creature known as Kyuubi no Kitsune.

She could feel her facial muscles tighten in cold fury. Who does this woman think she was? The most powerful of the Hachi was still just that, a human to kneel before the might of the Great Youkai. And to challenge her on her own turf? This woman was either arrogant and mad, or utterly certain of her skills as the path of her rapier.

Based on their violent exchanges so far, she decided that Maya was both.

As if understanding her inward assessment, the ponytailed woman narrowed her eyes while her lips curved in a pretty but warning manner.

“Tonight, I will free Acacia of your foul existence.”

Anger roared to life then and there. She was vaguely aware of the shallow cut on her cheek mending, for she could only taste the coppery tang of blood trickling into her mouth and arousing her fury. The air grew heavy, stifling even, yet she only smirked airily at the bout of euphoric lightheadedness.

“You shouldn’t play with fire, human.”

Alarmed, Maya reeled back just as smoke began to sizzle on her cape. She tore it off with a flick of her rapier but she quickly noticed that it wasn’t the only thing consumed by fire.

The world around them was washed anew in flames of hell.

The Tenkai readied her rapier to whisper undecipherable incantations, her desperate cling to composure admirable even as waves of cackling flames toppled trees like a monstrous hand squashing meager ants. The blue gem flashed rather innocently as the warrior poured her ki into her only chance in ending this inferno.

“The Kirin’s blessing… hmm? How laughable, to depend on such dubious source of power when the Hachi is meant to be the tails of the Kyuubi itself.”

She relished rather cruelly in Maya’s bewilderment even as the wretched sense of solitude suffocated her more than ever. With her body swathed in demonic fire, she picked up her katana and pointed it at her adversary.

“Show me, Tendou Maya, show me what makes your conviction burn so brilliantly!”

 =================

Daiba Nana couldn’t help but blink when flashes of light entered her vision and snapped her out of her reverie.

“Your pin, it’s reflecting the light from outside into my eyes.”

“And?”

“Like I said, it’s getting into my eyes…” Seeing that her companion wasn’t about to take off the star-shaped hairpin, she tried to shift on the bed to escape the reflected beam. An undignified yelp escaped her lips when she was tugged back to her previous position.

“Do not move.”

“But-”

Her protest died at the pair of emotionless eyes trained on her person. Sighing, Nana decided that she was too tired to put up a fight about something so trivial and so she angled her head away from the offending brightness the best she could.

Kagura Hikari did not comment further and simply resumed her task of unwrapping the bandages around her shoulder. If anything, the black-haired woman was efficient in everything she did and Nana was glad to have an ally like her.

Well, they were living under the same roof so it would be beneficial for both parties to get along at least. That was probably the only reason Hikari was somewhat civil to her at all. They helped each other out, no more and no less. Truth be told, Nana would like to know her mysterious companion a bit more if only to ease the pang of loneliness that reared its ugly head from time to time.

Alas, Hikari remained just as closed off as the day Nana first found her.

“Any inch lower and you could have died.”

Nana only smiled at Hikari’s remark. Indeed, the Kirin-blessed rapier had scored a terrible wound from her shoulder all the way down to her chest. Even with her accelerated healing, a hideous scab remained behind and had to be bandaged properly as a normal person’s injury should be treated. On the other hand, Tendou Maya was…

“You did what you had to do.”

Closing her eyes, Nana let out a shaky chuckle. “Still. I am every inch of the monster people depict me to be.”

Hikari’s voice lowered to a cold octave. “Stop it. None of that self-pity. You’re being a nuisance.”

“You really know just the right words to say huh, Hikari-chan?”

Another deadpan was enough for her to swallow any more comments and simply let her companion wrap the new swathe of bandage over the horrid scab. Hikari had extreme aversion to be called so familiarly by her first name but sometimes Nana just couldn’t help it. She would like to think that they’ve known each other long enough, or at least lived together long enough to leave behind the last-name basis.

She surveyed their modest cabin with a tinge of pride. She built the place by herself long ago and the building still stood sturdy against all odds after all these years. While she understood her calling and true belonging to be elsewhere, this humble two-room abode was decent enough to be considered her ‘home’. The bedroom had a cot just wide enough for them to share, except Hikari always slept on the futon in the living room due to her “terrible nonexistent sleeping manners”, quoting the black-haired woman.

Various clothes and weapons were clustered around the shelves, all over the floor and stacked in a dangerously tilting pile by the window. Nana didn’t mind the clutter, while Hikari was also prone to discarding random items around the two rooms, perhaps even more so than she does. Their messy style was still organized in a way that only they understood and was one of the few things they agreed on, so Nana took that with a sense of appreciation.

The only tidy place is the small kitchenette and the hearth. For one, it was dangerous to keep anything close to the fire, but it was mostly due to their mutual respect for the sanctity of food. Ah, that was probably the other reason Hikari stayed with her. Cooking was a handy skill that Nana took great pride in.

She did tame the wandering stiletto-wielder through food after all.

“Hmm, it’s been three years since I first lured you home with my banana muffins, right?”

“The way you worded that is utterly infuriating.” Hikari has just finished removing the stitches from her wound and was giving her that unnerving trademark stare while holding up the very sharp scalpel.

Nana swallowed hard and tried to chuckle. “It’s true though. You wouldn’t have listened to me if I hadn’t had any food on me.”

“I had been on the run for three days without rest,” Hikari sighed and washed the tools in the basin of water on the nightstand before wiping them dry. “I wasn’t thinking clearly. Otherwise I would’ve tried to kill you.”

“Um, you did try to kill me, remember?”

“That’s because I didn’t know any better.” Hikari’s eyes darkened in cold disdain. “Like the rest of them.”

“They’re just doing their job. They mean good. The Hachi are good people.” Nana says quietly, her fists clenched in a myriad of emotions. “You felt it too, last night. The Kiri no Yoru was worse than usual yet they still defeated the demons in order to protect Acacia. That energy clash must meant they defeated quite the Oya, perhaps even a benevolent spirit that was corrupted.”

“You sound impressed.”

“Of course I am. They risked their lives to save innocent people.”

“The same people who wish for your death.”

Nana ignored the twinge at that callous yet truthful comment. She recalled the odd sensation she had experienced during that explosion of ki, when she felt as if she was airborne and filled with adrenaline. She glanced at the cloak that was draped over a stool, where the markings at the seam had briefly glowed red with the Kyuubi’s power at that moment then.

Could it be that girl?

That same pair of determined, fearless green eyes had softened in awe that one night years ago when she gave the defenseless archer her tanto. That very tanto bore the same markings as the cloak but there was no way that the young warrior could have tapped into the weapon’s true potential.

Had she become a worthy Hachi now? Was she unharmed after the terrible Fog last night?

Either way, Nana was pleased that her tanto had helped the bespectacled girl somehow. It almost felt as if she had contributed to the worthy cause of protecting Acacia too.

“You’re going to get yourself killed one of these days,” Hikari hissed softly, snapping her out of her musing. “You almost did, against the Tenkai, because you couldn’t decide on what you want.”

Nana laughed quietly, ignoring the prickle of despair she felt during the duel that night. “I didn’t know you cared - ngh! That hurts!”

Hikari tightened the bandages yet again, earning another choked squeak. “Maybe this will kill you.”

“Why are you being so mean to me?”

“You’re being insufferable.”

“I was just saying the truth,” Nana glanced at the black-haired woman’s travelling cloak crumpled on the futon where it had been used like a blanket, and smiled sadly. “There won’t be a day that goes by that I don’t find myself admiring the Hachi, to imagine what things would’ve been like if I were a part of them too. Isn’t that why you still kept your uniform?”

The moment those words left her mouth, she regretted them. Hikari tensed and her gaze became a fraction colder. For a moment there, it almost seemed as if she wanted to reach for the stiletto by the foot of the bed to slit her throat.

“I’m sorry,” the apology came out easily. “I… I was just hoping you would see where I was coming from.”

Hikari exhaled deeply and allowed the taller woman to place a comforting hand over hers. “No. I reacted too much. You’re correct. Even now, I cannot forget Albion.”

Nana frowned at how cold Hikari’s hand felt but wisely chose not to comment. She stared at the dark blue outfit that hung on the coat rack, one of the few things that remained pristinely-kept in their messy home. The distant city of Albion had trained Hikari everything she needed to know to become the most efficient fighter there was, a Tenkai worthy enough to accept the Kirin’s full blessing.

But Hikari had known too much.

And now, here they were, two outcasts who huddled together to lick their wounds and chased after the moon in a fanatical dream to end their suffering. Hikari wished for justice while Nana simply wanted to live in peace.

Their end goals may differ, but they were both survivors and that was perhaps what cemented their bond.

Hikari shook off her hand as she stood up, but paused for a moment to flick Nana’s forehead.
“Just don’t be so careless again. Are we clear?”

“I wasn’t careless…” Though in spite of her grumbling, Nana couldn’t help but smile, knowing that her awkward companion is just trying to show her concern. Mindful of the newly wrapped bandage, she pulled her shirt over her frame and buttoned it up before shrugging on her vest as well. “Thank you though.”

There was no response as Hikari flopped down on her futon and half-heartedly waved her hand in acknowledgement. Grinning, Nana stood up from her bed and tried to stretch without aggravating her wound, feeling that satisfying crack in her uninjured shoulder. Wanting to show her gratitude as well as to revitalize herself, she headed for the kitchenette only to discover that they barely had anything in the pantry.

Always eager to jump at any opportunity to go into Acacia, she hastily grabbed her katanas and reached for her coat.

“Where do you think you’re going? You should be resting.”

Expecting such reprimand, Nana kneeled by the futon and easily pushed Hikari back down. “Nope, you should be the one resting instead. You’ve been out all night, haven’t you? Just take a nap and by the time you open your eyes, you’ll be greeted with a plateful of freshly baked banana pastries~”

Hikari struggled to sit up but the taller woman was adamant. After a while, she exhaled in mild annoyance and fully slumped back against the pillow, wrapping her arms around her cloak. “You’re always so eager to play around in that town. Sometimes I wonder if you even remember that place harbors our nemesis. What if something goes wrong and the folks there discover what you are?”

Nana has definitely thought about such possibility every time she went there, yet her very soul was drawn to the people and the very land, as if she lived off of their existence.

“Don’t worry.” A dark chuckle escaped her throat. “Acacia is mine after all.”

Chapter Text

It was difficult to see Acacia in such a state of damage.

To Hoshimi Junna, Acacia was a city of beauty where tradition and spirituality met seamlessly with iron and the unknown wonders of foreign places she could only dream of seeing. Its people were a warm and hardy breed that excelled in fishing the mighty river that gave Acacia its life’s blood as well as farming its fertile soil. There were artists and artisans as well who produced crafts sought and craved by the faraway lands of Albion; silk, songs, poetry, and script.

It was her home and she was proud of being part of her precious city.

That was why whenever it was ravaged by youkai, she felt sorrow.

Acacia was cursed by the Fog. Every so often, a thick mist would blanket the town and carry with it creatures of misfortune. Most frequently, the Fog would bring shadowy creatures, evil spirits, and monsters that struck terror in the hearts of the masses, but there were also times it would infect the surrounding wildlife or spirits with darkness that caused mad hunger for human flesh. Because of this, Acacia was endlessly gripped in a cycle of fear, tragedy and despair.

For years, Junna studied the phenomenon of the Fog Night to bring salvation to her precious city, but both history and folklore gave only one solution: Kill the Kyuubi no Kitsune. The Fog only appeared whenever the Kyuubi was at large and subsided whenever the demon fox was slayed. This was objectively observed after Saijou Elaine, the preceding generation’s Tenkai, slayed the great youkai three decades ago. Her victory won Acacia over ten years of fogless peace, a time now celebrated by the annual Hoshitsumi Festival. However, as predicted, the Fog eventually returned and the Kirin once again demanded young women to fill the esteemed positions of the Hachi, the Eight Guardians.

Junna would never forget the selection process. No regular girl would do. She would have to have the right amount of latent ki in order to begin training, and because of this requirement, the current generation of the Hachi took longer than usual to gather candidates. As expected, the Tendou and Hanayagi Clans were the first ones to offer their daughters for the cause. They were ancient families with ki running through their veins, and with Acacia’s peace and the honor of producing a potential Tenkai on the line, they were the first ones to elect representatives. Tendou Maya and Hanayagi Kaoruko were heiresses to their respective clans’ seats, both talented and magically powerful. They were interred as Hachi candidates at the tender ages of five.

Just at their heels were their fierce rivals, the Saijou and the Isurugi Clans. These two families boasted many warriors in their line, from honorable samurai to generals that had once made Acacia wealthy. More recently, the Saijou Clan could even brag that they had Gallian Knights in their bloodline due to Saijou Elaine--then Elaine Alsace-- marrying into the family. Saijou Claudine and Isurugi Futaba hail from these families and were also selected as candidates when they were very young. Futaba was a childhood companion to Kaoruko and had the latent potential and a warrior’s heart, while Claudine was practically bred to be one of the Hachi being the daughter of the most recent Slayer.

Junna did not have the privilege of being a member of such illustrious clans but her family have served in the Hachi for generations as well. Descended from exorcists, the Hoshimi Clan were rooted from the same stock as the Hanayagi Clan many eras ago. Known for their archery and purification spells, they have proved vital in the Acacia’s defense. The main branch members of the clan still displayed potent powers in their bloodline, but since they had no daughters to elect for the position of a Hachi member, the matriarch sent the next best thing.

Her.

Junna did not possess Kaoruko’s mind-blowing magical talents or the precise ki control that made Maya so fast and deadly. She was not as physically powerful as Claudine or Futaba either. All she had going for was that her ki had the Hoshimi line’s purifying properties. Everything else she had to study, practice, and labor hard to achieve. Even her own biology proved to be against her as well for her eyesight prevented her from completely mastering the bow and arrow that the Hoshimi Clan was known for. Looking back, nothing came easy for her.

At least she had plenty of help along the way.

There were two members in the Hachi who did not come from any of the noble clans at all. Aijou Karen and Tsuyuzaki Mahiru were the daughters of common families that were simply gifted with ki. Karen’s family were servants of the Kagura Clan, a wealthy family that periodically had representatives in the Hachi, while Mahiru’s were simple farmers from the outskirts of town. Due to their unconventional situations, the three of them often worked together as trainees and formed a bond of camaraderie that they enjoyed even now.

At the thought of Karen, Junna’s mind wandered towards the missing daughter of the Kagura Clan. Karen would sometimes tell her and Mahiru of a girl named Hikari, who was the only daughter of the Kagura family. They were childhood friends, the brunette had explained, but Hikari was moved to Albion by her father for additional training just before Karen had been discovered as a potential candidate. Hikari was supposed to be the eighth member of the Hachi until she disappeared several years ago.

Due to a lack of promising young women to take Hikari’s place and also because of Karen’s stubborn insistence, the eighth seat of the Hachi remained vacant to this day.

Maybe if we actually had a full roster, Acacia would not be damaged so much.

Junna huffed as she watched the fishermen repair roofs and rafters destroyed to splinters the night before. With a notebook in hand, she had been overseeing the reconstruction of Acacia’s dockside buildings and making sure that the process went as smoothly as possible. Many of the townsfolk were still rattled by the mizuchi’s attack last night, even more so because the youkai rampaged so close to residences. The most she could do was be present as they rebuilt their homes and businesses, and lend her managerial skills to make the experience less difficult than it already was. But it seemed like fatigue made her lose focus, her attention wavering too frequently.

“Junna… oi, Jun-na~ are you still awake or are you sleeping with your eyes open?”

She blinked her eyes rapidly to fight off sleepiness that had been creeping up on her for the past hour, and when she regained her focus, she found Futaba waving a hand in front of her face. The redhead was still in near complete regalia, minus her heavy armor, and was mounted on her trusty pinto steed. Her clan’s distinctive byakko tattoo was prominently displayed in red ink on her left arm, reflecting Futaba’s proud heritage. Her unique halberd was nowhere to be seen, however, and the horse was also lightly geared.

“No, I’m fine,” she responded a little too quickly now that she was caught zoning off, “I just have a lot in my mind.”

“No, you’re not fine,” Futaba clucked her tongue and nudged her mount to circle Junna in scrutiny. “You’re tired, Junna. What are you even doing here? Didn’t you use a purification spell last night? You should be at Seishouya passed out like Kaoruko.”

The thought was tempting for sure, but Junna could not afford to rest just yet. She could sleep as much as she wanted once the work was done. “I’ll be fine, really. I was able to sleep for a couple of hours earlier,” She reassured her comrade. “I still need to calculate how much we can get Seishouya and the clans to subsidize the townsfolk. After all, it was my fault that--”

“Oi, oi… none of that!” Futaba poked Junna’s forehead when the latter began scribbling on her notebook. “It was a rampaging monster. What happened here is no one’s fault, you hear?”

Wincing and stepping away from the mounted woman to avoid another strike, Junna rubbed her sore forehead. Though miffed at the grinning redhead, Junna could not help but appreciate how quickly Futaba tried to cheer her up after the fiasco last night. She gave her a small, tired smile, “...thanks.”

“Don’t worry about the finances. I’ll help you out as much as I can with my clan. I’ll also make sure Kaoruko does too, so why don’t you take it easy, alright? I heard you had quite the rodeo last night.”

At the memory of the mizuchi, Junna flinched and uncomfortably re-adjusted her glasses, which reminded her that she was now wearing her last spare after her other pair got damaged. “It’s not a ride I want to get on again. It caused Acacia so much. We ought to be preparing for the festival, but here we are stuck in a quagmire of repairs.”

Futaba patted her on the shoulder, “It’ll work out. The only way we’ll fail to commemorate Kyuubi’s last defeat is if you let yourself get sick. Who else is gonna organize everything, yeah? You shouldn’t push yourself too hard, Junna.”

Junna shook her head and said, “Don’t worry. I’ll hold out. Besides, Karen has been doing most of the manual labor for me.”

Futaba laughed boisterously at that remark. “I saw her on my way here, hammering away and patching up walls. I’m surprised she’s even awake.”

“Well, you know Karen. The annual festival is the highlight of her year and would stop at nothing to make sure it proceeds as planned. And I do think that she’s truly remorseful of scaring the fishmonger’s daughter after getting thrown through their shop’s wall.”

Futaba’s laughter took on a tone of disbelief, “It always amazes me how...uh… sturdy she is.” She then cleared her throat, “Well, I just wanted to check up on you girls before I return to the outskirts to oversee the progress there. Kaoruko is out of commission and Kuroko is… well…” Rubbing her nape, Futaba sighed raggedly and shrugged, “It is what it is.”

Junna did not have the heart to inquire about Claudine’s mental state given the circumstances. The blonde was grieving and angry, and that would not go away so easily. All she could do was ease the load on everyone’s shoulders. “Go on ahead then. Don’t worry about us here. As soon as everything settles down, we’ll return to Seishouya.”

“Alright… hehe, I really shouldn’t worry huh? After all Mahiru is here too and she has a way with people. Well, I’ll see y’all back home later then.”

“See you there,” Junna nodded and gave Futaba a small smirk of her own, “and follow your own advice and don’t overdo it.”

With a good-natured chuckle and a charming wink, Futaba nudged her horse and rode down the street, skillfully dodging carpenters who carried lumber for repairs. Junna watched on until her friend could no longer be seen, and inhaled deeply to recenter her attention to the task at hand. On her notebook were detailed lists of damaged buildings, the resources needed for those properties, and the names of the workers who labored there. Junna kept careful records for she intended to try and compensate them for some of the reparations, believing that the people of Acacia should not shoulder such expenses on their own.

Satisfied that she had most of the ones on this street accounted for, Junna pocketed her notebook and began her trek towards the river bank. She spotted Karen laughing along with some men by the shop she had been repairing. The brunette was exchanging stories over tea and snacks while on break it seemed, and her bright demeanor mellowed out the expressions of fear and anxiety from the townsfolk. With a fond smile, Junna left her friend with her acquaintances and proceeded with her task.

“How are things here? Do you still need more materials?” She inquired a carpenter a block away.

“Ah, Hoshimi-san!” The man stood up a little straighter and seemed embarrassed to be interacting with a Hachi member in his state of grime and disarray. “We’ll need some more lumber here, I think, oh and some whetstones to sharpen our chisels and planes. Other than that, I think we’ll manage.”

Junna nodded mechanically and jot that down on her notes. “I will get those for you as soon as I’m able. Would later in the afternoon be workable?”

The man suddenly bowed respectfully, “Of course!”

“Um… there is no need to be so formal--”

“Everyone, I’ve brought some food! I’m sorry to keep you waiting but here are your lunches.”

“Ah, Mahiru-chan! You really are a blessing. You didn’t have to bring this all to us.”

Junna blinked not only because of the change in atmosphere but also at how fond and familiarly the townsfolk spoke with her soft-spoken comrade. The people typically referred to Junna like she was superior even though she was nothing special. After all, she was merely a branch clan member and she was not one of the top ranking members of Hachi either. So even though she expected respect, she also secretly longed for warm recognition as well. Perhaps she was too austere? But then, Mahiru was a sweetheart with an angelic voice and a disposition to match.

Not to mention her warm maternal aura and her cooking skills.

“Junna-chan?” Mahiru looked surprised, “I thought you returned home already. You don’t have to worry, I’ll make sure Karen-chan--”

“...doesn’t cause any more trouble, I know.” Junna chuckled as she approached her long-time friend. Truly, without Mahiru around, who knew how she and Karen would have turned out. The three of them were the ones who worked the hardest to be in the Hachi because of their circumstances. And when things became tough to the point of despair, Mahiru was always there with a kind smile and a steaming roasted sweet potato to cheer them up.

“You brought so much food.” The other woman had a heavy basket of cooked produce on each arm. Amazingly enough, she did not look troubled carrying them around.

“It’s the most my family’s farm can spare for the time being.”

“Are they alright?”

Mahiru smiled and nodded as she folded the cloth that covered a steaming basket of tubers and vegetables so that the workers could serve themselves. “Thankfully, our farm was spared from the attacks but a couple of others were not as lucky. Obaa-san spared no time in having my siblings harvest what they could so we can at least help feed those in need and she insisted that I take some here.”

“Your grandmother is amazing.”

“Isn’t she?” Mahiru giggled as she filled bowls with vegetables sauteed with onions and a few cubes of potatoes smothered in a simple sauce. Simply watching her serve their people energized Junna and made her momentarily forget about her fatigue. “Would you like some Junna-chan? It seems like there’s plenty for everyone.”

“Ah, thank you but it would be put to better use if the laborers eat it,” she responded with a small smile. “You made sure I ate before we left Seishouya, remember?”

“But that was hours ago and you’re still recovering ki. You must eat!”

“I will, I promise. That would be the first thing I’ll do once I return to the dormitory.”

“You better!” Though her voice was firm, Mahiru’s gaze and smile were anything but. She was sincerely concerned for her, and Junna felt the warmth of her care. Once again, she felt so grateful to have earned herself a family in the Hachi.

“Well then, I should get going, Mahiru-san. I need to make sure everyone receives all the materials they need so the repairs would be finished by the time the festival rolls in.”

“Alright, but also make sure you take breaks, Junna-chan.”

With a respectful nod, Junna bid her farewell to Mahiru and the workers, and continued on. Nearing the end of her responsibilities on this side of town, she took a moment to appreciate the cathartic flow of the water in the river. It was truly hard to imagine that such a peacefully flowing river could house a fearsome creatures. Looking off to her left, Junna spotted the tree onto which she had jumped in order to escape death. Its scars were still green where her weight had torn off some twigs and ripped away some branches. Nearby, a couple of women were repairing the railing where Karen had leapt from after the mizuchi had bulldozed the metal pipes into grotesque shapes, while further down, some men were patching up a stretch of stone walls by the water that helped prevent erosion

Indeed, it was difficult to see Acacia so damaged but seeing the collaborative efforts of its citizen also renewed Junna’s hope.

It made her even more driven into helping the Hachi slay the Kyuubi no Kitsune.

Junna leaned over a stretch of railing that was luckily undamaged by the mizuchi and closed her eyes, renewing her resolve and tempering it carefully. She must persevere. Soon, the Kirin would decide if Maya would remain the Tenkai or if a new one must be chosen. If the latter was to be decided, then Junna was determined to get the Kirin’s Blessing and pick up where her esteemed comrade have left off.

The Fog must be stopped.

The Kyuubi must be slayed.

Junna’s reverie only went undisturbed for a few moments because a rambunctious clamor encroached on her peace. Children fretted and hollered nearby, accompanied by a woman with a gentle, tinkling voice steeped in fondness.

The woman’s voice was laughing as she herded rowdy kids, “Ah! Settle down, everyone. Everyone gets a piece, okay? But after this you should all go home to eat a proper meal so you’ll grow as big and tall as a banana tree like me!”

A banana tree…?

“Banana! Banana!” Children’s voices were saturated with glee and giggles as they chanted and encircled their chaperone.

“Hai, hai~ here you go. Your reward for being so brave last night.”

That voice…

“That was very brave of you…”

Junna blinked her eyes open as a long cherished memory of a miracle came rushing back into the forefront of her thoughts.

==============

The deep forest loomed ominously only several yards away. It was so dense that light scarcely penetrated its canopy, leaving it looking like gargantuan shadows slowly creeping up towards the town of Acacia. At fifteen years old and training to become a warrior that braved the Kiri no Yoru, Junna was no stranger to its intimidating presence but it never failed to make her shudder in trepidation. That was especially true tonight, for tonight was when she would prove to the Kirin that she was strong enough to be one of the Eight.

Clutching her hankyu bow in a tight grip, Junna steeled her resolve.

The Kirin’s Trial was a ritualistic test for any aspirant for a position among the Hachi. A candidate must survive a Fog Night with nothing but her drive, skills, and her chosen weapon. She was tasked with a small stretch of land around Acacia to defend against any youkai that might come and if she was successful in exterminating them, they would rise with the sun as one of the esteemed Eight Guardians.

Junna had dreamed of accepting her own ki gem from the Kirin’s priests for years. She wanted to be one of the stars that protected the people of Acacia, one of those legendary warriors after which stars were named. Her excitement escalated when Maya, Claudine, Kaoruko and Futaba passed their trials the year before with great heroics and displays of competence. She would be one of them. She would stand beside them as they fought for the well-being of their hometown and of its people. And if fate was kind and the Tenkai defeated the Kyuubi no Kitsune, she would be honored to be the namesake of a star within the constellation the priests would reward the new Slayer.

Immortalized in the heavens.

Her name forever carried by a celestial body.

Indeed, glory awaited her. And if that was the one thing that Junna could claim as hers and hers alone--not some debt from her parents or her clan’s matriarch--then she would strive for it with her own efforts. She would shoot up towards the sky again and again to find her path to the stars.

For her trial, Junna was assigned to an unexpected part of town. While Karen and Mahiru were given posts near the city for their own tests, Junna was tasked with a wide swath of land by the border of the deep forest. She had scouted the place beforehand, like a good strategist. She even looked into the history of the place and what kinds of youkai tended to show. What she found was a tragic story of a necessary evil. These vast acres of land used to belong to the Norinaga family, a small clan of brewers who used to farm rice here for their renowned sake.

The rice paddies were gone now though, because the Norinagas have all been executed.

Junna glanced at the sizeable yet traditional house behind her, where a different family now lived. After Saijou Elaine defeated the last Kyuubi and peace reigned, everyone knew that it was only a matter of time before the great youkai would resurface again. The demon fox always returned, no matter how many times it was slayed, reincarnated every time. Its new manifestation was born in the Norinaga family. Records were vague, but it all concluded that the family was bewitched by the youkai’s powerful magic and went mad. Seishouya was forced to put them down for Acacia’s safety but even its pre-emptive strike failed to capture the revived demon fox.

And now that very same escaped Kyuubi no Kitsune thrived within those dense forests summoning the deadly fog.

Darkness came and with it the Kiri no Yoru. The Norinaga’s old farm was so close to the forest that it was choked by the Fog almost immediately, limiting Junna’s vision. Calmly recalling her training, she immediately switched using her ki senses instead. She saw the new family residing in the old Norinaga house huddling fearfully in their bedroom, their ki signatures stuttering like candle flame against a stiff breeze. She must not let them down.

She must not let herself down.

Junna jumped up on a tree’s branch for a better vantage point and rested her hand over the feathered fletching that protruded from her quiver. Even before she was chosen as a candidate, she had already learned to make the bow an extension of herself and even though she had poor eyesight, she had practiced kyuudo enough that muscle memory was usually enough for her to let loose an accurate arrow.

She was confident that she could take on whatever the Fog throws at her

It did not take long before the first youkai screeched it presence. Junna momentarily froze at how loud it was, that deafening shriek of a giant black bird swooping down from above. With a wingspan longer than her bow’s length, it was the most massive crow she had ever seen. It also had five toes that ended in dagger-like talons and its beak was lined with fangs. She ducked and leapt onto another branch before the bird demon could snatch her away, trembling as the youkai ripped away a tree limb that was as wide around as her thigh.

Junna, focus!

She pressed her glasses snug on the bridge of her nose and notched an arrow. She aimed as the karasu beat its massive wings to gain altitude and let loose once she was confident with her shot. The arrow flew true and struck the bird in the breast, its silver tip multiplying the damage as it burned through the demon’s flesh. Junna was thankful she took time and wrapped blessed talismans on her ammunition.

The crow’s cries alerted the rest of its flock, so moments later, a whole murder of them was aloft. Junna’s green eyes widened in shock and trepidation. Three, four, no… seven! Seven pairs of wings were in the sky. Seven pairs of eyes trained at their flockmate’s killer.

All of the sudden, the only thing Junna could comprehend was fear.

Two birds dove at her and she narrowly escaped by jumping down from the tree. With adrenaline spiking and heightening her reaction time, Junna notched arrows, muttered long-memorized incantations and shot at the birds. She missed one by the feather but the second arrow found its mark and the karasu fell in a heap of black feathers on the ground.

Junna wasted no time in running away from there. She sprinted down the dirt pathways that used to border rice paddies, pouring ki into her legs so that she could run faster. It was a futile effort, she knew, for wings would always be faster than feet. Soon, the crows were right on her heels with talons at the ready.

She dove into the ground and lied there as low as she could. The crows clumsily collided with each other and crashed into the ground, rolling and squawking fearsomely as they snapped and clawed at one another. This gave Junna a chance to shoot them when they were grounded and easier to hit. However, she was only able to let one arrow fly before another crow dove behind her and nearly caught her by the braided locks of her hair.

Panting, Junna rolled over. Three… she was only able to get three and already fatigue was gripping her tightly. She pushed herself off the ground, grabbed her bow and ran. Ahead, she watched with dread as the rest of the murder perched on the house in the middle of the farm. They used their huge bills to peck at the wooden roof, eventually puncturing it. Inside, the farmer’s family cried in terror.

“No!” Junna screamed and angrily shot at the birds. One after another, she sent arrows their way, more concerned for the civilian’s safety than actually killing the youkai. The crows shrieked at the projectiles and a few flew away but one stayed behind and stuck its head inside the hole it had made on the roof. The ear-piercing scream of a child froze Junna in place. She stood there in the middle of the field, helplessly watching a demon crow fly off with a lifeless body of a little boy dangling between its toothed beak.

No… it can’t be…

Junna fell on her knees. This was her first test and already she had lost a life. In her grief, however, fury took root. She screamed as she stood and loaded an arrow, aiming at the karasu that had taken an innocent life. She doused the projectile with her ki, enough so that the crow would burn in holy energy, and let it fly. The arrow glowed as it left the bow and pierced the youkai’s eye. It fell down to the earth in ashes.

With it, the broken body of a child.

However, her anger dulled her senses and left her vulnerable to the rest of the murder. She was barely able to evade a set of talons that could have ripped her apart, but she was not so lucky when a second pair swooped and knocked her down a shallow ditch that used to be an irrigation canal. The fall bruised her shoulder and side, making her cry out in pain, while her bowstring snapped off the hankyu when its upper nock got caught in a piece of debris.

Blurs! Everything was a blur! Her glasses, where were they?

She froze when she realized that she had no means of fighting anymore.

It was over.

She failed.

I can’t fail… I must not fail!

Tears streamed down her face as she sightlessly stared up into the black sky. She could feel the stars twinkle beyond the thick mist, mocking her, telling her that she would never be one of them. Her other senses showed dark blotches flying in the night. In circles the crows flew, perhaps thinking of a way to dig her up from the ditch in order to consume her. Maybe it was better this way, Junna thought.

What good was a guardian who could not defend people unable to defend themselves?

The karasu squawked and then suddenly flew away from the trench Junna was trapped in. She sat up, puzzled, but unable to make out what was happening. She could not sense anything but nearby a youkai screamed and disintegrated, the darkness it carried dissolving into ether. Another followed suit, killed with such efficiency its vocalization was cut mid-screech.

Bewildered, Junna pulled herself up from the ditch, and once she had partially emerged, she perceived a shadow much larger than the crows she had been fighting with.

“The Oya…?” She whispered to herself in panic. How in the world would she be able to fight such a powerful being in her state? She squeezed her eyes shut and prayed that her comrades could find her and the farmers in time.

“Ne… you’re the one fighting them, right?” A gentle voice startled Junna for she had not sensed another presence around her aside from the youkai.

“W-what… who are you?” She turned her head this way and that, looking for the source of that voice but her ki senses found nothing. Instead, her blurry eyesight spotted a white figure standing not too far away. All she could make out in the dark was a woman of tall stature holding two blades.

“That was very brave of you,” the stranger said as she approached Junna with a steady, unconcerned gait as if there were no youkai around that could harm them. The stranger kneeled down and handed her a short shaft that she immediately recognized as a tanto sheathed in varnished bamboo. “It’s okay…” the woman spoke in soft, kind tones like she was speaking to a child, and patted her head. Junna could not clearly see her features but she could make out the mellow green of her eyes. “Everything will be okay now.”

Junna opened her mouth to question the stranger one more time, to warn her that it was dangerous and that the farmer’s family was in danger, but she was utterly silenced by a fierce golden light that burned away the Fog. It shrouded the white-cloaked woman like a flaming veil as she stood afterwards.

She was like a tower of white and gold, an awesome beacon in the middle of a black sea.

Junna tried to reach out to her but the force of the stranger’s ki was so overwhelming that nausea set in. Compounded with her fatigue and injuries, she found it difficult not to succumb. All she could utter was, “Save them…” before her consciousness surrendered to the warmth of the golden light and the calming scent of pine needles.

 ==============

“Can it be…?” Junna straightened and marched towards the group of children encircling a blonde-haired woman with a bunch of bananas in her arms. The said woman did not have the same silhouette from her memories due to her peculiar pigtails but she was wearing a white cloak and her voice was uncannily familiar. Logically, there was no way this could be the same woman. Junna was not even sure if she had been hallucinating back then. In fact, she was uncertain if she was not seeing things in the present as well.

“That was five years ago… there’s no way…” She told herself but her feet would not stop. If there was even a fraction of a possibility that it could be the same person who had saved her during her trial, then she must meet her. She kept her life and the rest of the farmer’s family survived because of that stranger’s intervention. She owed her a great deal.

Still, doubt filled her mind. This woman in front of her had a normal human ki. It was a muted shade of yellow, pretty but nowhere near the magnificence the stranger back then had.

“Ah, it’s Hoshimi-san!” One of the children exclaimed, then suddenly most of the kids took refuge under the woman’s cloak as if Junna was some sort of disciplinarian they all wished to avoid.

“Uh, um…” Junna stammered, unsure how to start a conversation which was odd since she was used to dealing with people all the time. “I apologize but… have we met before?”

The tall woman blinked and a glint of recognition flashed through those expressive jade irises. She smiled genially, as if she was only meeting an old friend, “I can’t say but here…”

Junna blinked in bemusement when the blonde offered her a banana.

“Don’t you want one, Hoshimi-san?”

Taken aback by the sudden gift, she just automatically took the fruit. “I… err… thank you, I guess.”

“I’ve heard a few things about you,” the woman chuckled, “It’s hard not to! You’re one of the Hachi, right? A hero!”

Junna found herself blushing at the earnest praise. “I-I’m nothing of the sort but um… I feel like I know you.”

The blonde’s smile took on a more mysterious air. “Maybe we have met somewhere before.”

Tongue-tied, Junna felt awkward at being unable to find anything to say to this friendly woman. “Right, uh…”

“My name is Daiba Nana.”


Already, warning bells are going off at the back of Nana’s mind, particularly in Hikari’s cold voice. It wasn’t the first time that her housemate had berated her about getting too friendly with the townsfolk of Acacia and their arguments had never ended well. Nana understood Hikari’s concerns and a part of her agreed that it was better to keep her distance for self-preservation.

But this girl… no, this young woman in front of her was the same brave warrior she had saved all those years ago. Her features had a sharper and more mature feel now, but Nana could recognize those same pair of green eyes even after the flow of time.

Full of conviction and hope.

Much like her own, before despair shattered her.

Before she knew it, she had already introduced her full name to the pretty stranger.

Ah, she could practically feel Hikari’s stiletto against her jugular now if the latter were to find out about her blunder.

“A-Ah! I’m Junna, Hoshimi Junna,” the shorter woman seemed anxious and couldn’t quite meet her gaze. Even then, she still politely held out her hand. “Pleased to meet you, Daiba-san.”

The simple gesture filled Nana’s heart with warmth as she readily grasped Junna’s hand. “The pleasure is mine, and please, call me Nana, Junna-chan.”

As expected, Junna appeared taken aback from being referred to so familiarly but Nana persisted by giving her an encouraging smile. Though proud of the surname she had chosen for herself, she rarely heard it and whenever she did, it tended to bring up unpleasant memories.

“Uhm, c-certainly, uh, Nana-sa… Nana-?”

The questioning tone at the end, combined with the slight reddening of her ears, was quite adorable really. Judging from the awed expressions of the children around them, it seemed to be a huge deal for the Hachi to refer to someone so directly.

“Good! Now that we know each other’s names, we’re no longer strangers, ne?” Nana gave her hand one light squeeze before letting go. She then gestured at the children, some of whom were looking at them with inquisitive eyes while some were happily munching on the bananas. “We’d love for you to join us and take a yummy snack break, don’t we?”

She was hoping the innocent chorus of the children’s cheers would help Junna loosen up, but the latter seemed as tense as ever even after she hesitantly stood closer to the little girl who waved at her.

As the children chatters around them, Nana couldn’t help but find herself comparing the bespectacled woman to the faint memory from years ago. The image of the teary, despairing new leaf was now replaced by this calm and seemingly assertive Hachi. Donned in a light blue vest and an elegant top complete with a star crest clipped to the frilly collars, Junna does appear to be the kind of supervisor or instructor that civilians would instinctively obey. There was something else, however, that attracted Nana’s attention. Junna’s very presence or ki felt serene like the gentle wash of moonlight.

It was a pleasant sensation.

Her hair has gotten longer too… the braid looks nice on her.

Nana smiled as Junna reprimanded a young boy for playing with food while gently cleaning his face with a handkerchief. Perhaps it was the spark of pride for being the one to save Junna back then and now witnessing the fruition. And since she still carried the tanto, Nana assumed that the archer had learned to wield it adequately at least.

She barely managed to not wince when she was caught staring and hastily commented. “You’re good with children, Junna-chan.”

“Fueh-?” The shorter woman let out an odd but endearing noise before averting her eyes, her voice lowering to a bashful whisper. “I-I think you’re better with children. If it weren’t for you and those snacks, they would have avoided me.”

Nana playfully quirks an eyebrow at that, to which several of the children responded with cheeky grins.

“Hoshimi-san is scary!”

“Very scary! But strong!”

“Super awesome!”

“Scary strong!”

“I heard one time she stared at a demon and it fled!”

“That’s so cool!”

Junna’s face turned several shades of red, either from annoyance or embarrassment. Even then, she didn’t get angry at the children and merely adjusted her glasses.

“See? They adore you.”

“D-Don’t make fun of me please.”

“I’m not,” Nana chuckled at her exasperated expression. “You’re one of Acacia’s guardians after all. I really respect that.”

“You do?” Junna relaxed slightly, the curiosity in her gaze more prominent now as she peered up at the taller woman. “Uh, not to be rude but, you’re not from around here are you, Nana? I-I mean, I haven’t seen you around town… not that I know the name of everyone who lives here but I would’ve recognized you otherwise…”

“Hmm~ You’re correct. I don’t live here. Do you know the land across the sea, Gallia? I’m from a place further than that. Have you heard of Vertalis?” Nana gestured at the direction of the port with practiced ease. It was a well-rehearsed cover story that she and Hikari had drafted over the years. While it invited a lot of questions about the distant land, people tended to be more curious than wary due to how rare it was to meet someone from that far away. No one would be digging at their tale for lies and it gave them the leeway to present themselves as simple travellers.

“I’ve… heard about Vertalis. I believe some of the vendors sell produce, such as carrots, from there but those aren’t direct imports,” Junna says slowly, as if digesting the information. “In fact, they had to go through several intermediaries to get here. You’ve come a very long way…”

Junna trailed off and took out a notepad, scribbling comments and sketching a map much to Nana’s amusement and the children’s fascination.

“Yup! I’ve been around. You know what people say - go out there and expand your horizons~ I’m on my way to Albion actually but I decided to stop by Acacia to get some supplies and,” she patted her knapsack, where only one hand of bananas remained after sharing her purchase to the children. “I’m glad I did! These are some of the most delicious bananas I had for a while.”

“I’m glad you’re enjoying your stay here so far.” Junna straightened up, her eyes gleaming with pride. Her gaze then trailed over to the twin katanas by her hip, which prompted Nana to add.

“For self-defense, though I haven’t had the need to use them much lately.”

Junna nodded slowly, seemingly deep in thought. While it was not uncommon for travellers to carry weapons, Nana realized that she probably stood out in this part of Acacia where there were mostly farmers and other more down to earth civilians. Youkai were known to prey upon other human settlements around the world too, such as Gallia and Albion, but those incidences were not as frequent as the Fog that plagued Acacia.

“Which is why I’m so amazed, great Hachi,” Nana tried to pull Junna’s mind away from her katanas, “I’ve been hearing about this Kiri no Yoru and how the guardians have to fight against packs of youkais to protect Acacia! It must have been quite the terrible fight last night.”

“It was…”

Nana’s shoulders drooped, for her remark only made Junna even more troubled instead of lifting her spirits. There was guilt in her visage as she surveyed the destruction around them.

“Oh oh! I saw one of the boss monsters! It was a huuuuge serpent-thing with antlers! But Hoshimi-san shot it down!

“Yeah yeah! Hoshimi-san is so cool with her bow!”

Once again, Junna appeared at a loss at being the center of such positive attention. “I was just fulfilling my duties, it’s not that big of a deal-”

“But it is!” One of the smaller boys suddenly exclaimed. He cringed at the resulting silence and shrank behind Nana when Junna blinked at him. He was probably worried for interrupting the Hachi, but at Nana’s encouraging pat, he shuffled forward and gestured animatedly with his tiny arms. “You’re a heroine, Hoshimi-san! My dad’s a fisherman so I’m always scared that he’d get attacked by demons but you got rid of them! For us! I-I’m really grateful!”

Junna’s austere expression softened as she crouched down to the little boy’s eye level. “No, thank you, for believing in me, in us.”

Perhaps it was the circumstances, the way that the Hachi spoke, or even just that small gesture of kindness, for Nana felt a pang in her chest with a myriad of emotions. Relief that such an innocent young soul had such a dependable, sincere protector; envy that she was denied and robbed of a chance for a positive childhood; admiration for the woman with a noble heart.

“Well then, I should be getting back to work,” Junna straightened herself and motioned at the direction of the town. “You should all be getting back to your parents too. These areas aren’t repaired yet so it would make me feel better if you don’t linger for too long.”

A chorus of complaints was expected, though Junna patiently and firmly stood her ground until the children gave in. Still, it took more persuading for several to stop clinging to Nana. As she fondly watched the kids leave while waving back every few paces, she wondered if she would behave freely like them too, in another lifetime.

“So um, there are still a couple of errands I need to run,” Junna smiled up at her. “Thank you for the snack, Nana.”

“You’re welcome…” It’s been relaxing to converse with the Hachi and she didn’t want them to part yet. As she struggled to think of a reason to prolong their time together, Junna cleared her throat and averted her eyes.

“And since you’re new here, would you like me to s-show you around?”

Nana perked up, unable to contain her grin, though the timid and awkward part of her still compelled her to ask. “Are you sure? I mean, I’d love for you to accompany me but you have a busy schedule and I don’t want to be a bother… not to mention, you had a rough night, you should get proper rest as soon as you can.” She had noticed the bandaid on Junna’s cheek earlier and that her pale visage hadn’t improved over their snack break.

“You’re not a bother. Quite the opposite in fact,” Junna adjusted her glasses as she glanced over her notepad. “I just need to check in with some of the workers but I’ve done what I can for now. Talking to you and the children had re-energized me.”

“Really? That’s great to hear.” Chuckling in relief, Nana playfully curtsied. “Then please lead the way, Miss Hachi~”

Junna blinked at her antics but she unexpectedly took her arm in a light grip and began to lead her towards one of the arterial roads. It took a while for Nana to get used to following another person, for she had always been so independent and had to decide for herself which way she needed to go.

But this was refreshing, especially when her guide was so enthusiastic and obviously proud of her hometown.

While this wasn’t her first time in Acacia, it was certainly new to hear about brief backgrounds and highlights about specific areas of this culturally diverse place. For one, she didn’t know what the grand statue in the town square was supposed to be, and its significance to the residents. The abstract stone carving was a collage of the five mythical guardians that had protected the world in time immemorial: the vermillion phoenix of the Tendou Clan, the obsidian tortoise of the Saijou Clan, the white tiger of the Isurugi Clan, the azure dragon of the Hanayagi Clan, and lastly the center, the golden unicorn that was represented by the enigmatic Kirin and figurehead of the Hachi. She also learned about fun trivia such as the apothecary hidden from plain sight in one of the alleys and how it sold rare items like dried scorpions and apparently nekomata claws too.

Eventually, Junna led her to a boulevard teeming with people and carts carrying wooden planks and other materials. The hardworking Hachi excused herself briefly to speak with some of the workers about requests from the quartermaster as well as to confirm the allocation of manpower for the repairs. In work mode, Junna no longer stumbled over her words and spoke with the smooth confidence of someone used to managing people. It was inspiring really, just watching her.

If Nana remembered correctly, the market district should only be a few blocks down, where all sorts of vendors gathered in the form of actual shops, temporary stalls, or even just wares laid out on tarps on the side of the street. Her original plan was to go there to purchase food for her pantry and perhaps shop around for other necessities, and leave Acacia before noon. Alas, she had gotten sidetracked by the first grocery store that sold bananas and had soon found herself surrounded by children.

Now here she was, in the company of this well-adored Hachi.

Indeed, the workers and other passersby seemed humbled by having an esteemed member of the Eight amongst them. There was nothing but respect in the way they greeted Junna, from hearty words of gratitudes to sincere smiles. Apparently, she was the one who had established a program in which Kiri no Yoru victims can be treated cheaply at the town infirmary. Truth be told, Nana felt rather awkward standing off to the side, watching all these people vying for Junna’s attention.

Just as she was on the verge of simply slipping away into the crowds, Junna managed to extract herself and took hold of her arm once more. Though visibly tired, she also looked relieved now that she had completed her task.

“I’m sorry to keep you waiting, especially when I was the one who offered to show you around.” 

“It’s okay, you have many things to do after all.”

“It’s all taken care of for now! Um, you had some supplies you wish to purchase, right? Let’s head over to the marketplace then. I need to get some spare glasses as well.”

Fleetingly, Nana recalled how the young girl she had saved fumbled in the darkness, yet the children had claimed her to be a great archer. Perhaps she could pinpoint ki better than mere sight could do?

How do you see me then, human… or youkai? Nana was distracted from that depressing line of thoughts when Junna hastily greeted yet another enthusiastic person thanking her for protecting Acacia.

“Hehe, Junna-chan is like a celebrity~”

“How so?” 

“You have so many fans. Based on what I’ve heard earlier, you’re the reason why the injured folks were able to afford treatment. I think that’s really amazing.”

“Oh, that’s only possible because of the shared contributions from the four main families,” Junna shook her head and adjusted her glasses uncomfortably. “I didn’t do much.”

“Still, you started the program, didn’t you? Taking that first step is always something. Besides, everyone seems to… hmm, flock to you like bees to honey?”

“What kind of analogy is that?” Junna chuckled, her posture relaxing. “And I suppose it’s because the Hachi is usually not seen in public, especially not around this time. Because of our training schedule and nightly patrols, we don’t get to interact with the locals that often. They’re entitled to know more about the Fog, so naturally they would be coming to me to ask questions about what happened last night.”

“Hnn~ So modest,” Nana teased, leaning down so that she was peering up at Junna instead. “Maybe they want to talk to you just because?”

“T-That’s unlikely. I’m not Tendou-san or Saijou-san,” Junna frowned, her voice lowering rather wistfully, “I’m not like Karen or Mahiru-san either… people are more relaxed around them, while they always tense up around me. I wish they don’t have to be so reserved.”

“Is that so? I don’t get why though. I certainly don’t feel nervous talking to you.”

“Maybe it’s because you’re a traveler so you don’t have the preconception of the Hachi?”

“You should give yourself more credit. I think you’re a people person.”

“You’re better at it though, especially with the children earlier.”

“Like I said before, it’s only because of the bananas! Food helps along the process of making friends,” Nana twittered and patted her signature banana pigtails. “I suppose my special hairstyle helps too~”

“I don’t know how you got your hair to look like that. Karen wears her hair in pigtails too but… ah Karen is my friend, one of the Hachi that I usually team up with,” Junna shook her head, chuckling. She seemed rather fond of this Karen with the way her eyes softened even as she grumbled. “She is always so energetic and has a bounce in her steps so those pigtails sort of… flap like puppy ears.”

“Hmm, I can be a puppy too.” Nana pouted and pushed her pigtails upwards once more, smiling when Junna laughed at that.

“You really like bananas don’t you?”

“Yup! Not only they’re easier to find in the wild, they’re also quite nutritious. What’s your favorite fruit then?”

Junna fell silent for a moment, eyes furrowed as if taking this casual question as a serious inquiry. Nana patiently waited, even slowing down her pace for her companion.

“I don’t really have a preference but, if I have to pick something, it would be strawberries,” Junna says hesitantly, averting her eyes like a sheepish child. “I don’t really indulge myself often, since they’re rather expensive especially around this time of the year…”

“True, I like all kinds of food too but I rarely have funds to spare for the more pricey kind- urk!“ Nana was too immersed in learning more about her new friend that she inadvertently bumped into someone, right against her injured shoulder.

“Sorry about that!” The large worker struggled to regain balance with the various tools he carried, but he still managed to greet them amiably before continuing his way in a hurry.

Nana could only clutch at her shoulder and breathe deeply to suppress the burning pain.

“You’re hurt!” Junna quickly but gingerly ushered her away from the center of the road. “We must go to the clinic to get it checked out-”

“No, it’s okay, it’s not that bad,” Nana fought not to grimace and inwardly prayed that her scab did not tear.

“If you’re worried about the issue of being a foreigner, then it’s okay because I know the head physician. There’s nothing more important than making sure you get proper treatment.”

No one, especially not a medical professional, could see her wound. There would be too many questions about her accelerated healing and she certainly didn’t want Junna to think any different of her. Although, Junna’s sincere concern did make it difficult for her to lie.

“It was just a cut. It’s healing just fine - I had an encounter with… bandits back in Gallia. It’s been weeks. My shoulder is just a little sore, that’s all.”

“Oh… I thought maybe you fought against some youkais, ones that we Hachi failed to eliminate…”

“Youkai aren’t the only monsters out there,” Nana said quietly. “I just wasn’t expecting the pain. See? I’m fine.”

She carefully moved her arm, ignoring any stabs of pain, and mustered a small smile. Junna appeared unconvinced, though she seemed to be pondering over her words too.

“To my knowledge, there aren’t any bandits around these parts. Youkais have always been the main problem for us. I’ve never been out of Acacia so I don’t know what things are like out there…”

“Traveling is great, that I won’t deny. The adventures are fun and you learn so much about so many different things but still,” Nana’s smile dropped as she surveyed the busy street where people went about their daily lives with the certainty that they have a place to return to. “I’d rather have a… home, a place of belonging, y’know? Somewhere that would compel me to go back to if the trips become too much.”

“I suppose I’ve never really thought about such matters before,” Junna looked more troubled now but at least her attention wasn’t focused on the injured shoulder anymore. “I live at Seishouya, the Hachi’s headquarters, with my comrades, and my parents still kept my old room back at the Hoshimi compound. I guess I’ve taken things for granted, huh? Is that why you’re going to Albion?”

Nana had to take a moment to remind herself of her cover story. “Yes, sort of. I’ve never been there before, so maybe I’ll like it.”

“How about Acacia then? This is your first time here too.”

“Well, it’s only my first day so it’s hard to say,” Nana chuckled at Junna’s faint blush. The latter must have realized how brusque her question sounded, though Nana found such straightforwardness to be one of her charm points. It was true in a way that this was her first time here at Acacia, the Acacia that Junna was showing her. “Like I said earlier though, I’m glad I came here first. I got to meet you after all.”

“Aren’t you a flatterer,” Junna gave her glasses a habitual adjustment, her cheeks darkening.

“I’m just being honest. If I hadn’t met you, I would have left already without having enjoyed your company.”

“... I enjoy your company too.” Though a quiet mumble, Junna sounded like she meant her words and that truly warmed Nana’s heart.

Reassured that she really made a new friend, she allowed herself to relax more and chat about personal things, such as preference in clothing style and colors. She couldn’t remember the last time she talked this much about herself, about Daiba Nana, to someone who seemed just as curious to learn too.

As Junna led her around the marketplace and talked a little bit about each shop, she was making mental notes about the helpful archer instead of the surroundings. The basic layout hadn’t changed since her last visit, with commodities like rice, wheat and spice displayed on one side while handicrafts and tools were sold in more crowded formations on the other side. Junna’s love of literature and constellations were more fascinating than the stores.

She almost made a beeline for the book stall but sheepishly stopped in time to gesture at one of the cheaper bakeries. Under her recommendation, Nana managed to get a good deal on bread, cheese, a bag of flour and even some mushrooms. This was probably the best use of funds that she’s done in years. With her selling deep forest herbs and berries and Hikari selling the game she’s hunted, the two of them only managed to scrape by every day. They only invested in practical items like whetstones for their blades, rolls of fabric to mend torn clothes or to be used as blankets when it got too cold, and of course kitchenware.

Humming, Nana slung her knapsack over her good shoulder, pleased with all stuff she bought with more than enough funds to spare. Maybe she could buy one of the books that Junna spoke of. Fiction was a decent alternate reality to escape into whenever the real world got too stressful, and it was always fun to immerse herself in a good story. She knew that Hikari was an avid reader as well, from the rare times that she talked about her Albion days. Therefore, such extra purchase should be welcomed.

“What was that novel you mentioned earlier, Junna-chan? It was written by an Albion author, about a romance between two feuding families…” Nana trailed off at Junna’s silence, finally noticing just how pale the latter looked. “Let’s find a place for you to rest.”

“I’m okay…” Her wispy voice was the only warning Nana got before she swayed and toppled forward.

Nana instinctively caught Junna before she fell, though the impact jostled her injured shoulder and caused a groan to slip through her gritted teeth. Hearing that, Junna tried to pull away but she could only clutch at the taller woman’s cloak to remain standing.

“I’m sorry… I just n-need a minute…”

The sheer fatigue in her voice made Nana’s stomach churn. How could she not have noticed earlier? She should have insisted on making Junna go home to rest after her errands were completed. From the way she treated the people, it was obvious that she put them before herself and thus didn’t say anything during their shopping.

“Pardon me,” she lowered her voice firmly and wrapped one arm around Junna’s waist before the latter could react. While she wasn’t able to carry the shorter woman due to her injury and the full knapsack, she could at least support her weight as much as possible.

Awkwardly and slowly, the pair made their way towards an open area that had some benches and tables, most likely for customers of a nearby teashop. A few elderly men, upon noticing their approach, hastily vacated their spot for them.

“Thank you kindly.” Nana smiled as they fussed over the mortified Hachi, saying that they were about to leave anyway and she needed the seat more than they did, after everything she had done for Acacia.

“I can’t believe this… that elders would put me before them…” Junna sighed shakily, taking off her glasses to briefly rub her eyes. “Again, I’m sorry about-”

“That’s not what I want to hear, Junna-chan, and I should be the one to apologize. I didn’t realize just how tired you are.”

“No, that’s only because I purified the mizuchi…”

Ki depletion. That makes sense. So, she can purify youkais-? “We will take a break here, and then I’ll escort you back home, okay? You’ve done enough today,” Nana peered at the visibly dizzy woman, uncertain what she could do to help. After a moment’s hesitation, she unclasped her cloak and took off her coat to drape it around Junna’s slouched form. “I’ll be right back.”

“H-huh-? Where are you-”

Without giving her a chance to protest, Nana went to order a pot of hot tea. A nearby vendor caught her attention too, and she impulsively purchased the box of strawberries after a brief inner apology to Hikari about splurging their funds. Already, she could picture Junna’s visage lighting up with delight and that was enough of a reason. Truth be told, she felt self-conscious about this impromptu gift, considering they just became friends, but she couldn’t think of a better way to treat the hardworking Hachi.

Her money pouch was practically weightless by the time she was ready to return to the table. Junna looked rather small, covered by her large coat, and she was resting her chin on her interlaced fingers, valiantly trying not to doze off.

Before Nana could call out to her though, two women approached Junna and were greeted with a sheepish smile. The pigtailed brunette was gesturing animatedly while the dark-haired one was speaking in a quiet tone, both of them clearly concerned.

“We went all over the place looking for you, Junjun! Futaba-chan said she hasn’t seen you since this morning!”

“You should have gone back to Seishouya long ago. You must be terribly tired.”

“I can still-”

“Non non da yo, Junjun! You always tell us to take care of ourselves, so it’s Mahiru-chan and my turn to fuss over you now!”

“Karen-chan is right, Junna-chan. Come on, you can lean on us.”

Junna’s eyes were previously clouded in exhaustion but now there was a spark in them that could only be caused by the presence of her two friends. Even though Nana was only several paces away, Junna seemed so far out of reach then.

The pang of solitude reminded her that the Hachi had her own world and she was just a mere acquaintance. Therefore, she should act like one instead of overthinking things. She cleared her throat awkwardly, almost reluctant to intrude but still she would like Junna to enjoy the snacks she bought even if she wouldn’t be around to witness it.

“Here you go, something to give you a bit of energy!”

“Nana-?” The bespectacled woman blinked at the box of strawberries and pot of tea that she carefully placed on the table.

“Seems like your friends have found you, Junna-chan. Now that you’re in good hands, I shall take my leave.” She politely nodded at the two women, who looked surprised at their exchange. “Thanks for showing me around. I really appreciate it.”

“W-wait!” Junna struggled to stand up and might have stumbled if it weren’t for the pigtailed brunette’s reflex. “Your coat, thanks, um, for all of this… I-I’d like to repay you somehow. Oh, how about tomorrow? I’ll be functioning better by then, I hope, and besides there’s the upcoming festival that I’d like to tell you more about so, uh, if you’re fine with staying around Acacia a while longer?”

Nana was too taken aback by the invitation that she barely noticed Junna rambling and her friends exchanging significant looks.

“Of course. I’d love to spend more time here, with you,” she tried to keep her voice steady, accepting her coat back. “Please rest well, Junna-chan. I’ll… see you tomorrow then?”

“Yes, at noon… I’ll be here.”

Not trusting herself to speak properly, Nana could only nod at that and hurried away before her composure cracked. That fleeting bout of loneliness was washed away by the anticipation of seeing her new friend again tomorrow. Though emotional, the overall positive sensation was euphoric to the point that she felt as if she was skipping on clouds.

She considered her ability to mask her true feelings quite honed over the years but Junna easily pierced through her walls, like arrows even. That wasn’t a bad thing though, for a weight was lifted off her chest and this was definitely one of the most interesting days she’s had for a long time.

Nevermind having to hide her true identity. Nevermind that deadly duel against the strongest of the Hachi. Nevermind the countless problems that lurked in the future.

Instead of trudging through each day and simply surviving to maintain the facade of a peaceful life, she had something to look forward to at last.

I’ll be more observant tomorrow, Junna-chan. I’ll make sure you have a good time accompanying me!

A spike of angry ki caused her to tense for a moment but she dropped her guard slightly upon recognizing who was waiting for her by the edge of the town. She gulped nervously at Hikari’s icy glare and wondered if it was too late to beg for forgiveness. She did promise to would return before she woke up, with freshly baked treats too.

Not to mention I barely have any funds left… yikes.

“It is late afternoon.”

Nana tried to smile to diffuse the tension. “I’m sorry, I got caught up but uh, I promise I’ll whip up a delicious meal as soon as we get home… you must be really hungry.”

“I was.”

It was then that Nana noticed her companion wasn’t as upset as expected. In fact, having known the emotionless woman for years, she would even dare say Hikari looked… pleased? And what was the small white item clipped to her belt? Some sort of bear plushie?

“What is that-”

“Don’t ask.” Hikari hastily covered it with her cloak and stormed away. “Hurry up. Just because I got some stew earlier doesn’t mean I’m not hungry.”

“But really, where did you get-”

“Quiet. I do not want to hear another word from you.”

Grinning, Nana easily caught up to the fuming woman with a few strides but wisely remained silent as told. It was so rare that Hikari was in a good mood and she’d like to relish that for as long as she could. Their familiar bickering allowed her to calm down and regain control over her emotions at least.

It seemed like she wasn’t the only one who had a great time in town today. Once they had settled down and Hikari was more complacent with a filled stomach, Nana vowed to get the details.

She would really love for this quotidienne sort of life to become the norm.

Chapter Text

It had been days since Junna had visited the range to practice her shooting, but it was only now that she had found the time and energy to do so. Acacia had been repaired and its citizens’ hollers have become more about preparing for the festival rather than scrambling for supplies, changing the overall tone of its clamor to something far more joyful. As things settled down, so did Junna’s responsibilities. Instead of heading straight to town every morning, she now had the luxury of allocating time for practice and this morning she found that she was in dire need of it.

She took a deep breath as an arrow nocked satisfyingly onto Hisuiya’s bowstring. She rooted herself to the ground and drew, her shoulder muscles tensing and stretching as the ball joint rolled smoothly in its socket. Her elbow, however, popped inaudibly in complaint. This was typical when she had not spent enough time at the range. Like a machine, the body must also be tuned and oiled regularly otherwise it would degrade and rust. Her muscles were facing a similar struggle. Bruised during the last Fog Night, parts of her body still felt a bit stiff, like her side which had collided with a tree branch. It was no longer painful and a hindrance whatsoever, but it made the drawing stretch not as fluid as it should. No matter, with a few more stretches, she should be good as new.

Junna then let the arrow fly. There was always something utterly freeing when an arrow was released from a tense bowstring. It was like a breath of fresh air, a pulse of lightning in the distance. That powerful twang and the vigorous vibrations from the bow definitely made it seem alive somehow, a beast tamed by the archer. And just like a well-trained animal, the bow had sent the arrow flying right into the center of the target many paces away.

But not the bull’s eye.

“Great form, Junna,” the familiar voice of Isurugi Futaba encouraged her from the entrance. “I take it you’re completely well now?”

The archer lowered her bow and acknowledged the other woman, “yes, I have fully recovered.” She then sighed and readjusted her glasses after facing her long-time friend, “I really need a new pair.”

Futaba’s brow rose, “you still haven’t been able to grab a new one?”

Junna shook her head, “There was no time. I’m just glad the Fog hadn’t returned yet. These have been my spares for a long time and it seems that they’re not the best grade for long distances. It’s either that or my eyesight is becoming worse.” The thought certainly depressed her. Even as a child, Junna had been ashamed of her sight, and while she never let it hinder her from doing what she loved and doing it well, it definitely made things a lot more challenging.

Her sight becoming even worse than it already was seemed like a nightmare.

“Then it’d be best to have that checked, yeah?” Ever the responsible one, Futaba’s tone of voice was firm but supportive. In a strange way, Junna believed that everyone in the Hachi thought of her as an elder sister even though they were all roughly around the same ages. “Anyway, I’m here to tell you that breakfast at the common room is ready. Mahiru cooked today so we thought it’d be great to have everyone eat together.”

Junna smiled, “We haven’t had a group meal in a while, have we?”

“Since forever.” The shorter woman scratched the back of her head in exasperation, “The Fog Night becoming more unpredictable doesn’t help. A lot of times I feel like a headless chicken running around at night.”

Junna returned Hisuiya in its holder, nodding in empathy. Either they were fighting youkai or helping Acacia rebuild. The unpredictability of the Kiri no Yoru had worried her for a while now. Perhaps it was because the Kyuubi was near? It was so difficult to anticipate a supernatural event and she did not like it one bit. If the Fog was more foreseeable, if she could only figure out its source and what caused it to spill from the deep forest, she might have a chance in stopping it for good without sacrificing any of her friends to fight the almighty Kyuubi no Kitsune. Alas, even with her extensive research, only one solution was consistent: Kill the Kyuubi.

With a sigh, Junna dropped her depressing train of thought and joined her comrade by the door, “Let’s go then.”

“Sure thing but would you mind if we go and grab Kuroko as well?” Futaba rolled her shoulder and folded her arms behind her head in her familiar boyish manner. Junna supposed that she was still worried about her friend’s well-being. While Tendou Maya was recovering, Saijou Claudine only seemed more tense lately, going as far as isolating herself from the rest of the Hachi.

“You know, if she wants her space, maybe it’d be best if we let her be for as long as she needs,” Junna supplied with sincerity. While she wanted their group dynamic to return to how it was before, she also did not want to force things, especially with someone like Claudine who could be stubborn to a fault.

“Nah,” Futaba grinned devilishly, “this is Kuroko we’re talking about. She gets lonely easily if no one bothers her. The longer we leave her alone, the more she’ll overthink things. She’s probably in her room right now, frustrated about one thing or another.”

Junna couldn’t help a quiet chortle. Claudine had proven time and time again that she could be as unexpected as the weather. Most of the time, the blonde woman was like a fair periwinkle sky, humming to herself as she walked down the corridors, while at others, she was like a tempest with all the electricity and gales of a typhoon. They all liked Claudine, however, despite the mood swings and her competitiveness, and Junna was sure that the others would love to eat with her.

“You two are really close, aren’t you?” Junna mused as they walked through the vast wooden corridors of Seishouya’s Hachi dormitories.

“Kuroko and I?” Futaba chuckled, “I guess you can say that. I’ve always admired how driven and hardworking she is despite her lineage. She really, truly, wants to follow in her mother’s footsteps in her own way, and not just ride on the Slayer’s tailcoat. She hates disappointing herself more than disappointing her parents or other people, and I think that’s commendable.”

Junna nodded in understanding. She of all people knew that feeling. Coming into the Hachi was not something offered to her as a child, like how it was for Kaoruko or Maya. No, she had to prove herself, again and again, to the Hoshimi Clan, and there have been many times in which she failed. She did not let that stop her, however, for she was fighting for herself. She viewed her endeavours as a way of conquering her own shortcomings; her lack of powerful ki or her imperfect eyesight.

Perhaps Claudine fought not for her mother’s prestige, but her own ladder to greatness.

To become greater than her Slayer mother.

“As the saying goes, ‘I am my worst critic’,” she supplied in an even tone as she took off her practice gloves.

To which, Futaba smirked in agreement, “Best critic to kick yourself on the ass so you can improve. So… everything’s in order by the docks now?”

Their conversation naturally flowed into work as usual. Futaba was the responsible type as well, and she was the most active in overseeing repairs aside from Junna herself, thus taking the reconstruction project as her own personal venture. Despite it being her first real day off, Junna welcomed the topic as it passed the time they spent walking from one end of the dormitories to the other, where Claudine’s room was located.

While the majority of the Seishouya compound was modernized and influenced by western design, the Hachi dorms still retained its traditional appearance, with wooden decks, sliding doors, tatami mats, and zen gardens. When she first moved in here after her initiation, Junna sincerely thought that it was comparable to those centuries-old hot spring hotels by the mountain side. It was not as convenient to live in as the newer infrastructure of the compound but it gave them privacy and the space to train to their heart’s content. The sparring area was certainly big enough for all seven of them to fight a melee if they have to.

She and Futaba navigated the inner corridors in comfortable silence once they were satisfied with the work they have done in the city. She surveyed the rooms as they went, noting with fondness how Mahiru and Karen’s room nameplates had cutesy caricatures etched on it.

“Is Hanayagi-san already awake?” Junna inquired as they passed Futaba’s room.

The shorter woman shrugged, “She should be in the common room now, causing havoc.”

Junna chuckled at her friend’s typical response and simply followed her to the larger rooms near the end of the wing. She briefly glanced at the large double doors at the very end and wondered how the Tenkai was doing. She hadn’t been able to visit Maya at all these past weeks due to her duties and her wanting to give the person she respected enough time and space to recuperate, but she should probably go visit later just to see how she was doing.

“Kuroko~” Futaba called, approaching a nearby door and knocked solidly against the frame. However, when no response was heard even after a few tries, they looked at each other worriedly and decided to open the door.

Since Claudine’s room faced east, Junna and Futaba were instantly blinded by the splash of sunlight the moment they entered. The blonde woman’s ostentatious white themed decor added to the brightness of the place as well. Junna had always been impressed with how the half-foreigner’s room looked, because even though Claudine was born and raised here in Acacia, she mostly took after her foreign mother’s tastes and culture. So instead of the standard futons that most of them used, the blonde had a canopy bed piled high with pillows and swathed in white sheets. On one side of the room was a simple white vanity table, where a set of brushes and hair accessories were arranged, while directly across from it was a display shelf where a couple of sheathed swords of varying lengths were carefully placed, and a violin case lovingly laid on top of a velvet cloth. By the corner was an armor mannequin, and on it were Claudine’s navy blue coat, plated pauldron and cape, fauld, gauntlets and greaves.

It was like stepping into a whole different country, if not for the familiar design of the walls.

Whoosh~! Swoosh!

“Ah, no wonder she couldn’t hear us,” Futaba huffed and proceeded towards the sliding doors that opened up towards the yard. Beyond the doors was a spacious grass garden, with magnolias and camellias planted to the side which gave the area a strong scent of bouquet. Junna took in the sight for a moment for it was not often that she got to enter the high-ranking Hachi’s quarters. Even out here, Claudine’s preference for white was evident.

The woman herself was in the middle of the yard, wearing only her thin hooded shirt and cotton trousers. Her ashen blonde hair was tied up in a ponytail and it whipped fiercely as she swung her mighty blade, Fierte. Junna had always thought that Claudine’s choice of a weapon was odd, for her mother was famous for her rapier and her father was a member of the Saijou Clan which was known for their kendo. Still, watching her practice her slashes was a sight to behold. The blonde woman was already physically strong, but Junna knew just how devastating that zweihander was with ki boosting its blows.

Mahiru might be able to crush a youkai’s head in, but Claudine was known to sever whole limbs or decapitate with a single swing.

And she was fast too. Having inherited an outstanding capacity for ki from her mother, Claudine could reinforce her limbs with energy, making her blows effortless and much faster than any normal person would be if they were wielding such a cumbersome weapon. Indeed, if not for Maya’s more refined ki control, superior agility and the finesse for unrivaled efficiency, Saijou Claudine would have been the Tenkai.

In Junna’s eyes, the two women were equal but no matter how much time passed, it seemed the blonde still considered her position to be lesser than Maya’s. Although, that may no longer be the case in the near future, if the Kirin decided that Maya was no longer fit to be the Tenkai, it would most likely choose Claudine as her replacement.

“Oi, Kuroko!”

The call had Claudine staggering mid-swing, “Quand même! Ne m'interrompez pas! Je t’ai déjà dit ça -- Oh, it’s you Futaba.”

Futaba rubbed her ear nonchalantly, evidently used to the blonde’s outbursts in Gallian. “Time for food,” she told the taller woman, “And Mahiru ain’t taking ‘no’ for an answer.”

At the mention of Mahiru, Claudine almost immediately cooled down, “Mahiru?”

“Yep, so put that sword down, get cleaned up and we’ll all go eat.”

The blonde scowled and huffed, as was her way, and picked up Fierte’s sheath from the deck. She covered her massive weapon and sassily flicked her hair, “If Mahiru insists…”

Futaba smirked, knowing well that no one could resist Mahiru’s cooking. “Oh, she does. Jokes aside though, it’s about time you join us again.”

Junna nodded in agreement, “It would be nice to have everyone at the table again.”

Claudine clucked her tongue, proudly holding her arms akimbo, “You’re not playing fair, Futaba. How dare you use Junna against me?”

The shorter woman only grinned.

“Use...against you?” Junna blinked, finding herself lost all of the sudden.

“Hehe, I knew she won’t be able to refuse if I bring you or Karen here. But since Karen is attached at the hip with Mahiru, you’re the perfect choice.”

Junna stared at the redhead with a deadpan expression, “Ulterior motives. I should’ve known.” She ended up smiling anyway. It was nice to have such light-hearted banter with the two women after the hectic past few weeks.

Claudine led them back inside her room, where she placed Fierte to rest next to the armor mannequin. “Well, allow me to make myself presentable. Shoo! Va de l'autre côté et attends-moi.

With a well-placed shove, Junna and Futaba were ushered outside towards the corridor with the door solidly shut behind them. Futaba looked pleased with herself though, which made Junna shake her head. “She seems to be in a good mood.

“Heh, oh she is. Told you she gets lonely when no one bothers her.”

“That could have ended badly if she weren’t.” After all, the blonde was waving her sword like it was a mere stick mere moments ago.

“Nah, Kuroko is a softie. She wouldn’t hurt us. She’d probably bark at us in Gallian but that’s pretty much it.”

“I’ll take your word for it. I’m sure you’re used to getting… barked at.”

At that, Futaba laughed heartily.

Merci d'avoir patienté.” Claudine emerged from her room a few minutes later, looking refreshed after changing her clothes. “Let’s not allow the food to get cold~”

“Had I not fetched you, you wouldn’t even know there was food.”

The blonde waved the comment away, “I would’ve found myself there eventually. Now, come come.”

Junna walked behind her two comrades, content that Claudine was humming again as they strolled. It felt somewhat normal again, with the two friends bantering about experiences and common interests. Truly, the only thing missing was Maya emerging from her room with her familiar aloofness and reserved smile to join them to breakfast.

This was how they spent the minutes walking towards the common room, perhaps the most westernized part of the Hachi dormitories. Sliding doors were nowhere to be seen here as they have been replaced by thick hardwood ones with brass knobs. The double doors to the common room was taken a step further as it was accentuated with glass so the people within would be visible. And indeed, from the outside, Junna could see three of her friends.

“It smells wonderful~” Claudine remarked as Futaba opened the door, revealing surprised but pleased expressions from Mahiru, Karen and Kaoruko.

“Well look who it is~” Hanayagi Kaoruko’s devilish smile widened as they entered and took a seat. “I’m starting to actually miss you, Kuro-han.”

“I can’t say the feeling is mutual but it is very nice to see you as well, Kaoruko.”

“Indeed, we were beginning to think that you were never going to leave your room.”

“Oh?” Claudine’s chuckle were like chimes, pretty to hear but could also ring with warning. “But I heard you had trouble leaving your bed.”

Kaoruko sighed wistfully, “It’s not easy to recover from a purification ritual~ and from a very vigorous Futaba-han~”

Claudine’s brow furrowed at the implication and rolled her eyes. Meanwhile, Karen, who had been helping Mahiru plate up the food from behind the marble counter piped in, “Vigorous?”

The Hanayagi heiress flicked her fan open and smiled mysteriously behind it, “Yes, Futaba-han was so intense last night--”

“Oi!” Futaba interjected while pouring everyone some tea, her face tinged pink. “Kaoruko!” She admonished, “You know Karen hangs onto every word you say! Don’t give her ideas.”

To this, the foxy blunette winked, “Ehe~”

“Oh, did you two train last night?” The cheerful brunette asked innocently as she delivered the plates of food on the table. “It’s really nice that the Kiri no Yoru hasn’t come so everyone has some time to train. But… I don’t think I can ever handle training for too long at night since I’d rather sleep. How do you two do it?!”

Kaoruko, who had promptly asked Futaba to massage her shoulders, smirked even wider, to the point that alarm bells were ringing in Junna’s mind. “Well~ a bit of sake and Futaba-han is such a beast that I struggle to keep up~ She keeps tossing me on different positions--”

“Kaoruko!”

“Oh! Is that why you have a few bruises, Kaoruko-chan? I couldn’t help but notice earlier because they look a little painful. Why would Futaba-chan strike you on the neck though…”

“Why indeed~” Kaoruko hummed as she not so subtlety pulled at her kimono and finger-brushed her locks to cover some of the tell-tale marks on her neck and shoulders. “That seems to be one of Futaba-han’s favorite spots. I must say that my legs weren’t left unmarked either~”

Futaba choked while Junna blushed. Junna couldn’t help but look down at Kaoruko’s unabashedly exposed outer thigh, where her infamous seiryuu tattoo was. There, just peeking from under the cloth was indeed a purple bruise.

Junna immediately tore her eyes away and rearranged her glasses to regain her composure. She cursed at the fact that her ears felt much too hot for her liking.

Karen, who was just unable to think of such things, nodded, “Since you’re both polearm users, getting hit on the legs during a spar must happen a lot.”

“K-Karen-chan, l-let’s eat, ne?” Mahiru nudged her friend to take a seat, her cheeks also noticeably pink because of the conversation.

"Yes, enough about lil old me~ I want to know more about you girls.” Kaoruko leaned forward and rested her chin on an upturned palm, smiling like an evil conspirator. “Especially Junna-han~”

Junna froze at the mention of her name, “What about me?”

“I’ve been chatting with Karen-han all~ morning about the repairs and she shared something very interesting~” The blunette giggled and sipped her tea, “I’m told that you have been seen with a rather dashing foreigner; tall, golden-haired, and already getting you gifts?”

Junna gaped, her eyes as wide as that of a startled deer. She was so shocked that she didn’t even realize she froze holding her tea cup partially on its way to her mouth.

“Ohlala~” Now even Claudine perked up with interest after ignoring Kaoruko’s smug tales from before. “This is news to me.”

“Yeah, she was super nice!” Karen exclaimed in between bites of her food, “Those strawberries she gave Junjun looked super delicious! I wanted to try some but Mahiru-chan said it’s exclusively for Junjun… oh and Banana also lent her really big cloak to Junjun while they were sitting by the teashop too!”

“Ara… a she~”

"Wait, what the heck? Why don’t I know about this?”

“Oh, Futaba-han~ you’re never up-to-date with such things~”

Excusé moi… Banana-?”

Karen giggled and scratched her cheek, “I didn’t really catch her name because she left in a hurry but she was carrying a bunch of bananas and they’re same color as her hair so… Banana!”

“Banana-chan seems to be a kind person,” Mahiru timidly added. “She looked really concerned about Junna-chan when we saw her.”

“Yeah!” Karen nodded enthusiastically in response, “You’ve been meeting with her almost every day since then, right Junjun?”

“I… I…” Junna could not, for the life of her, think of any way to respond properly. Since she had become such fast friends with Nana, she had entertained the idea of properly introducing her to the rest of the Hachi, especially since Nana seemed to be such an admirer of their work. She never thought that her friends would know about her in this manner, leaving her rather unprepared for Kaoruko’s inevitable teasing.

"Everyday hmm~? I should've known, Junna-han is the studious type after all~ So very thorough ne?"

“T-thorough? N-no that’s not it at all!”

“So~” The malice in Kaoruko’s eyes were inescapable, “How far have you gotten, hmm~?”

Junna couldn’t tell whether she was blushing furiously or blanching as white as a ghost. She didn’t even think of Nana that way!

Did she?

No, no way! Nana was just a friend-- a really nice, rather pretty friend whose gentle voice she couldn’t get out of her head. Not to mention, she might have been the same person who saved her all those years ago?

And she smelled of pine needles.

It was nice.

“She’s thinking of her,” Kaoruko was flapping her fan with the most smug smile on her face. “She can’t even retort.”

Futaba’s gasp of disbelief was audible, “No way, but...but this is Junna! She has never even so much as glanced at anyone before.”

The woman in question was speechless. Most of her blood had flooded her face, leaving her brain without any oxygen supply to defend herself. Of course, the more Junna tried to divert her thoughts elsewhere--like coming up with a good comeback from all this teasing-- the more she thought of her golden-haired friend, whose presence have become such a nice addition to her day that she actually looked forward to seeing her.

In fact, they were supposed to meet up later.

Junna blushed even more at the realization that her meetings with Nana definitely did not fit the norm for her. She had never anticipated meeting a specific person this much before. She attempted to hide the fact by fiddling with her glasses but there was only so much it could do to hide the redness of her face.

“Yep, definitely thinking of her.”

“Oui."

“Well, I for one am very happy that Junjun has made a new friend!” Karen exclaimed, and Junna couldn’t decide whether to thank her or not for diffusing such a loaded question. “You’ve always been worried about being unapproachable right? Well Banana definitely proved that wrong!”

 “Err… yeah, I… suppose so. Or maybe she’s just weird…”

“Well? Aren’t you going to tell us her name, Junna?” Claudine prodded albeit more gently than Kaoruko, who just looked ready to consume every last bit of juicy information that would be shared here. Actually, nevermind, Claudine--who, for the most part, wasn’t very interested in other people’s affairs-- asking her such questions should be worrying enough!

But, Junna supposed they were all just eager to learn more because they were her family.

She shrank a little in her seat, grasping the cloth of her pants under the table to regain her composure. However, her voice still came out thinly and unbearably fond when she said, “Her name is Nana. D-Daiba Nana. Um, she’s just a traveler though, from Vertalis. She told me she is on her way to Albion.”

“A traveler... from Vertalis?” Mahiru mused as she passed another cup of hot tea towards Junna’s direction. She looked like she was going to add more to her thoughts but Junna noticed that the timid woman simply pressed her lips together to stop herself.

“Dai… Banana…” Kaoruko sounded like a straggled rat by the way she choked at her reiteration and how she tried valiantly not to laugh behind her fan.

Futaba elbowed her side, “Kaoruko…”

“Ah! So she really is Banana!” Karen proclaimed with zeal and a genuine interest in the person who Junna befriended. “Have you repaid her yet for looking after you the other day? Mou… it’d be really nice if you introduce her to us properly Junjun!”

“Well she does seem to love bananas so--"

“So… is she big?”

This time Futaba gagged on her tea, nearly spitting it out. “Kaoruko!”

“Oh, yes!” Karen helpfully supplied, “She’s very big!”

“Ara ara~~~”

“Huh… it can’t be,” Claudine interjected, “I have the biggest, after all. Sword, I mean.”

“Kuroko, you ain’t helping!”

Karen tilted her head in confusion, “But Banana only carried katanas. I didn’t mean that she has a big sword, Kuro-chan. Banana is just really tall! I had to look up at her when I saw her that one time!”

“Karen-chan,” Mahiru patted her friend’s shoulder, “Maybe we should stop now? Junna-chan looks like she has completely stopped functioning.”

Truly, Junna didn’t even know what was going on anymore. One moment she was looking forward to a wholesome meal and then the next she was bombarded with questions and all these assumptions her friends have about Nana. It was really too much.

“But Junna-han, we’re just curious about your friend~”

“Oui, it’s not everyday that we learn new things about you, Junna."

“Though, I really want to know just how big this Banana-han is--”

“Kaoruko!”

“Enough with the teasing already,” Junna sighed raggedly as she pinched the bridge of her nose. Though not upset, she was getting rather exhausted about the turn of events. “I just met Nana at the marketplace and I asked her to tag-along because she might not know her way around town. She helped me out and… even looked after me because I was tired. That’s it. She got me those strawberries to cheer me up, I guess. We meet up often this past week because she’s an admirer of the Hachi and is interested in the upcoming festival.”

Kaoruko shed her vexing expression in lieu of a softer, more understanding one, “Are you sure she’s really fascinated by our culture or is simply interested in you, Junna-han?” She then sat back into her seat and twirled her fan by its ribs, “I don’t know her, of course, but from what you’re telling me that’s definitely what I see. There’s nothing wrong with it, but perhaps it would be more… fruitful if you really understand her motives, especially since it sounds like you’re quite fond of her too.”

“I-I don’t… I’ve never…”

“Ah… I really should’ve just put you on the horse that morning and took you home,” Futaba scratched the back of her head. “But since we’re here already, I guess I should let you know that it’s good to have a special someone. Our lives can be very lonely and, unfortunately, can also be very short. If you can… go for it and you’ll have no regrets if the end comes early, y’know?”

“Ehe~ well said, Futaba-han~”

Futaba reddened almost immediately, “Oh, shut it.”

A pregnant silence came with all the women at the table smiling thoughtfully at Kaoruko and Futaba’s words.

“Mou… why do you both assume that I like her that way?” Junna sighed and took a moment to wipe her glasses with her handkerchief.

“Because it’s easier than assuming that you don’t~”

“This isn’t getting anywhere…”

“M-maa… it’s still wonderful that you’ve found yourself a friend, Junna-chan.” Mahiru smiled angelically at her and that made her feel a little better. Still, panic still plagued Junna’s mind because now she was thinking back on the times she was with Nana and she couldn’t stop. She observed Nana a lot during their time together because the taller woman was so interesting, but all of the sudden all her observations passed through a different lens.

“Y-yeah…” she mumbled in response even though she was utterly confused and her heart was pounding much too fast against her ribcage.

“Um… Junna-chan? May I ask you to deliver Tendou-san’s food to her room for me? I have... many errands to run today so I must leave early.” Mahiru stood from her seat after having finished her meal. She then gestured to the covered food carefully arranged on the tray on the kitchen counter.

“Tendou-san’s? Uh…” Junna warily glanced at Claudine’s direction, who rapidly focused a bit too hard at her own plate of food upon the mention of the Tenkai’s name. For a brief second, she was worried that the blonde might want to bring her partner’s food herself. “Sure, I suppose. I’ve been meaning to visit her anyway.”

Even now, Maya’s name was capable of abruptly changing the atmosphere around them. And while Junna was glad that she was no longer the center of attention, she still lamented the fact that their group dynamic still suffered due to the Tenkai’s grievous injuries. Everyone was worried about Maya, understandably so, but her defeat had been so unexpected and demoralizing that the Hachi have yet to fully recover from it. After all Maya was the strongest of them all yet she was defeated with no sign of the Kyuubi sustaining damage whatsoever.

Mahiru rested a hand on her shoulder as she stood up, “It makes me sad that she can’t join us here like she used to but it’s even sadder if she doesn’t get to eat the same food we do. Thinking about that makes me lonely so I always make her a portion whenever I’m on kitchen duty. I hope she enjoys it.”

Junna patted her friend’s hand and gave it a squeeze. “Anyone would enjoy your cooking. Well, I should get going then. She must be hungry.” She then mouthed a quiet ‘thank you’ when none of the others were looking as she picked up the tray.

Before she could safely leave the common room, however, Kaoruko just had to throw one last jab,  "Just don't jump her so soon, okay~? Futaba-han and I don't want to become grandparents so young already~"

Junna flushed so hard and fast she nearly lost her grip on the tray. “G-Grandparents?! You know what… I’m not even going to respond to that.” She exited the common room and hastily closed the door behind her.

“Seriously, what’s she thinking? It’s just Nana…” Junna grumbled to herself as she retraced her steps towards the Hachi dormitories. As far as she was concerned, Nana had never even shown an ounce of interest in her in that way. She was merely friendly; an overall great person. No, that whole debacle during breakfast was just all Kaoruko and her teasing ways. That was just her way of making them forget about the daily rigors of their station.

"I'm glad you look much better today, Junna-chan."

"Hehe, today's Junna-chan is lively too! Ok, I shall do my best to keep up!"

"Ah, Junna-chan, try this! I made them from the bananas I bought."

"Oh there's something on your cheek... there, all clean!"

Junna paused in the middle of the corridor as a deluge of memories from the past several days flooded her. Nana’s voice and optimism, her thoughtfulness and genuine concern, and her bright jade-hued eyes that looked so happy even though they did nothing but walk around town with a small notebook on hand doing mundane things. They talked more about Acacia than each other too, and despite that, Nana was so considerate and amiable. Junna loved spending time with her because she felt lighter and comfortable despite only knowing the golden-haired woman for such a short time. At first, she supposed that it was just like hanging around with Karen, who was also a bright ray of sunshine, or Mahiru, who was like an angel on earth, but Nana…

Now that she looked back on it, Nana was a peculiar character and endearing to a fault. She was a tall woman, who towered over her and when she was musing about one thing or other, she looked rather mature, almost melancholic. However, she lighted up like a firework when she saw items or locations that interested her. Like when they passed by the main square of Acacia, where the first set of decorations for the festival have been mounted the other day, Nana positively glowed in excitement. Junna remembered asking the golden-haired woman if she had ever seen an Acacian festival before but Nana could not even tear her eyes away to answer her. Truly, she was like a child in a sweets shop.

Speaking of sweets, Junna also noted that Nana had sweet tooth, or at least she loved making treats. She seemed infinitely proud of that banana bread she gave Junna, and upon being given even the slightest of praises, she preened very cutely, not unlike a much younger school girl, and giggled in the most adorable way.

Hanayagi-san may be right…

Of course, Junna did not want to jump to conclusions so she kept her newfound interest in the back of her mind for now. Maybe later when they got together, she would figure things out.

As she entered the Hachi’s private wing, she noticed a flowing black shadow coming from the direction of Maya’s room. A quick ki reading told Junna that it was Seishouya’s administrator, Souda Shawa. The willowy middle-aged woman always wore black, making her look like some sort of spectre as she stalked through the halls. Her complexion was also porcelain white, a stark contrast to the vivid red lipstick she used.

It was apparent that she had just visited Maya in her chambers, and from the look of her expression, Junna could assume that their meeting had not been a pleasant one.

When the older woman approached her, Junna bowed slightly and carefully made sure she did not clumsily drop tray. “Souda-sensei, good morning.”

The dark-haired woman examined her with equally dark eyes, “Junna.”

Junna expected such a curt greeting. Souda-sensei was not one for idle conversation, even back then when Junna and the others were chosen as candidates for the Hachi. She would rather command and discipline rather than chat. She was a tough teacher and handled Seishouya with an iron fist.

“Souda-sensei,” the Hachi called after her superior, “Is Tendou-san able to see visitors?”

The other woman smoothly readjusted her translucent black shawl. “Yes, she looks well enough. Stubborn girl, that one.”

“How so-?”

Instead of enlightening her, Souda-sensei only shook her head. “I must return to my duties.”

“Of course, sensei. I did not mean to take your time. Take care.”

Junna suspected that the older woman tried to convince Maya to retire so Seishouya could have a new and able Tenkai. Of course, replacing the Tenkai was ultimately the Kirin’s decision but Souda-sensei, being the highest officer in Seishouya, was able to directly communicate to the Kirin so she definitely had sway. Furthermore, Souda-sensei was also Saijou Elaine’s partner back in their day and had a star named after her for her generation’s accomplishments. The woman was a hero and even after such a feat, she remained in Seishouya and continued her watch even after her contemporaries have retired to live normal lives.

However, there were times when Junna could not determine whose side Souda-sensei was truly on. Many members of Seishouya and Acacian citizens believed that Souda-sensei only had the Hachi’s best interest in mind, while a few quiet others whispered that she was a sorceress that could potentially taint the purity of the Kirin. Junna certainly did not subscribe to the latter belief, but she could not also wholly take the former at face value for there were instances in which Souda-sensei seemed to look at them with distaste and even hate.

Of course, Junna was in no position to speculate and for the most part, Souda-sensei did things that ultimately benefited them. She supposed that the sensei’s outwardly dour appearance was mostly to blame for her infamy.

Still, why did a woman of her standing, a legend and a star’s namesake, looked so unfulfilled?

Maya’s double doors were like intimidating behemoths at the end of the road. Sure, Junna had entered through there many times before but those were usually for official business as most of the Hachi meetings were conducted in the Tenkai’s office. The office was the first room that Junna entered as it separated Maya’s private quarters from the rest of the dormitories. As the leader of the Hachi, the Tenkai was also usually in-charge of their operations, the commander that briefed her team of what must be done during both times of peace and catastrophe. It had seen very little use lately though, as Maya’s recovery have been paramount. The day-to-day management of Seishouya’s elite forces rested on the Hachi themselves.

Junna scanned the room, noting the dead silence that filled her ears with white noise. Maya’s desk was bare aside from a thin stack of papers Souda-sensei had most likely left for the Tenkai’s perusal. Her fountain pens have not been used in a while either for they were all arranged like little soldiers next to the paper weight that bore the Tendou Clan’s suzaku insignia. In a small way, Junna felt relief for this meant that Maya was indeed focusing more on healing herself rather than using whatever precious energy she had left on business that the administrators could handle.

She quietly and respectfully padded past the table and towards the hardwood door that led to Maya’s private chambers and knocked.

“Tendou-san, may I come in?”

A distant voice answered a moment later, “Come in.”

Junna opened the door and entered Maya’s dimly lit room. It was sparsely decorated since Maya was surprisingly uninterested in showing off her incredible accomplishments both as a warrior and as a member of her prestigious clan. Normally, her futon would have been kept behind a sliding door for storage but due to circumstances, it was still on the tatami floor with its blanket unmindfully folded over the pillow. Maya’s desk had many books and scrolls on it, most were only half-read lying there opened. On the opposite side, was a sliding door which housed her equipment, though Junna was certain that her armor were still not there as they have been too damaged during Maya’s fateful clash with the Kyuubi. However, by the door was a drawer closet on which Odette, the Tenkai’s exalted rapier, rested on top of a custom stand.

“Tendou-san?” Junna called out, perplexed that Maya was not actually inside her room and resting in bed like she had anticipated.

“I am here, Hoshimi-san. Come join me for tea. I had a fresh pot brought in.”

The tray of food that Junna carried clinked as she walked towards the deck that overlooked Maya’s own piece of the Seishouya gardens. While Claudine’s outside area was full of fragrant flowers, Maya’s was a carefully landscaped zen garden with a neat thicket of thin bamboo on one corner and a rock garden on the other. Situated in between them was a sizable koi pond in which dozens of colorful fish, ranging from red to yellow to silver, swam lazily in this relatively warm morning.

“Are you well enough to be up and about, Tendou-san? I brought you your breakfast, courtesy of Mahiru-san.” Junna asked as she lowered the food tray next to the long-haired brunette.

“I tire of the indoors,” Maya answered her simply, “And I was informed that if I stayed abed any longer, it will only become more and more difficult for me to be mobile again.”

“I… I see…”

Maya looked like a husk of what she once was. Before the incident, Maya was the personification of perfection in a Hachi. She was tall, well-built, magically powerful and carried a distinct air of authority no matter where she went. She had all the talent and skill as well, not just in the battlefield but also under the mantle of a commander. Even hard-headed Claudine and Futaba rarely disregarded her commands or her mere suggestions. But now, Maya looked weak. Her hair lacked its usual luster and her face was still too pale for Junna’s liking. What broke Junna’s heart the most though was the fact that Maya had lost considerable weight. She barely filled in her kimono, which used to fit her without flaw, and her face looked gaunt. Her arms and legs were much thinner as well, her muscle mass was definitely not like it used to be.

“I am pleased that you have come to visit me,” the Tenkai spoke in a much lighter tone, one that she used when she had no desire to speak of official matters. “It feels like everyone just do not come over anymore. Here, I always insist on a spare cup just in case one of you showed.”

Junna wordlessly took the warm tea cup that was offered to her, “I thought Hanayagi-san and Isurugi-san come often.”

“Before the last Kiri no Yoru, they did.” Maya picked up the small bowl of miso soup from the tray and took a sip in a far more elegant way that Junna could ever hope to mimic. “However, I am aware that it had been a difficult night for everyone. Please let them know that I apologize.”

“Apologize for what?”

“Being unable to help.”

Junna blinked, mildly aghast that the Tenkai even thought of fighting in her state. “Tendou-san, there is nothing to apologize for. Everyone knows your condition and that you must heal.”

Maya shook her head and sipped her soup again. “It is not for the fighting. As I am right now, I am painfully aware that battling is far beyond me. I am talking about Saijou-san…”

Oh, so she heard about it…

“I should have spoken with her to temper of her anger,” the Tenkai returned the bowl on the tray. “And I would have, had she ever visited me.”

That surprised Junna. “She hasn’t come to see you?” But, Maya and Claudine were partners, the closest relationship a Hachi could have with her comrade-in-arms and the two have fought together for years. They were each other’s greatest rivals and many could even argue that they were also best friends beyond all that.

“Yes, she has not. I can hear her practice from here and there were a couple of times when I felt her ki just outside the door, but she never comes in. Well, I should know more than anyone how stubborn she can be. Emotions run wild in her head. She has no idea how that very lack of control is her greatest weakness.” Maya placed her hands on top of a book she had been reading on her lap and gazed far into the distance with a blank stare as if she had locked all her other thoughts within in her mind.

“I’m certain she’ll come around,” Junna reassured the Tenkai. “She ate with us in the common room earlier and she seemed to be in good spirits.”

“That is good to hear.”

Junna nodded to that. “Everyone is patiently waiting for you to get better. Things don’t feel right when you’re not around, Tendou-san. But how are you doing? Souda-sensei told me earlier that you’re doing well but that’s really not much to go on. How are you feeling?”

“Souda-sensei has the right of it,” Maya answered as she typically would, “I am doing better.” Junna did not allow her to stop there, however, and encouraged her to share more. “Pain notwithstanding, I can walk again and I feel some of my strength returning.”

While Junna felt some relief in the Tenkai’s recovery, there were still many things Maya was not prepared to share with her. Would she be able to function normally again? Would she be able to join them in the field? Could she still fight? Those were terrifying questions for a member of the Hachi, let alone the Tenkai.

Though her comrades definitely saw Maya’s courage to be honorable, Junna knew that not all outsiders would. She was not much of a politician but she was certain that rival clans denounced Maya for her failure to slay the Kyuubi and there were probably members of her own clan who would think of it as a disgrace. It angered Junna, not only for Maya but also for everyone in the Hachi. They were not pampered bureaucrats here, even though they were housed in such gilded compounds. They were warriors and they always put their lives on the line every time the Fog flooded Acacia.

Maya sensed her disquiet and added, “I have regenerated my ki as well, and for that I am grateful.”

“You have?” Junna suddenly felt re-energized at that, “O-of course you have. I can see that…” She had been so distracted with how Maya physically looked that she completely neglected checking her ki.

Maya chuckled softly, “It was my greatest fear after suffering severe ki depletion. It took a while but gradually my spirit recovered. And while I am not yet at my best, I am glad that it was not wholly taken from me.”

“I understand. We were also worried about that, especially knowing that you used the Kirin’s Blessing on the Kyuubi.”

“It is the one spell that could kill the Kyuubi and it takes everything I have to execute. When I realized that I survived, I feared that by using all my ki, I will be like Saijou Elaine. Had that happened after my failure…”

Maya did not need to audibly say it, but Junna knew the unspoken words.

“I would have rather died.”

“What happened, Tendou-san? Souda-sensei have told us what happened after the fight but I’ve never heard it from your own words.” Maya was found lying gravely injured outside the Deep Forest’s perimeter the morning after the Fog Night in which the Kyuubi’s ki spiked. Junna and the rest of the Hachi were dispatched to slay packs of youkai that could harm the citizens while Maya took it upon herself to go to the source. No one stopped her, of course, as the final battle between Tenkai and Kyuubi was akin to ritual combat. It was sacred. A Tenkai could choose to bring a fellow Hachi with her for the showdown, like how Saijou Elaine took Souda-sensei with her back then, but Maya did not.

Maya did not take anyone with her and she paid the price.

“The Kyuubi… she…” Maya paused as if to gather her thoughts and put them to words. Junna could not blame her as that fight must have been a traumatic experience for her. She did not miss that the Tenkai referred to the Kyuubi as a she though. “I expected someone, something, completely different but when I found the source of the Kyuubi’s ki… all I found was a docile-looking woman. She was surrounded by youkai, her followers I assumed, and when I attacked she momentarily panicked. After that, however… it was as if hell came up to swallow the world."

Maya visibly paled as she told her story, and cold sweat beaded upon her brow. “When it came to the final blow, I was confident I could do it even if it meant my life. If I defeated the Kyuubi, my soul shall be immortalized upon the stars anyway so I did not fear death. But… maybe I hesitated in the last moment. In a fraction of a second, my resolve wavered and I missed.”

Junna placed a comforting hand on the brunette’s shoulder and gave it a gentle squeeze.

“Why?” She asked carefully, “Why did you think you hesitated? I’ve never seen you hesitate in anything, Tendou-san.”

Maya pressed her lips tightly together and clutched at the book on her lap. “I ask myself that every day, Hoshimi-san, and it all comes down to one thing: I must have feared the outcome more than I thought.”

“The outcome?”

“That is all I can say…”

Junna was left confused and wanted Maya to elaborate but the Tenkai had proceeded to eat her food instead. Baffled, all she could say was, “I… I see. Right, your thoughts must still be quite perplexing. I apologize for asking such a question.”

Maya spared her a small smile and chewed quietly. She looked pleased with the taste. Junna could even bet that Maya missed Mahiru’s cooking.

“Thank you for bringing this here, Hoshimi-san.”

“It’s my pleasure. I consider you not just my superior and senpai but also my friend, Tendou-san. I’m just glad that you’re recovering. You must still rest, however.”

“I shall but it seems like I have another visitor.”

“Another visitor?” Junna immediately looked over her shoulder and searched for another person’s ki outside the door. “Saijou-san…” There was no mistaking the fierce burning orange hue of her aura. When looked upon solely by ki senses, Claudine was like a walking flame. She appeared uncertain though as shown by her flickering ki but then her aura flared as she gathered courage and hastily opened the door.

“Tendou Maya!” She exclaimed as if issuing a challenge only to immediately falter upon seeing Junna there. “Oh, Junna, I didn’t know you’re still here.”

Junna chuckled sheepishly, inwardly embarrassed for her blonde friend. “I was just leaving. Tendou-san and I got a bit carried away in our conversation.”

“Hoshimi-san, do not let her chase you off. You are more than welcome to stay as long as you wish.”

“What? I’m not chasing her off. Just what are you implying, you infuriating woman?”

It was almost reassuring to see their typical banter, so much so that Junna could not help but chuckle. “It is alright. I should be going anyway as I have errands to run and I’m sure you both have a lot of talk about.”

“Is that so? Well then, do not let me keep you.”

She stood up, smoothed out her pants and politely bowed at the Tenkai. “It was good to see you.”

Maya nodded in agreement, “You are always welcome to visit. Please thank Tsuyuzaki-san for me for this wonderful food.”

“I will. She’d be happy that you enjoyed it.”

And with that Junna began her exit. She observed that despite Claudine’s prickly tone of voice, she actually looked terrified of being here as if she was scared of what she might see. She stood planted by the door when she would have normally walked up to her partner with her usual bravado. As Junna came closer, she saw the story behind the blonde’s uncharacteristic timidness in her eyes.

Claudine did not want to see Maya in such a weak and defeated state.

Junna could definitely empathize as seeing such a beacon of strength devolving to someone so helpless and in pain was heartbreaking. It must be doubly difficult for the blonde as Maya was not just the Tenkai to her, but one of her closest friends.

“She’s doing great,” Junna told Claudine to give her some courage and patted her on the arm. “Talk to her.”

The blonde gave her a look and released whatever breath she was holding in a long sigh. She nodded and walked past her towards where Maya was enjoying the rest of her food.

“Hey…” Claudine began softly, her eyes surveying Maya’s dismal form. Junna could tell that the blonde was tense and gravely affected by her partner’s current state, but it was apparent that there was also some gladness in it. 

“Hmn, I heard you have caused quite the stir, Saijou-san…” Maya started without preamble and sipped her tea.

Claudine scowled and retorted, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Do not mistake my retreat as imprisonment. News still reach me.”

“Tch, ce que vous pouvez être agaçant!” In spite of her irate words, the blonde sat close to the injured woman, their shoulders touching. And in that rather comforting position, both women relaxed and let the initial tension subside.

“If I tell you I understand Gallian, you will regret muttering such things.”

Claudine scoffed, “As if.”

Content that the two would be alright, Junna backed out of the room to give them some space. However, just before she could completely close the door, she saw Claudine looking at her from over her shoulder saying, “Have fun with your date, ma cherie~

To which Maya straightened, her lavender-colored eyes suddenly regaining their usually well-hidden twinkle of interest. “Hoshimi-san? A date?”

“I see not even the great Tendou Maya knows the latest news. Ça alors! Well, let me share it with you.”

“I can’t believe this…” Junna was so horrified that she just closed the door and strode out of the dormitories as fast she could while keeping her dignity intact.

Maybe she should warn Nana about the other Hachi later.

Just in case they do something weird.

But first, Junna really needed to do something about her blushing.

 

Chapter Text

Kagura Hikari was smiling.

Nana rubbed her eyes, took a deep breath, and stared again. Though imperceptible to an outsider, the small smile on the black-haired woman’s face was unmistakable. Even her usually shielded blue eyes held a glint of excitement.

Just what was going on?

Sure, Hikari had gotten mad at her for splurging their funds on buying those strawberries, yet the cold treatment only lasted that night and their usual dynamic returned by the next evening. She was not temperamental by any means but it always took a lot of effort to get her to cool off the rare times she did get upset. Other than the usual food bribes and a bit of grovelling, Nana didn’t recall doing anything that would cause Hikari to forgive her so easily.  

Rather than being angry, Hikari’s attention had been focused on that white bear accessory and something else since that day. The two of them shared erratic sleeping schedules and would sometimes leave the cabin in the middle of the night to do their own patrols, with a brief but polite exchange to notify each other of their plans. Nana was a morning person while Hikari was a night owl, so Nana was used to not seeing much of her roommate during the day.

However, lately, Hikari had been maintaining a regular schedule in which she was actually awake around the same time as Nana, and was out the door soon after breakfast, saying that she was going to hunt and do some other errands. In order to earn funds while keeping a low profile, they could only take short-term jobs posted on the bulletin boards near the edge of Acacia. Therefore, it certainly wasn’t new that Hikari came and went without elaborating much.

Still! This was too weird! What sort of part-time job paid Hikari well enough to return every evening with a box of potatoes? When asked, the placid woman only explained that the farmer family she worked for was kind but that did not explain her drastic change in demeanor though.

Nana would even dare say Hikari seemed happier nowadays, absorbed in her own thoughts and seemingly eager to go spend time on that farm.

Truth be told, Nana felt a bit neglected. This was no longer the uneventful quotidienne lifestyle that she was familiar with.

It was unsettling.

Ah! She’s making a turn here.

Nana tried to compose herself and stealthily trailed after her roommate of three years. In an effort to appease her anxious mind and curiosity, she decided to do a bit of investigation. In spite of her disorganized ways at home, Hikari was meticulous when it came to self-preservation. It was impossible to take her by surprise, for she was always on guard and keen of her surroundings. If Nana hadn’t grown up the way she did, she would not have been able to follow Hikari without being noticed.

Even then, this was all going too smoothly. It was like Hikari had subconsciously lowered her guard in spite of being on a crowded street.

What’s making you trust people now, when it took you so long to even open up to me?

Nana swallowed the lump down her throat, disliking the direction of her thoughts. It was too early to even ponder about what might happen in the future, having lived her entire life on a day-to-day basis. Hikari had entered her world of solitude and became an essential, staple presence within it. She would not leave. If anything, she should be glad at Hikari’s positive change.

Besides, not all change has been bad.

It had been a week since she first met Hoshimi Junna, though every moment with her was so fulfilling that she felt like they have known each other longer. She couldn’t recall looking forward to spending time with someone so much, eager about what each new day would bring.

Things were never dull around Junna. The esteemed Hachi member has taken her to various parts of Acacia and in doing so, she became familiar with all sorts of people. From the bakery owner to the blacksmith at the armory, Nana has spoken to them at least once and already her world has expanded more than she could have imagined. It was the most she has ever been around people, experiencing a certain sense of connection that could not be described in mere words.

Even as she tailed after Hikari, she did not feel like a foreigner in Acacia. There was a sense of familiarity now for becoming a part of this friendly community. A few of the people, including the clerk from the bookshop, greeted her like an old friend when they spotted her.

This was what normality felt like, and it was all thanks to Junna.

Would they still welcome you thus, if they know what you really are?

Nana ignored that incessant voice preying at her insecure mind. Her uncertainties have diminished the more she got to know Acacia and her lovely guide.  

Hikari came to an abrupt stop in front of a grocery store, her brows furrowed slightly at the fruits on display. Her stare seemed to be focused on the bananas, though the nonchalant way she stood suggested that she was passing time and not actually paying attention. Her arms were folded under her cloak in a defensive pose as she tried to stay near the store but also get out of the way for the other customers.

Is she waiting for someone?

“Ah Kagura-san!”

“Good morning, Mahiru.”

Nana blinked at the transition unfolding before her. Hikari’s expression was still aloof but Nana definitely noticed the slight softening of her gaze. This by itself was startling enough, let alone the identity of the person who had greeted her.

Tsuyuzaki Mahiru, one of Junna’s close friends and a fellow Hachi.

The dark-haired woman was wearing a simple dark turquoise kimono, a style that was common to residents of Acacia’s outskirts. Combined with a soft smile and humble disposition, she seemed like a pleasant person to get acquainted with. According to Junna, Mahiru and the pigtailed brunette Karen had been her sources of hope and strength during the training phase of becoming the Hachi.

While Nana was relieved to see that at least it wasn’t a random stranger who appeared to have captivated Hikari’s attention, she was also uneasy about the connection between Mahiru and Junna. It seemed that, in spite of how vast Acacia was, it was still a small world. She might need to have a proper conversation with her roommate later.

“Thank you again for your help the other day, Kagura-san.”

“I was only returning the favor, for the stew, and all those potatoes your family has kindly given me. They are delicious.”

Mahiru smiled bashfully at that, though her quiet voice was filled with pride as she answered, “I’m glad to hear that! If you have time, I’d like to invite you to dinner tonight - Grandma really wanted to treat you after how you fixed the equipment shed.”

Hikari stiffened, her eyes widening a little. It was a rather innocent and puzzled expression, something Nana had never seen before. “T-That’s too much. I was only doing what I was hired to do after all. But… well, I w-wouldn’t mind visiting your family again. They are very nice people, and I’d love to try more of your stew...”

“Certainly! You need to eat more, Kagura-san. Grandma agrees with me too,” Mahiru said worriedly, lightly patting Hikari’s cloak-covered shoulder. “I still can’t forget the day we met, when you almost fainted-”

“I-I just didn’t have a decent sleep, not because I was that hungry,” Hikari shrunk a bit under the touch though she did not move away. In fact, she even boldly took Mahiru’s hand before it pulled away. The Hachi looked surprised but smiled and walked closer as they began to move away from the grocery. Nana kept close to the sidewalk and strained to pick up their conversation out of the background noise.

“Um, my pet dog was injured so I was taking care of her.”

Nana twitched. I’m your what now?

“You have a pet dog? Did it travel with you from Vertalis too?”

“Um, not really, I found her outside of Gallia and we’ve sort of been together since,” Hikari coughed and tried to regain composure. “Hmm, a golden retriever. A big one, and pretty independent. So each day we do our own thing and we would meet up later.”

It wasn’t a complete lie though Nana was still irked. Not to mention, there was a high chance that she and Hikari had both used the same cover story and Junna might have mentioned it to Mahiru.

She definitely needed to have a talk later with her wayward roommate.

“Hehe, a golden retriever? That’s so cute! You must really care about her to stay up all night.”

Hikari paused abruptly, prompting Mahiru to give her a concerned look. Nana missed most of what her roommate whispered but what she did manage to catch made her chest tighten with emotions.

“... she’s been there for me when no one else did. No, I had no one else but her.”

Nana stood there, stunned by the almost fond expression on Hikari’s visage. She had no idea her roommate thought so much of her. A small part of her was always afraid that Hikari hated their living arrangement and only maintained the facade of civility for the sake of avoiding confrontations. After that deadly duel against Tendou Maya, Hikari diligently cared for her through her feverish deliriums and ensured that she was recovering well. Under all those seemingly callous remarks and curt complaints, Hikari showed concern for her wellbeing.

"I’m glad that you haven’t been alone,” Mahiru also wore a similar expression, one of nostalgia and affection. “I don’t know where I’ll be either if it weren’t for Karen-chan and Junna-chan. Companionship is to be cherished above all else.”

“...indeed, and I certainly feel that about you as well, Mahiru.” Hikari resumed walking a bit briskly, her ears slightly red as if embarrassed to be so open of her words. “What I mean is that, I’ve been truly enjoying your company. I still have not properly paid you back for giving me Mr. White…”

Mahiru let out a quiet giggle, her face also flushed. “When I saw you staring at it so intently, I knew you must really like it…”

“I-I like cute things…” Hikari glanced at the taller woman for a moment before hastily looking away, her blush darkening. “Um, speaking of which, what are things that you like…”

Their voices were soon lost in the crowds along with their silhouettes. Nana remained rooted to her spot, unable to find it in herself to follow after the pair anymore, for she felt like she was witnessing something that she shouldn’t. There must be a reason why Hikari always kept such tight reins on her emotions and herself, thus there must also be a reason why she was only being straightforward with Mahiru. Likewise, Nana hadn’t mentioned anything about Junna to Hikari either, so perhaps Hikari may have felt the same growing distance between them but just didn’t say anything?

It wasn’t intentional on either of their parts, Nana now understood, and so she decided that it was best to respect her roommate’s privacy.


 

=======================================


 

By the time she located the Gallian themed cafe where they had decided to meet today, she had already wandered all over the place. Junna had given her a scribbled map before they parted ways last night with clear instructions so she didn’t have any trouble finding the cafe. She was just so distracted by the various sights that it took longer than expected.

She’s not here yet…

Relieved that she didn’t make her friend wait, Nana tried to tidy her appearance by using the reflection from the cafe window, only to chuckle awkwardly at the quizzical looks from the patrons inside. Junna never mentioned anything about the way she dressed, so she supposed it was acceptable? She really didn’t have that many outfits and, to keep a low profile, they were all more or less similar. She never cared to appear fashionable as long as she presented herself neatly, but she certainly didn’t want Junna to think that she wore the same thing everyday and never washed her clothes!

Nana hummed quietly and leaned against the wall, smiling fondly at the strawberry decor on the cafe’s banner. It really was hard to believe she had only met Junna a week ago. It was amazing how the quality of the passage of time could affect her opinion about everything, from fruits to the weather to thoughts about herself.

“Nana!”

She perked up and immediately waved at Junna, who was wearing her usual Hachi uniform. The way Junna smiled at her prompted her to return the same as well; the simple act of meeting someone whose company you enjoyed brought a magical change upon Nana’s anxious mind. All that worry evaporated, for all she wanted to do was focus on the present, to relish in every moment she got to spend with Junna.

It looked like Junna had to run here, for her hair was slightly dishevelled and she was panting a bit.“Sorry I’m late. I did say I’d meet you before the cafe opened.”

“It’s fine! I just got here myself too,” Nana chuckled and before she realized it, she’s already combing Junna’s fringe with her fingers. When the shorter woman stilled, she hastily pulled away and took a respectful step back. “Sorry, I just did that without thinking.”

“It’s… okay. I just wasn’t expecting it. Thanks,” Junna mumbled, though she continued to stare at Nana as if in deep thoughts.

Uncertain what to make of such attention, Nana smiled and gestured at the shops around them. “S-So, what’s our itinerary today? I think this is the first time I’ve been to this part of town.”

That did the trick. The ever-industrious woman perked up and pushed at the bridge of her glasses. “Yes, this is actually one of the oldest the parts of Acacia, the founding street if you will. History indicated that the very first settlers chose this place due to its calm spiritual atmosphere and the fact that the sun had made a particular shadow upon the lands. After the great war between two rivalling countries, the people saw it as a sign of peace and worked together to build Acacia.”

Fascinated, Nana held onto Junna’s every word. All she’s ever learned of the place of her birth was about the Kyuubi and nothing of its more positive tales. It allowed her to ignore the darker part of history and enjoy a simple story about how people bond over a common goal and grew strong from that.

As they walked down the street together, she did notice how some of the buildings looked more weathered and used different materials as foundation. The older buildings were made of lumber in the traditional Acacian style, with its angular design, lack of visible iron workings, and distinct shoji doors. The newer ones were heavily influenced by western architecture. They featured stylized metal gates and hardwood doors, and most of them were made of red brick. Some even had the Gallian fleur de lis displayed on the fences or the heraldic Albion lion passant.

The atmosphere here also felt more solemn yet serene as opposed to the lively air around the marketplace. There were not as many people as well, but those who ventured through these streets also showed the dichotomy of cultures in Acacia. Most of the men wore the monochromatic shirts and trousers of the western countries, as they were understandably easier to maintain, while the women still sported their classic kimonos and oil-paper umbrellas to ward off the sun from their fair complexions.

As they continued, Nana noticed that unlike the marketplace where all the produce and basic necessities were sold, this arterial road was lined with more shops of luxury. They passed a shop that sold various intricate glass and ceramic goods, like teapots and china plates, while across the street Nana saw numerous small vials by the shop window. If she was not mistaken, those were perfumes and potpourri, which were famous goods from Gallia. One of the antique shops caught her attention though, and she involuntarily froze at the sight of a particular emblem.

The Kirin.

“Foreign visitors tend to enjoy that store, because it sells historical scrolls and books about the great Kirin and how the evil Kyuubi no Kitsune was vanquished - have you heard about the story, even from far away?”

“... I have. A bit, but not much.” Nana managed to choke out. The fake smile on her face was starting to hurt but she couldn’t just abruptly walk away without rousing suspicion.

“Hmm, if you don’t mind, I’ll save that story for another time because it ties in with the Hoshitsumi Festival. It would be easier to explain and more interesting too if I have some visuals. It also ties in the history of the Hachi after all.”

The excitement seeping from Junna was infectious enough that Nana was able to relax. “I look forward to that. Well then, how about that place?”

Hoping that her change of subject wasn’t too sudden, she hurried towards a smaller shop on the other side of the street. Now that she had taken a closer look at the display, she became absorbed by all the cute caricatures. Those were called plushie toys, weren’t they? The toy giraffe she immediately ignored, but the puppy! The kitten! Even a white bear similar to the one Hikari got from Mahiru. And was that green thing-?

“It’s so cute!!” Squealing, Nana practically kneeled in front of the window and tried to view the frog plushie from various angles. It looked like the perfect cuddle-size, with a smiling face and smooth beady eyes that reflected the sunlight. “Ne ne, Junna-chan, I don’t see a price indicated anywhere else, should I go ask the shopkeeper?”

After hearing no response, she turned around to find Junna gazing at her, not the plushie. It was the same intense look as earlier, so Nana shrunk a bit before standing up sheepishly. Perhaps her childish behavior has troubled the Hachi?

“J-Junna-chan-?”

The bespectacled woman flinched, her ears reddening. “Sorry, I was uh, distracted by something. So, the frog? Do you like frogs, Nana?”

“Hmm, I haven’t really thought about it but, of all the plushies here, that’s definitely my favorite!” Grinning, Nana glanced at the frog again. She never had the chance to look at, let alone shop for, items that were not necessities to living. If Hikari could have a Mr. White, then she should get to keep Kero-kun too!

“Okay, the frog it is then.” Junna entered the shop without another word, surprising Nana who stood there dumbly for a moment before following after her.

“I’m so sorry but that item is not for sale,” the bearded man looked apologetic as he lowered his head repeatedly. “It’s a handmade present from my late wife, so I just keep it on display so it could get sunshine and so it’s surrounded by the other toys…”

“That’s so sweet!” Nana exclaimed, not at all disappointed. “Don’t worry about it Mister. It’s not my place to say it but, I believe your wife would have been happy about it.”

The shopkeeper smiled in relief, rubbing the back of his head in embarrassment. “Eh, thank you, miss. There is an order I am expecting from Albion soon, and I believe there are frog-related toys in the batch. Perhaps-”

“We’ll be back for it,” Junna said, scribbling something on a parchment on the counter. “Please keep one for us.”

“Of course! Have a good day, Hoshimi-san!”

Bewildered, Nana found herself ushered out of the shop by a blushing Junna. “Is everything okay-? And uh, what did you write on the paper?”

There it was again, that same deep look. Nana tilted her head, noting how Junna subtly mirrored her movement.

“Junna-chan?”

“Oh! It’s just that, I haven’t seen you this excited since the other day I took you to the fruits vendor with all the bananas,” Junna gave her glasses a habitual push, finally averting her eyes. “I was going to get it for you, um, a return gift for those strawberries and everything else you’ve done for me, so yes, as soon as the order arrived, let’s come back here.”

“A g-gift? F-For me?” Nana felt her face heat up, her heart pounding rapidly in disbelief and elation. She could feel an unfamiliar sting in her eyes so she had to turn away and pretended to fix her bangs. “You didn’t have to, but thank you so much Junna-chan! I will treasure it forever, hehe!”

“S-Silly, the order hasn’t even arrived yet,” Junna mumbled and peered up at her with a small smile. “It’s nice to learn more about you though, Nana. I wouldn’t have expected you to like the frog.”

“Really? Is that weird-?”

“Not really, just unexpected, since the puppies and kittens are usually the popular choice.”

“Maybe I’m special~?”

“You are.”

Nana blinked and glanced at her companion, whose expression had returned to that thoughtful one once more. She tried distracting Junna again and easing the inexplicable tension. “I guess it’s because I’m used to dealing with cats? ” She recalled Hikari’s metaphor earlier and giggled playfully. “I would always feed them whatever snacks I have. In fact, this morning, I was chasing after a black cat because it took off without greeting me, after eating the banana cake I made too!”

She expected Junna to make a comment, about the snack or the cat or pets in general but no, she was just gazing intently at her, like she didn’t want to miss any details or something. Nana stumbled over her next words and gulped uneasily.

“...Junna-chan? Is there something on my face? U-Um you’ve been s-staring...”

“No! I was just thinking!” Junna answered a little too quickly and pushed at her glasses as always, though this time her fingers touched the lens and smudged them. “Urgh, I’m sorry Nana, this reminds me, I need to buy new spares. Would you mind accompanying me?”

Relieved, Nana happily nodded and laughed. “Anything for you, Junna-chan!” The Hachi was a busy person after all, so it made sense that there were always many things on her mind.

However, once Junna wiped at her glasses and placed them back on, she resumed the staring and it felt like she was… thinking about her?

Nana’s smile faltered. “Is t-there something you want to tell me-?”

“Ah no, it’s nothing,” Junna waved it off. “I just had a rather hectic morning so I was just, um, mentally making a list of errands. Yes, I was just organizing stuff inwardly since I didn’t bring a notepad today.”

“I see... Is there anything I can help with?”

“It’s fine, thanks for offering though,” Junna smiled up at her and reached for her hand. “Let’s head for the marketplace now - there’s this shop I usually purchase my glasses from. We’ll be taking a shortcut so, hang on tight! It could be a bit crowded.”

Nana was still reeling from the sudden hand contact as she wordlessly trailed after the Hachi through the small alley. She recalled the scene she witnessed between Hikari and Mahiru earlier and now understood why her roommate seemed uneasy yet also enjoyed the contact. The warmth, tightly wrapped around her hand, provided a sense of security that was different than just by having another person nearby. This simple connection gave her a sense of belonging, that she wasn’t just a lost critter wandering through the crowds.

Junna was very mindful of her too, pausing at places of upturned cobblestones or some other potentially hazardous obstacles on the road. She glanced back a few times to make sure Nana was following alright and slightly tightened her grip when they had to wedge through lines of people. All of these little gestures just endeared the Hachi to her more and more, enough that it felt like her chest was ready to burst from the flutters of joy.

Shyly, she squeezed back Junna’s hand too.

After a bit of weaving and turning, they finally reached the marketplace where crowds have thinned out in clusters, making it easier to walk.

“Phew, that was definitely the most people I’ve seen!” As much as Nana enjoyed being surrounded by people, the proximity was rather stifling. It was fortunate that her height allowed her to breathe in fresher air instead of the musky odor stagnated at parts of the alley.

“I believe it’s near noon now, so most folks are out and about.” This time, Junna didn’t freeze when Nana subconsciously brushed at her messy hair. “The marketplace is more spacious so we shouldn’t have the same problem.”

“Right… but um, just in case, can we continue to hold hands?”

Junna blinked at that, so Nana quietly added. “I like this, so I don’t have to worry about ever getting lost.”

“C-Certainly. I agree with you on that one,” the shorter woman raised their intertwined hands and chuckled. “I just noticed your hand is bigger than mine… hmm, why do you wear these gloves? You’ve been wearing them every time we meet. Do your hands get cold easily?”

"That’s because, uh,” Nana was unable to formulate a proper response as Junna began to play with her fingers whimsically, as if trying to warm them.

“It’s just that, I have a similar pair of gloves that I wear with my Hachi uniform, to protect my hands from the bowstring’s backlashes. Since none of the Hachi use katanas and those from the Saijou dojo don’t use gloves, so I was just wondering.”

“It’s not that I get cold. I was just, hiding a scar.”

“Oh! I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to-”

“It’s okay, it’s not horrible-looking or anything, I just don’t like showing it.” To reassure her companion, Nana took off the left glove and turned her palm upwards. The pink star-shaped scar had always been a source of wonderment for her, its innocent and peculiar shape belying its grisly origin. She did not remember how she got wounded there but a deep part of her soul tended to flare in alarm whenever she pondered about it, just like whenever she thought of the Kirin.

“That’s a scar-?” As expected, curiosity sparked behind Junna’s glasses as she inspected her palm. Nana had to suppress a shiver, unused to having her scar exposed and touched after being hidden for so long. “It’s pretty. Ah, maybe I shouldn’t be saying that about a scar…”

“I’m glad you think that, Junna-chan. It means a lot to me,” Nana tried not to squirm when Junna traced the star. She still ended up giggling when the latter gently pulled the glove back on for her.

“That was something rather personal that you’ve shared with me, Nana. I feel honored,” the Hachi looked away self-consciously but continued to hold her hand.

“I’m the one who feels humbled. Hehe, the very hand that fought hard to protect Acacia countless times is holding mine!”

Junna blushed and muttered. “... is that a pick-up line that Hanayagi-san talks about-?”

“Pick-up what?”

“Er, nevermind that. It’s just, you’re so charming Nana, so I’m wondering if you do this with someone every time you’re in a new town…” Junna’s voice became so quiet that Nana had to strain to catch her words.

“No, I keep to myself most of the time,” Nana said honestly, confused by the direction of their conversation. “I would chat with children, or at least those who start chatting with me first. As for the adults, I’m actually, not comfortable…” Perhaps it was from her last experience in a community, Nana couldn’t help but feel wary about strangers in spite of her yearning to be around people. It ate away at her daily until she longer felt the ache now that she was with Junna. “I’m comfortable around you though. I’m definitely glad you’re willing to show me around!”

“Wow, um, thank you-? Then, I need to know, if you don’t mind me asking,” Junna’s blush darkened for some reason, “Are you interested in me? I-I mean, more than Acacia… um, forget it, I’m not making much sense…”

Nana’s mind went blank. She did not understand why but this peculiar tension was making her heart race. Of course she was interested in Junna, though she did not know how to articulate it without sounding like a weird person. She considered herself quite odd already even without the issue of being the Kyuubi no Kitsune. Perhaps Junna felt uncomfortable about her being touchy and familiar like they were long-time friends?

She cleared her throat uneasily. “I do like you, Junna-chan. Like I said, I might have enjoyed learning about Acacia through a different person, but it was exactly because it was you that I’m enjoying my stay here. I guess I get so excited that sometimes I just kept talking…” She played with her pigtails nervously, wondering if her straightforward response might be too much. Still, she’d like to erase any doubt Junna may have so there was no point to lie.

Much to her relief, Junna seemed to relax and her green eyes shimmered in an unknown emotion. “Thank you for your honest answer.” She took a deep breath and looked up, smiling in certainty. “I like you too, Nana.”

A bout of silence ensued. Nana knew that her face must be red due to the heat she felt. The warmth filling her heart was inexplicably pleasant and the intensity of Junna’s eyes no longer made her want to squirm. It hadn’t been a suspicious or calculating stare. The Hachi was just as interested in her, that their feelings were mutual.

Feeling lighter than air, Nana twirled around and tugged a bewildered Junna along. “Hehe, I’m glad that’s all sorted out! What brought this on though? Did something happen?”

“... well, the hectic morning I mentioned earlier was because of the other members of the Hachi,” Junna shook her head in fond exasperation. “They like teasing me for being out of the headquarters so often lately to meet with you.”

That instantly pulled Nana back down to earth. “I’m sorry, you must have to shift your schedule to make time for me, right? Is it affecting your duties as a Hachi?”

“Silly Nana, stop being a worrywart,” Junna gave her a smile so soft that her heart jolted. “It’s fine. The others were just having some fun… at least, that’s what I hope. I really don’t leave Seishouya much because I prefer practicing my archery and reading books. That’s why the others got curious and, I suppose, it’s just their way of showing their concern. Some of them tended to get protective over me, and over Mahiru and Karen too, since they’ve been Hachi longer than us three.”

“It sounds like they treat you like a family,” Nana gazed at the sky, hoping that the bitterness in her voice didn’t seep through. Her entire family was executed unjustly and she barely had any memories of her own parents.

“They do. They’re very important to me… and that’s why I’m afraid. You see, the Tenkai, our leader,” Junna lowered her voice and glanced around them cautiously before continuing. “Tendou-san has been badly injured, and we don’t know if she’ll be able to resume active duties.”

Nana was glad that Junna was staring at the ground and missed her slip in demeanor. Tendou Maya. Reality struck her in the gut hard and made all that previous fluffy and carefree emotions surreal. The Hachi was destined to fight and destroy Kyuubi no Kitsune under the Kirin’s rally. To preserve her own life, Nana had almost killed Maya. Eventually, it would be the other members of the Hachi that would hunt her down. Junna’s friends Karen and Mahiru, and one day, Junna herself too.

It would be inevitable. Nothing could change the truth that she was a youkai and will never get to enjoy life as a human being.

The crushing sensation of solitude made her nauseous and she faltered in her steps. Her shoulder, now fully healed and unblemished, throbbed in phantom pain in mockery of her predicament.

“Nana?” Junna’s firm grip on her hand snapped her out of her daze though. She shook away those depressing thoughts and tried to focus on the present.

“I’m sorry to hear that. I hope that she will recover then, especially since she’s part of your family,” Nana said sincerely. She didn’t want to hurt Maya back then either, much less kill a human being. Now that she learned of the Tenkai’s association to Junna, the guilt increased tenfold.

“Thank you. She’s always been a source of inspiration for me, that’s why it’s shocking to see her in such a weak state,” Junna cleared her throat and tried to smile. “Many of them have sweet tooth, even Tendou-san, so I’m certain that the Hachi would like you.”

“E-Eh?”

“It’s just, I’d like to introduce you to them properly some time, maybe before the festival, so we can all attend together. Would that be okay?”

Nana could not sense anything beyond Junna’s pleading and hopeful expression, so she could only nod in response. Karen and Mahiru seemed pleasant enough that one time she saw them, but she did not know how to feel about meeting the other Hachi. There was also the issue of Maya as well, who might not have shared details of their fight, her appearance, to the others.

It was something to think about, something important, though Nana did not want this lurking concern to ruin the rest of her day. Their conversation remained light while they navigated through the marketplace. As expected of Junna though, she knew what she wanted and quickly led Nana to the right shop that sold the pairs of glasses she preferred.

Within a short period of time, Junna finished picking out the selection she wanted and was ready to leave.

“Y-You don’t have to hurry for my sake, Junna-chan. You should take your time to browse…”

“Hmm? No, these are what I usually get, so I don’t need to look at the other pairs.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yup. These are all I need. I feel a lot better already - you see, I’ve been surviving off of just this pair of glasses for a whole week!” Junna pointed at the navy frame she was wearing, lowering her eyes dispiritedly. “It’s really miraculous that there hadn’t been a Fog Night. If I lose my glasses… then I wouldn’t be able to fight. I would be useless.”

“Junna-chan-” Nana was about to argue that Junna had the tanto now, that she never had to rely on her sight in the first place, but she stopped just in time. The archer did remember their chance encounter five years ago though it might not be wise to bring that up. Not only did it conflict with her cover story, she did not want to explain the origin behind the tanto either.

Thankfully, Junna didn’t notice her hesitation and enthusiastically patted the small satchel given by the shop owner. “Now that I have a dozen spares, I don’t have to worry anymore! It might seem like I’m making a big fuss but really, those with perfect vision won’t be able to relate.”

“That’s why I admire you even more, Junna-chan, to master archery in spite of that. I’m sure it took a lot of hard work.” Whenever she thought about Junna’s choice of weapon, she was filled with reverence for her dedication and heart.

Courage was not born out of nothing.

For this industrious Hachi’s case, her courage came from her desire to protect the people.

“It did take a lot of work. It had been difficult to reach what I am today.” Pain flickered in the green of Junna’s eyes before the familiar conviction replaced it once more. “But I don’t regret any second of it. This is what I want to be. Being Hachi is my calling.”

“It suits you, and I really mean it.”

“Thank you, Nana. If you-” Junna glanced at the katanas by her hips and seemed to be contemplating something before she shook her head and pulled her away from the marketplace. “Uh, do you have any other plans later today?”

“Nope!” Hikari-chan will probably be having dinner at your friend Mahiru’s place. “I’m ready to explore more of Acacia! I feel like there are still many places I haven’t been to yet.”

Junna seemed to lighten up at that. “Yes there are. Hmm, I think I know just the place to take you to!”


 

==============================


 

“Hoshimi-san! Over here!”

Nana glanced around the town square in fascination. Last time she was here, it was bustling with people but now the whole area was blocked off. She didn’t know what those constructions were that littered around the giant statue, though she speculated that this was the so-called ‘stage’ where ‘musicals’ took place. In her travels, she had chanced upon instrumental performances but never lingered long enough to enjoy what performances really were about. She had learned the hard way that she stood out too much, with her stature and distinct features. Even being here in the depth of Acacia was dangerous though she’s been pushing that inner warning to the back of her mind in favor of enjoying her time with Junna.

Fighting the impulse to go look around, she dutifully followed after Junna towards a small group of women by the elevated stage area. A dainty-looking woman greeted them while a black-haired one with austere features gave them a curt nod.

“This is Masai Kiriko and Amemiya Shion. They are part of the theatre troupe that is putting on performances for the Hoshitsumi Festival. Because of the damage brought by the Fog, the preparations had been delayed so it was only today that they’re starting the preparations. I’ve been asked to drop by to check on their progress whenever I can so... Ah, this is Daiba Nana, a… friend from overseas, and I’ve been showing her around Acacia.”

“Pleased to meet you, Daiba-san!” Masai shook her hand amiably while Amemiya looked bothered.

“Amemiya-san?”

“Ah, apologies Hoshimi-san. The thing is, we had originally asked you to come watch our rehearsals so you can critique the performances. However, some of the actresses weren’t able to make it today, perhaps even tomorrow, as they’re held up in another meeting.”

Masai appeared troubled as well. “Something about budgets by the council - Sakuragi-san is with them though so everything should work out at the end.”

“Still, they’re the stars of this play, they should be here practicing instead of involving themselves in matters that should’ve been handled by us,” Amemiya grumbled, arms folded in frustration. “That’s why, Hoshimi-san, would we be able to borrow you for a while? We’d like your opinion on some of these props, and perhaps the script as well, and also-”

Junna glanced at Nana apologetically before she was ushered away by Amemiya towards the rest of the troupe. Nana shuffled uneasily and decided that she could simply enjoy the scenery and wait for Junna.

“Sorry for ruining your date with Hoshimi-san, Daiba-san.” Masai bowed slightly, surprising her.

“It’s okay, we were just-” Nana blinked, her heart quickening. “Date?”

“There must be better places for you both to be spending time than being stuck here, but it’s hard to stop Shion once she gets going…”

“Erm. It’s fine. I’m learning a lot of things,” Nana wasn’t sure how to refute the woman’s words though she realized that a part of her didn’t mind the misinterpretation of their relationship. “Junna-chan looks like she’s enjoying herself though, and I see that your colleagues really appreciate her help.”

Masai was smiling now, her voice full of understanding. “You seem to get along with Hoshimi-san well. I’m glad! I haven’t seen her this relaxed.”

“Really? Hehe, that’s good to hear. Junna-chan works really hard after all. Um, is there anything I can help with?” She knew nothing about musicals of course, but if she could aid in any way, that would probably make Junna happy too.

“Actually, yes…” Masai glanced at her up and down before walking over to a nearby table and handing her a booklet. “ Just reading over the script and seeing it being acted out in person is different. I think you could give us some feedback, if you don’t mind?”

“Eh-? You mean, you want me to act out this part?”

“Yes please,” Masai hastily flipped the page and pointed to a particular section. “The character of the Count. Shion and I have been brainstorming over what was missing but couldn’t, if you could just act out this introduction part, that would be great!”

“S-Sure… I know nothing about acting though, so please don’t expect much.” Though a bit overwhelmed, Nana was also eager to impress Junna and accepted the task without hesitation. The Hachi was very respected not just as a protector but for her knowledge and literature background. She could overhear Junna offering pointers on the props and even offering quotes from novels she knew that could be incorporated into the script, and that prompted her to try harder at memorizing the lines.

“So I should sing out this part here?”

“Yes please. This is where the Count first met the Lady - ah, in performances like this, we usually have a singing segment when introducing characters,” Masai elaborated helpfully. “Ah Shion, you've come back just in time, I’ve asked Daiba-san to help us out in finalizing the character of the count.”

“That’s good. Hoshimi-san told me that Daiba-san might be able to help me with another script but, no, this takes priority. Please, go ahead.”

Though the strict-looking Amemiya unnerved Nana, she took a deep breath to calm herself and tried to enunciate the lines. The language did confuse her though she could sense the depth behind each word.

Masai clapped her hands while Amemiya folded her arms thoughtfully.

“Good volume! It’s clear and strong.” “Resonating yes but I feel like something is amiss… Daiba-san, would you mind lowering the pitch of your voice?”

“Huh? L-Like this?”

“A bit more?”

Nana nervously gulped and tried again.“How about this-?”

“That’s it, now please try singing that part again.”

She tried not to pay attention the small gathering of stage staff drawn by her practice session. Out of the corner of her eyes, Junna was still speaking to other people so she was able to immerse into her given character and poured more emotions into the lines, even gesturing at intervals that she felt would emphasize the lines.

Masai and Amemiya exchanged a look and simultaneously nodded in approval. “That’s perfect! I think the image of the Count is more vivid now. Would you mind-”

“Wait, Amemiya-san,” one of the staff spoke up, though she looked timid. The girl beside her blushed as soon as Nana’s gaze swept over to them. “I think D-Daiba-san should take off her white coat. The Count prefers dark colors after all.”

“Hmm, you’re right. The black vest you’re wearing is perfect,” Amemiya gave her a thorough scrutiny, her tone neutral with professionalism but her eyes were glimmering in excitement. “Daiba-san, could you please take off your scarf, cloak and coat? Oh but please leave the gloves on. And… hmm, while we’re at it, could you please sit down over here? We will style your hair a bit.”

What have I gotten myself into?

“O-Okay?” She didn’t mind doing as requested though all the attention was triggering her flight response. Children had flocked to her like this in the past, especially if she had snacks, but never women around her age! It shouldn’t be any different though, so she should just be as professional as possible. Nodding to herself, she stiffly marched over to the indicated chair and tried not to fidget when unfamiliar hands undid her pigtails.

As if sensing her tension, Masai placed her clothes and hair ties on a nearby table, within reach, while whoever was combing her hair told her exactly what was being done.

“The Count is described in a previous scene that his hair is tied at the nape so we’re redoing your hair. And maybe mess up your bangs a bit because he is supposed to have a rough, wild appearance.”

“S-Sure-?” She sometimes tied up her hair in a low ponytail too so this wasn’t so bad. The whole process didn’t take along at all and soon she was asked to stand on her feet for a final appraisal. Amemiya rubbed her chin as she circled around Nana.

“Good… this is good… you’re tall too so I’m really seeing the whole picture. I would even say you’re a better fit for the character of the Count, except you still look too… nice, too proper.”

“I do?” Nana frowned at how itchy some strands of her hair felt over her eyes. She rolled up her sleeves to the elbow as she’s seen some of the lads at the construction sites did. “How about this?”

“Not bad! Could you please loosen the top two buttons of your shirt too?”

There was a muttered discussion behind her and she felt more pairs of eyes on her now, though it could just be her imagination. What was so interesting about her minor change in appearance anyway? However, she could feel no malice in their gaze and she couldn’t let down such a nice group of people. Steeling herself, she did as requested and tried to ignore the chill against her exposed collar bones.

“Perfection.” “Yes, this is just what we want.” “A real ikemen.” “This is the real Count!”

Nana blinked at the chorus of voices from the staff members and turned to face Amemiya almost helplessly. The serious woman merely nodded and scribbled a bit more in her script. “Thank you for your cooperation, Daiba-san. We can proceed to the next step now-”

“Wait, let’s get Hoshimi-san over here too.” Masai was wearing a kind yet mysterious smile before skipping over to where Junna was.

“E-Eh, there’s no need-”

“Good idea! Hoshimi-san would provide great suggestions.” Amemiya ushered Nana onto the stage where the scenery backdrop was being set up by the other staff. Anxious, she tried to regain composure by checking out the detailed castle. Whoever painted this definitely put effort in portraying the weathered texture of the individual bricks. Soon she became absorbed in admiring the stage prop, arms folded in a relaxed stance.

“Nana-?”

She turned around instinctively at Junna’s call, and smiled coyly at the latter’s sharp gasp. “Erm, do I look weird, Junna-chan?”

“Yes! I mean no!” The shorter woman’s expression was adorably comical, her eyes wide and mouth slightly agape. “It’s just… I wasn’t expecting… I didn’t think-? You look fine. Better than fine. Don’t worry. And I’m alright. Your hair. Oh, it’s tied at the nape. I see. Right, that’s the vest you always wear. Just not partially hidden by your cloak and coat anymore. Ah right rolling up the sleeves is a good way to express the Count’s character. If I remember correctly, he doesn’t present himself as someone of his station even though he punishes those who are disrespectful-”

Nana blinked as Junna babbled on and on about the story, the past performances, and even about fictional inspirations for the creation of this character. While she found this side of Junna cute, she wasn’t sure how to react, if she should interrupt her at all. Hesitantly, she began to sing the Count’s introduction to see if her friend would provide feedback on that as well.

Junna snapped her mouth shut and listened attentively with that recurring intense stare until Nana was finished. Nana was just pleased that she managed to perform her part without having to glance at the script at all and waited patiently for some sort of comment.

“... that was… really good.”

“Really? Hehe, thank you!”

“To think you didn’t even know what a musical was before,” Junna still seemed to be in a trance. “Masai-san, Amemiya-san, what did you do to Nana-?”

“She’s a natural, we didn’t do anything.” Amemiya seems to be tweaking at the script still. “She’s given us so many valuable ideas already.”

“Do you like what you see, Hoshimi-san?” Masai’s mellow expression has a bit of mischievousness now. “Of course you do. We can tell.”

Junna opened her mouth, possibly to refute, but nothing came out. She cleared her throat then and pushed at her glasses. “W-Well, why would I not like-? It’s just, when you went to talk to Nana, I thought you were going to ask her advice on the other production you’ve been working on, the one that’s inspired by the Gallian folklore - ‘The Frog Princess’, since Nana’s been to Gallia and other foreign places.”

“That was the original plan but this matter is more urgent,” Amemiya finally looked up from her book. “But now that we’re on this topic, perhaps Daiba-san could be the Princess as well?”

“Yes! I’ve seen the seamstress’ draft for the dress, it’ll look really good on Nana,” Junna’s composure has returned, for she was now circling around the frozen Nana with a confident smile. “Hmm, definitely, the colors fit her image and would bring out the color of her eyes. Not to mention Nana is so pretty after all, so that classy design-”

“Actually, the design doesn’t really-” Amemiya grunted when Masai suddenly nudged her. “What?”

“Read the mood, Shion.”

“Huh?”

Masai pursed her lips in exasperation. “Nevermind. Hoshimi-san, thank you for offering suggestions on that play, which gave me an idea. Would you mind acting out Act II, scene 2 with Daiba-san, as the Lady? We’ve already gotten so many improvements from the nuances she’s shown us, so I believe it’d be crucial to see if we can do the same for this poignant scene too.”

“That’s a good idea actually. Please, Hoshimi-san, we would really appreciate your help.” Amemiya even bowed sincerely.

“... alright. I’m already here, so I will do anything I can to help.”

Nana was still in the process of absorbing all of Junna’s commentaries about the princess outfit when she was snapped back to present by the latter’s sudden approach. As Junna leaned close to read over the script in her hand, she tried to pay attention and memorize her parts, though there were too many distracting factors. It wasn’t the first time they had been this close so why was she feeling all these confusing emotions?

For one, it would be so easy to rest her chin over the shorter woman’s head, if only to breathe in more of that pleasant scent of jasmine tea.

“... so that might be tricky, though with a few tries I believe we can get the tone down. Nana?”

“Yup!” She had no idea what she agreed to but at this point she didn’t think she could just turn tail and flee. Besides, she was actually beginning to enjoy participating in such practice. The sense of belonging, though fleeting, was soothing the skittish part of her that wanted to regain a safe distance from all these strangers. Maybe it was because Junna was now here, as her acting partner? “The directions are clear so I think I can do it. Please do let me know if I’m doing something wrong.”

“Of course, though after what I’ve seen earlier, I’m confident that you won’t,” Junna smiled up at her and gestured for her to wait in the shadow created by the castle backdrop while she moved to lean against the canvas. “Once I finish my monologue, that’s your cue to alert me of your presence with that line.”

“Got it!”

Nana didn’t know whether Junna’s station as Hachi prevented any of the staff to suggest a makeover, or that her looks and outfit fit the criteria of the Lady already, for none of them spoke a single word. Under Amemiya’s silent signal, Junna braced herself and began to sing.

It was powerful. Nana has always found Junna’s voice to be rich and soothing, but to hear it in this format was something else entirely. And it wasn’t just about the quality of her performance, but the fact that Nana could feel her passion for literature, for this role of the Lady, and her devotion in helping fellow Acacians. She was truly giving it her all and perhaps that was what mesmerized Nana the most.

As the last note of Junna’s soliloquy rang through the air, Nana found herself clapping instead of continuing with her given lines.

Junna, still in character, cringed and took a step back. “Who is there? Who would be so dastardly to sneak up on a lady, bereft of a haven from this cruel world?”

The adlib dialogue succeeded in reminding Nana of her role, though she remained in a daze at her partner’s performance. Junna-chan would’ve been a great actress, a star of any show, had she not become Hachi…

Rather than saying her lines pompously as per the script, Nana let out a quiet laughter and casually strolled towards Junna. “Apologies, fair maiden, though I believe I am entitled to compensation for the very cruelty you had inflicted upon me.”

“I would never!” Junna straightened, affronted and seemingly regaining confidence. “Just what cruelty is it that you speak of… sir?”

Recalling the underlined cue on the script, Nana abruptly reached forward and placed her hand beside Junna’s head, effectively trapping the latter against the castle wall. She leaned close and gazed into her partner’s eyes as she was supposed to do.

However, thoughts about the play disappeared then and there.

She could not tear her eyes away from Junna’s, which were so clear and intense. In spite of the blush crawling up her cheeks, Junna remained rooted at her spot and returned the gaze unflinchingly. Was it the character of the Lady or Junna herself? Nana did not understand, just as she did not know why her heart was pounding so fast. Was it because she was immersed in the character of the Count too?

Was that why she found Junna so attractive then and there? She did look more adorable than usual, and not the same way the frog plushie was cute. This was something else altogether, a primal feeling compelling her to just hug the smaller woman already. Anything, really, just to relish in the warmth of Hoshimi Junna, to affirm the special calm that she felt around her.

Entranced by this contradicting sense of peace and thrill at their proximity, Nana used her free hand to gently tug off Junna’s glasses and leaned even closer. Her fingers trailed lightly over the contours of Junna’s warm cheek as she pressed her lips against the latter’s temple.

“... do you have any idea what you’re doing to me?”

Junna shivered, letting out a strangled squeal at the same time as a chorus of muffled shrieks somewhere from the spectators.

Nana recoiled, snapping out of her trance and taking several steps back. “I’m sorry, I messed up my lines, I shouldn’t have done that, I’m really sorry-”

“Nonsense! Bravo!” One of the staff shouted while the rest continued to applaud. Masai was wearing a pleased smile while Amemiya was scribbling furiously in her notebook again.

“I’m changing the dialogues - the mood of this scene is even better now-!”

Though bewildered, Nana deduced that the feedback was at least positive though only one person’s opinion mattered. She nervously returned the glasses to Junna, suppressing the urge to cringe when their hands briefly touched.

“That… was unexpected, but it all w-worked well,” Junna murmured shakily. “You really are a natural, Nana.”

“Um, so you’re not mad, Junna-chan?”

At this, she gave Nana a reassuring smile, the affection obvious in her tone. “Why would I be? You’ve really helped out the theatre troupe and… well, I’m happy to learn all these new sides of you too.”

Ah… so that’s what it is…

The sudden revelation, the explanation for the warm and fluffy feeling in her chest and for all those thoughts about this endearing Hachi.

I’ve fallen for her.

But, what of it?

Nothing will come in fruition. The Kyuubi and the Hachi were destined to be enemies. Perhaps, it would be best to leave as soon as the Hoshitsumi Festival ended.

Nana took a deep breath and smiled back.

“I’m happy too, Junna-chan.”

Chapter Text

“You know, Junna-chan, you didn’t have to come. You should have just stayed at Seishouya and rested. You’ve worked so hard in Acacia already.” Mahiru told her from the umpteenth time that morning.

“And you know, Mahiru-san, I am starting to feel rather unwanted,” Junna chuckled as she hefted a basketful of potatoes onto a cart. This caused the other Hachi woman to gape and vehemently deny the statement. “I’m joking. I mean what I said before though, that I welcome the change of pace. I’m not the type to just do nothing all day.”

“I-I know that,” Mahiru wiped her dusty hands on the apron she was wearing, “but after organizing the festival, I just thought that you deserve a break. You typically welcome alone time after long periods of hard work.”

“I did, didn’t I?” Junna mused quietly. Indeed, before Nana’s presence, she valued time alone with her books and research but now she could hardly stand being without a companion.

“Yes, plus I know that today is an important day for you so the last thing I wanted was for you to get stuck here. We can handle it, I promise.”

Junna smiled gratefully at that, “You’re always so thoughtful, but really this is the least I can do. Your family farm have so graciously helped the Hachi’s food supplies for years. I feel like I can somehow repay your family by offering an extra pair of hands when I’m free. Besides, I think you should take all the help that you can get. It looks like that your festival food stand will be twice as big as it was last year.”

“All thanks to a good harvest. Grandma sure looks forward to it.”

“I’m sure she does. We should just all hope that there will be no Kiri no Yoru until after the festival.”

Mahiru’s expression changed when Junna mentioned the Fog Night and it made her feel guilty for dampening the mood. However, it was hard not to think about when there have been no incidents for weeks now. The last Fog Night was well over a month ago, and the Hachi were all expecting the worst. Historically, the Fog enveloped Acacia once or twice a month in relatively predictable patterns that involved moon phases and weather changes. One of Junna’s predecessors even created a prophetic calendar that was helpful in telling when the Fog would fall but it had been useless since her generation had taken watch. Sometimes, there would be multiple Fog Nights in one month, in others none at all only to come back a month later with extremely difficult youkai.

“I really do hope not, Junna-chan. Everyone worked so hard and we’re all looking forward for the festival.”

Junna agreed. In fact, it had been a silent agreement amongst the Hachi since the beginning of this week that all the members carry their weapons with them at all times whenever they leave their residence at Seishouya. This increased their readiness in case the Fog descended when it was not expected. Junna supposed that had been standard protocol from the very beginning anyway, but she and her comrades did not want to cause unnecessary stress in the public by keeping their weapons in full display.

But at this point, it was better to be prepared.

“Ah, I’m sorry, Mahiru-san. I didn’t want to dampen your mood by mentioning the worst case scenario right now. It’s just… well, I’m sure it’s in the back of everyone’s mind.”

Mahiru shook her head, “Don’t worry about me. I’m one of the Hachi too after all, I think a lot about it as well.”

“Right. Though, I must say, it’s hard to think of such dark thoughts for too long when I’m here.”

Indeed, the Tsuyuzaki farm was like a little piece of heaven on earth. It was not as big as any of the main clan’s properties, but the Tsuyuzaki family certainly owned a sizable chunk of Acacia’s outskirts. Bordered by hills to the northeast that filtered sweet, crystal-clear water, the property was almost always covered in greenery during the planting seasons. Mahiru’s family have terraced the southern face of the hills for rice paddies, while they tirelessly worked the dark, nutrient-rich soil at the base to grow many different types of produce. They were never without watermelon, potatoes and aromatic vegetables. They also cultivated a small orchard of fruit trees on the eastern perimeter of their lands, like peaches and cherries which were valuable commodities.

Maintaining such an estate was hard work - the Tsuyuzakis were not of a noble lineage and thus did not have the luxury of maintaining full-time workers. They simply made a living out of determination and a healthy respect of the land. Mahiru’s extended family were the only actual workers around here and this was why they required some help every now and then.

Junna and Karen were frequent volunteers. Karen did it mostly for the food but Junna helped out for the companionship and sense of familial ties. She never truly felt connected with the members of her own family. The Hoshimi Clan were predominantly a clan of scholars that were more interested in science, astronomy and medicine. There was a certain nobility in that pursuit, which Junna definitely respected. However in their clinical approach towards their goals and their general refusal to acknowledge the more immediate dangers of the Fog Night crossed her more often than not. At the end of the day, the Hoshimi Clan was only interested in self-centered agendas like prestige and power.

However, the Tsuyuzaki family was the complete opposite. They were warm and welcoming, and they were devoid of any real desires to climb the social ladder. They were simple people happy and proud of their way of life. Mahiru’s grandmother, for instance, told Junna countless times that as long as her family could live in peace and harmony with the land, she would be content. This was one of the reasons why even though the Tsuyuzaki family could probably make enough money to start influencing Acacia, they simply did not. They were more concerned in making sure that they could extend a helping hand whenever the Fog Night rolled in and there was a family left starving.

“This place never ceases to astound me. It’s so peaceful.”

Mahiru chuckled as she plucked a ripe tomato from a plant and laid in the woven basket she carried. “It’s a different kind of peace than at Seishouya, isn’t it?”

“Most definitely. While Seishouya is brimming with spiritual energy, it can’t be compared to how much your farm’s atmosphere recharges the soul. If I have more time in the future, I would love to spend a day just reading in your family orchard.”

“You’re always welcome here, Junna-chan, but I can’t promise that my siblings will leave you alone long enough to read, not to mention my aunts and uncles who would love to drag you into one thing or another.”

This time it was Junna who could not help but chuckle. Mahiru’s extended family was a jovial bunch and she had an uncle whose primary past time was brewing malted beer. Junna could still remember that particular uncle making her try out his brews until she felt rather tipsy. That was not one of her favorite memories here but it was certainly an experience. What she enjoyed the most, however, was when Mahiru’s aunt taught her how to weave baskets from grass and bamboo fibers. It had been satisfyingly stimulating and cathartic, so much so that Junna channeled that kind of focus when she worked on her ki flow.

“Oh, it’s Junna-chan!” Asagata exclaimed as he turned the corner. Junna recognized him as one of Mahiru’s younger brothers and was surprised at how tall he had gotten. It was like only yesterday when he had been shorter than she was, and all of the sudden he shoots up like bamboo. None could deny that he was Mahiru’s brother though as he looks so much like her, though albeit more mischievous.

“Haven’t you been listening to anything I’ve been saying? I told you earlier that Junna-chan will the one to help us today.” Reimei sighed exasperatedly a moment later. She was only a couple of years younger than Mahiru but she was certainly as lovely as her elder sister, although Reimei had a more assertive personality in general.

“How have you two been?” Junna smiled as she greeted the two.

“Just peachy,” Asagata grinned and placed down the sack he had been carrying. “Still drudging but y’know how it is. Festival season is usually one of the busiest and to think we’ll have the fall harvest season right after.”

“That’s why I thought I’d drop in to help out since I’m free this morning.”

“We miss your around here, Junna-chan, but we know how busy you are, so just come visit us whenever you can.” Reimei said as she approached and then smiled innocently at Mahiru, “Besides, Onee-chan is getting quite a bit of help lately.”

“Oh yeah! I was wondering where Kagura-san was. She usually starts by the mill but she is nowhere to be found today. Where did your girlfriend go, Nee-chan?”

Junna blinked, “Girlfriend?”

Mahiru squeaked and her cheeks blossomed into a full blush. Junna was so caught off guard that all she could do that was stare at her.

“W-w-w-what? No, she’s not m-m-my--”

Reimei’s eyes widened, “Oh, shoot! I’m sorry, Onee-chan. I thought that if there’s someone you would tell about Kagura-san it’d be Junna-chan.”

“I honestly don’t know why you’re still denying it, Nee-chan. I clearly saw you two kissing under the peach tree the other day.”

Kissed?! Now Junna knew that even she was gaping. In fact, was that a crack on her lens?

“What? No! K-Kagura-san was just reaching for some flowers when she f-fell on me. W-We didn’t kiss or anything like that!”

Asagata rolled his eyes at this sister’s denial, “Nee-chan, I know when people are sucking faces and when they aren’t. I mean, sure, I wanted to gouge my eyes out but I’ve also seen how crazy that girl is for you. It was creepy at first--so much staring--but she’s not too bad. She taught me how to make traps for rats and rabbits the other day. She’s surprisingly capable when it came to that kind of stuff. She doesn’t know how to clean the barn even if her life depended on it though.”

Reimei nodded along, “Yeah, Kagura-san is… definitely a character, but Grandma seems to like her well enough and Grandma is a great judge of people.”

Junna was flabbergasted. This whole time she had been the center of attention and the target of all the teasing in Seishouya, when it was Mahiru who had an actual romantic liaison. When did this even start? More importantly, who was this Kagura? Why didn’t anyone else know even though Kaoruko seemed to know everything that’s happening with her and Nana?

“W-w-w-we were not s-s-sucking faces!” Mahiru looked like she was about to faint from all the blood that had rushed up to her head. “Mou, this is so embarrassing! I-It’s nothing like that at all! Or… I don’t think it is…” She cupped her face with both hands and made such distressed noises that Junna thought she was in physical pain. “Kagura-san is just so confusing! She doesn’t talk very much and she looks at me funny sometimes t-then, all of the sudden, she just kisses me and says sweet verses from Albion scripts that I could barely understand!”

Junna exchanged glances with Mahiru’s siblings, unsure of how exactly to comfort the other woman. Mahiru always had a soft heart and loved people so easily and selflessly, so to see her in this state was unsettling. This Kagura affected her so much that she was in near tears.

“M-Mahiru…” Junna said softly and held the taller woman at arm’s length. She gave the younger Tsuyuzakis a look and they graciously stepped away so Junna could talk to their sister. “I can’t deny that I’m stunned about this recent news. You never said anything to me.”

Mahiru sniffled and wiped her eyes, “I never told anyone because even I don’t know how to feel about the whole thing. Even Karen-chan doesn’t know…”

“Oh, definitely don’t say anything…” Junna inwardly groaned from recalling all the innuendoes and nasty jokes Kaoruko and Claudine have been firing at her since they learned about her own blossoming relationship with an outsider. “I mean, I understand why you didn’t but if you’re really anxious and confused about it, perhaps it’s better to discuss it?”

“W-Well if it’s you, Junna-chan, I suppose it’ll be alright.” Mahiru sighed and took a deep breath before sitting down on a nearby bench. She cradled a loosely clenched fist over her heart, seemingly in order to calm it down. “I… I met Kagura-san around the same time as you met Banana-chan, I think. The day after the last Fog Night. I thought she was a refugee or a victim of the attack or something of the sort, so I helped her out and fed her. Next thing I knew, she was already working part-time here at the farm and we began spending more time together. T-Then the other day… she just kissed me out of the blue.”

As Junna listened to Mahiru’s story, she was torn between feeling a bit giddy about it and feeling protective of her friend. The way this Kagura kissed her sounded a little forced, after all, and a part of Junna wanted to track this person down and clarify her intentions for her friend. Junna reined in this protective instinct, of course, and just sat and lent an ear.

“I can tell Kagura-san is a kind person and she’s always so gentle in everything she does. She’s eager to learn even though I can tell sometimes that she would much rather do something else. A-And I think it’s amazing how well-read she is, for a traveler.”

“Well-read?”

Mahiru nodded and smiled softly, “Kagura-san isn’t very good with words, you see, so there are times when she speaks in simile or metaphor.” She then giggled fondly, her cheeks now sporting only a soft shade of pink instead of the raging red of dread from earlier. “She almost always quotes Albion writers so she reminded me so much of you in that respect. You’re much easier to understand though since Kagura-san seems to use quotes to describe her feelings rather than to explain the verse’s actual meaning.”

From the way Mahiru was describing this person, Junna could tell that she was very attached to her. In fact, her affection for this Kagura-san reminded her so much of her own feelings for Nana that she could not help but feel a bit happy for her friend. Nonetheless, she could not inhibit the questions that came to mind.

“Kagura… as in from the Kagura Clan?” Junna furrowed her brow trying to remember if she knew anyone from the noble clan that could be Mahiru’s special person but none came to mind. For one, the Kagura Clan mostly had sons in this generation and since this Kagura-san was a woman, they were all ruled out. The only female Kagura who would be about their age was lost or have deserted depending on who told the tale.

Mahiru fell strangely silent at the question. “That’s what concerns me the most, Junna-chan. I’ve been spending so much time with Kagura-san that I simply got used to calling her that. I… I don’t even know her full name and she has never told me either.”

“Mahiru-san…”

The long-haired woman clutched the cloth of her apron, “I don’t know why she never told me. It’s weird, isn’t it? Normally, people would introduce their full name but she didn’t. I… I honestly don’t know much about her.”

Junna related to that sentiment more than she cared to admit. Though she was learning more and more about Nana as they spent time together, there were times when she felt like Nana was simply unwilling to divulge basic information that most people would not mind sharing. For example, Junna did not know where Nana was staying and what she did while she stayed here in Acacia. Nana had mentioned that she took part-time jobs here and there but she had been oddly vague as to where even though there was a chance that Junna might know them.

“All she ever told me was that she was from Vertalis before she came here with her pet dog and that she intends to go to Albion once she had made enough money for the journey.” As Mahiru continued her tale, her voice grew smaller and smaller. “I wished her well when she told me that. I even offered her to work for my family to help her in her endeavors but then…”

Meanwhile, Junna’s train of thoughts halted when she heard this Kagura’s story. She felt a cold shiver run down her spine for the tale was identical to Nana’s. Even the part about having a pet! Nana might have said that she had a black cat but it was so similar!

“You know, Junna-chan…” Mahiru’s soft murmurs quieted the alarms going off in her mind. There would be time to question Nana later but for now, Junna must care for her long-time friend. “As we were training to become members of the Hachi, I used to imagine what I would be doing if I lived long enough to retire.” She rubbed the bridge of her nose and her eyes to prevent tears from brimming once again on her eyelids. “I used to picture myself spending every single day here at the farm during the peaceful period after the death of the Kyuubi no Kitsune, happily living with my family. I even imagined that I’d be married to a good man and have my own children. But…”

Mahiru’s lips quivered as she clutched the apron on her chest, clearly distraught. Junna pulled her close into a partial hug as they sat on the bench. “Mahiru-san, I’m sure that will still happen.”

“I pray that it will everyday, Junna-chan, but it’s not being unable to live long enough that scares me.” Mahiru touched Junna’s hand on her shoulder. “What troubles me is that the picture I have painted in my dreams for years now is blurring away. Having a husband and children… it’s starting to feel alien now. All because of Kagura-san.”

Junna’s eyes widened at Mahiru’s confession. She was in love with this stranger whose full name she did not even know, who just showed up one day and told a questionable history. Her own heart lurched because she was going through the exact same thing. She did not have the courage to tell Mahiru about her suspicions right now for the other woman was already so emotionally exhausted after confiding her troubles and her realizations. Besides, there must be a good reason for this coincidence and Junna did not want to assume. She was also scared of assuming. Everything she had learned so far from Mahiru just sowed seeds of doubt in her mind about Nana too.

Was it all a lie or just a freak coincidence?

Was Nana playing her for a fool?

More importantly, why lie at all?

Junna did not voice these questions aloud, not with Mahiru here, but she kept them in mind. For now, she simply hugged her friend and consoled her, telling her that love was never a bad thing.

================

Junna stayed at the Tsuyuzaki’s until well into the afternoon. Mahiru’s mother just refused to let her leave without food in her belly and Junna took the opportunity to pick flowers from their personal garden to purchase. Although she insisted on paying for the assortment of blossoms, Mahiru insisted that she just take them with her, free of charge. There was no arguing with Mahiru when she was being overly gracious, so Junna simply gave her friend a hug and thanked her for the gift.

With a heavy heart, she made her way to what used to be the Norinaga farm. Every year since her test, Junna came here to pay her respects to the boy who had died under her watch. It was never a pleasant experience facing his grave, but Junna considered visiting him during his death anniversary as a renewal of her vow as a Hachi.

She invited Nana to come with her today, though the reason why she did escaped her. For years, she had made it a point to visit the grave alone even though Karen and the others offered to go with her in the past. Perhaps she still held onto the hope that Nana was that savior figure who rescued her back then, the enigmatic person who gave her the tanto that regularly saved her life. However, after Mahiru’s story, Junna could not help but doubt.

There were simply too many things that did not add up.

Was she expecting too much? Had she thought wrong? As she walked, Junna ruminated her relationship with this mysterious stranger called Daiba Nana. Attraction and affection were definitely there, but she also realized that she knew so little about her. Although that was to be expected, right? They have only known each other for a little over a month and she have been so swept away by the torrents of emotions she had never felt before that she overlooked not knowing information that she would normally care a lot about.

Perhaps it was time to really talk with Nana.

The woman in question was standing just up ahead. Junna must have made her wait a while, and for that she felt guilty, but this gave her an opportunity to take in all of Daiba Nana. She was wearing her usual white cloak today and her hair was done up her usual pigtails too. She was not really kidding when she told her that she kept similar clothes for simplicity’s sake, was she? Before, Junna would have approved of Nana’s frugality, but now darker thoughts came to mind. Was there a reason for this anonymity? No, she should not jump to conclusions. Having such clothes only makes sense for a traveler, who must not only protect herself from the elements but also prevent herself from standing out too much when she was new in town.

Junna inwardly groaned. She was not normally a suspicious person. She considered herself more driven by logic and hard evidence before committing to a hypothesis. Nana and this Kagura person’s stories were practically identical, yes, but without proof, Junna would only be overstepping social boundaries and she would be unjustly impertinent to personal reasons. It truly did not help that she was also so emotionally invested in this tale. She feared that there was a lie in Nana’s seemingly innocent story and, if the story really did not check out, it would mean that even Mahiru was somehow duped too and Junna would never forgive that.

No, she should not think that way.

Innocent until proven guilty.

She should never forget that.

As she drew closer, Junna stopped herself from calling out to the golden-haired woman for Nana seemed to be in a daze. She was standing atop a low drywall fence staring at the former Norinaga house in the distance. Her face was blank and emotionless but the way she held her body belied something else entirely. Her shoulders drooped and she was rubbing her palm where that star-shaped scar was. Moreover, there was tension in her posture and Junna could not tell whether it was due to physical discomfort or apprehension.

For a moment, Junna was not quite sure how to approach her.

“Nana?”

Nana stiffened and, as if she was wearing a veil, she shed that unsettled stance and smiled at her.

Junna found that a little disconcerting.

“I’m sorry for making you wait,” she said instead as she neared her. “Mahiru’s family is hard to leave. They refused to let me go so easily.”

“That’s okay Junna-chan, I didn’t mind. I… I needed a bit of time to clear my head anyway.” Nana’s smile faltered and she jumped down from the fence.

“What for?”

“Oh, um, small worries. Nothing to trouble yourself with.”

“Oh, okay…”

As if sensing a change in her demeanor, Nana tilted her head and gave her a questioning look, “Is something the matter, Junna-chan?”

Junna shook her head and chose her words carefully. “No… well, yes, but I invited you here for a completely different reason.”

“I was wondering why you wanted to come here. We usually meet in town.”

“You’ll see,” Junna reassured her companion. “I don’t want to seem presumptuous but I guess I just wanted someone with me today and you’re the only one I feel comfortable bringing here.”

There was a puzzled look that flashed across Nana’s green eyes for a split second, a flighty expression that she quickly and expertly smothered down with a smile. “I feel honored.”

“I’m grateful that you didn’t turn me down.” Junna gave her a small smile of her own and reached for Nana’s hand, gently tugging her towards the house. “This place has a lot of history, not only for Acacia, but also for me personally. I’ll tell you more about it once we meet with the Sanada family.”

“Sanada…?” Nana tilted her head again and pointedly looked at a worn wooden plate nailed to a nearby tree. On it, the word Norinaga was engraved along with caricature depiction of sake bottles.

Junna subconsciously squeezed Nana’s hand as they walked the dirt pathway that led to the house. “This place… a lot of things have happened here. This used to belong to the Norinaga family before they were executed for harboring the Kyuubi no Kitsune or for being possessed by it, the version depends on who wrote it. Nonetheless, it’s a sad place, but the Sanadas took over and made a place for themselves here. They own the land now.”

“So, um… you took me for the history lesson, Junna-chan?” Nana clarified.

“No, I took you here to accompany me in visiting a grave.” Then, without thinking, she added, “Have you been here before?”

Nana blinked in mild surprise but answered unflinchingly, “Maybe… I don’t think so. It just reminds me of someplace, I guess. It’s… peaceful.”

“It is, isn’t it? This was where I underwent my last test to become a Hachi.” She recounted her memories as they continued on their way, her eyes all but glued to the small bouquet of white flowers in her hand. “My mission was to prevent any youkai from passing through this area. I thought I was prepared at the time. I was confident of my abilities and I worked very hard to make sure I could rise with the sun the next morning as a proper member of the Eight Guardians.”

“And you did, Junna-chan.” Nana piped in after having sensed the uncharacteristic depth in Junna’s voice. “You’re a real Hachi now, aren’t you?”

“Not without consequences,” she explained, “the grave we’re visiting is of the boy who died under my watch. Um, I haven’t taken any of the others here. They know, of course, but… I just couldn’t let them see.”

This time, it was Nana who squeezed her hand. “I’m sure you fought with your all, Junna-chan. I’m also touched that you would share something this important with me, that you’d entrust me with such a personal matter.”

Junna looked up at her, directly in the eyes, “Well, you’re not just anyone to me anymore, Nana. It just felt… right sharing something about me with you.”

Up ahead, a woman wearing a woven hat stood up from tending to her garden. “Junna?”

“Good afternoon, Keiko-san,” Junna bowed deeply and respectfully, enough that the arrows in her quiver rattled because of her shifting posture. “I apologize for visiting so suddenly. I hope we’re not intruding on anything. I just wanted to visit Kano.”

The woman removed her hat and examined them both. There was a shimmer of mist in her eyes, surely for being reminded of her eldest boy’s death, but she smiled nonetheless. “Of course, you’re welcome to visit him anytime. It’s always an honor to have you here.”

“P-please don’t say that.” It was because of my incompetence that your son lies dead. Junna felt her feet turn to stone and her heart harden into lead. She froze in place as the weight of her guilt pressed down upon her. The Sanada family had always been kind and understanding, but often times Junna wished they hated her.

“Well if it isn’t, Junna-chan.” A sparsely bearded man put down his hoe and approached them, “I had a feeling we’ll see you around. I thought you’d be too busy to come today but we were definitely expecting you by the end of the festival.”

“I wouldn’t miss the chance to visit him on the day, Kazuo-san.”

“Ever so diligent,” the man patted her shoulder with paternal fondness before his eyes ascended towards Nana’s face. “So who’s this friend you brought?”

“Ah, this is Daiba Nana. A friend of mine.”

Keiko nodded in understanding. “Daiba? I can’t say the name is familiar but… have I seen you somewhere before?”

Junna’s brow furrowed at that.

Meanwhile, Nana just chuckled and waved it off. “I don’t think so, ma’am. I’m not from here, you see. I’ve traveled for most of my life and this is the first time I’ve been here in Acacia. I’m originally from Vertalis.”

“Vertalis?” Kazuo remarked with great interest, “I’ve only heard of the place. What brings you all the way here?”

“Ahaha, it’s a very long story, Sanada-san.”

“Speaking of which, Nana, I have some things I want to talk with you about later. About your travels, I mean.” Since Nana was consistently telling the same story to anyone she meets, perhaps it was indeed the truth. However, Junna was determined to find out the unsimplified tale in order to silence the questions in her mind.

“Well, there will be plenty of time to chat later. You’ll be staying for supper, right?”

Junna blinked, slightly disoriented from the sudden change of topics in her head. “I am? I mean, there’s no need for that. Nana and I don’t want to inconvenience you and your family, Kazuo-san.”

“The children will like that,” Keiko added, completely ignoring Junna’s refusal. “I’ll go ahead and get started then.”

“W-wait…”

Before Junna could refuse a second time, a small stampede of feet came around corner.

“Tou-chan, Kaa-chan, guess who caught the most chickens-- Junna-chan!”

“Haha! Well, I’m sure Junna-chan can beat you in catching chickens, son.” Kazuo laughed good-naturedly and ruffled his young son’s brown hair.

Junna leaned down and greeted the children one by one. Kazuo and Keiko had three children left and they were growing fast. Hiro, the eldest now, was about to enter his teenage years, and this was very evident in the way he stared at Nana with great interest. Junna could not help but be amused at how it seemed like Hiro has just found the prettiest girl ever.

“Whoa…”

She certainly approved of his tastes.

“Ah, it’s Banana-nee-chan!” Michiko, the older girl, bounded to Nana immediately. Nana kneeled down to greet the girl with a giggle before she was all but tackled by Michiko. “Onii-chan, this is Banana-chan I told you about, the one we met at the market and gave us treats.”

Blushing now, Hiro just stammered, “O-oh…”

To Nana, Michiko grinned and childishly tugged on her coat, “Me and my friends haven’t seen you in a very long time, Banana-nee-chan. We thought you left!”

“Not quite,” Nana chuckled as the girl released her. “I was just off exploring with Junna-chan… and working a bit. How else can I buy everyone fresh bananas?”

And just like the first time Junna met her, Nana was immediately covered in children. The three kids just flock to her and her jovial banter. Even shy, little Kiko, who never approached Junna without her older sister, was clinging onto Nana’s pant leg. She did not even let go even after her parents ushered them inside for some refreshments.

“It looks like you are a natural with children, Daiba-san. Michiko-chan told me all about you.” Keiko sat them down and served them tea, chuckling all the while because Kiko still would not let go of Nana.

Kazuo laughed lightly, “That’s a sign, dear. Daiba-san here would be a good mother someday too, just like you.”

Nana chuckled sheepishly in response, “I-I don’t know about that…”

As Junna watched this exchange, she could not help but agree. Nana always had that maternal aura around her and even when they were simply going around town, kids always flocked to her. Sure it must be because Nana always had some sort of sweets or treats on her person but it was also hard to deny that she was a gentle soul. That lack of intimidating and authoritative energy naturally attracted children.

Junna’s traitorous subsconscious then began to imagine Nana with her own children. They would probably be beautiful little angels with golden hair too, with a penchant for snacking on bananas. And knowing Nana, her children would also have her mild and pleasant disposition as well. Perhaps they would be fussy eaters in some instances but they would always listen to their mother and eat healthily.

But wait, why did one them have darker hair? And why was the middle child wearing glasses?

Junna’s eyes widened and she immediately shook her head. Why was her brain imagining some of Nana’s children having her features? Her face burned and a weird strangled noise came out of her throat before she could smother it with a quick hand.  

“Junna-chan?” Nana asked with concern, brow furrowed as she tried to understand what just happened.

“I-It’s nothing!” Because Junna would never admit to what her mind conjured up.

“Ah, did you choke on your own spit there? Better drink some tea.” Kazuo slid a cup of tea near her.

“Y-Yes, thanks.” Her face was still steaming but at least the tea’s warmth helped her mask it. Still though, Junna was so distracted that she drank the tea a little too fast and it burned her tongue. “Ack!”

“Junna-chan!” Really troubled now, Nana pulled Kiko off her lap to move closer.

“I’m fine! I’m just… ahem, not thinking straight.” Junna sighed and mustered back her usual composure. Seriously, what was she thinking?!

“You know, you don’t have to be always so tense when you come here,” Keiko kindly told her as she offered a plate of biscuits at the table to tide them until she could cook a more substantial meal. “How long have we known you?”

Junna looked down at her cup of tea and murmured, “Five years…”

“You’re always kind to us and you help with our children’s schooling. You do so much for us, Junna, yet you still act like you’re a stranger.”

Junna pressed her lips into a thin line. The Sanadas were glossing over the fact that she only knew them because she was responsible for their eldest son’s death. She would not have even thought of helping the other children too if not for the guilt. They should know this and they should demand more, but here they were, pouring her tea and insisting that she eat dinner with them.

“Even Kano-kun would be happy when you visit him,” Kazuo sipped his tea, “That silly boy. He used to worry about the family despite being so young. But since you’ve been looking out for us, Junna, he would be satisfied.”

“I don’t think so,” Junna bit her lower lip.  “I think he would be much happier being alive. Had I done better, he would be almost a man grown by now, regularly minding your knee injury, Kazuo-san. He would be the one looking after his own siblings and eventually he will be a man you’ll both be proud of. But he can’t do that now because I couldn’t save him.”

The whole room fell silent and Junna could clearly hear the fragile mend over the wound of Kano’s death tearing apart. She had said too much, but in a bout of selfishness, she wanted the people around her to feel how she felt.

“Junna…” there was steel in Keiko’s voice when she spoke, her face contorted in a grim scowl. She was angry, rightfully so, and Junna could only bow her head in shame. “Don’t you ever talk like that!”

Junna winced. She did not even have the heart to look over at Nana, who was most likely unprepared for what was happening right now.

“Everyday since his death, we thought of so many what-ifs and in our darkest moments, we blamed you. In fact, I blamed you the most.” Keiko’s words were like blades and they cut deep. “I’m his mother and mothers aren’t supposed to outlive her children. However… every time I see you, it’s clear that you blame yourself more than enough for the rest of us.”

“Not only that,” Kazuo added, “You’re also a good person, Junna, and it is difficult to hate you for long. We still mourn for him--and I think we always will-- but we have forgiven you years ago.”

Keiko’s eyes softened. They were full of pity and sorrow.

“It’s about time you forgive yourself too.”

Junna sat there dumbfounded. Forgive herself? How? She hung her head pathetically as she internalized the concept. Though unable to fully gestate the idea of ridding herself of the guilt that had weighed her down for so long, there was also a wash of relief that came over her. Her vision blurred and her eyes stung. She knew she was about to cry, yet when she looked at their faces; Kazuo and Keiko, even Hiro who was now old enough to understand. They all smiled at her and she could not bear all that kindness.

“I-I apologize,” she sniffled and discreetly wiped her eyes, “I… I should go visit him now.”

She stood up and only took the flowers with her, leaving her bow and quiver by the door. With hurried steps she exited and ran up the hill behind the house. Upon the picturesque vantage point was a lone White Pine tree which served as its only sentinel. It was an old tree, perhaps older than the house itself and it sported many scars from its long life. Junna used to examine this tree during her visits and found many engravings, from meaningful symbols to proclamation of love. Now, though, this tree primarily supplied shade upon gravestones, one of which was Sanada Kano’s.

In front of the modest stone marker, Junna’s knees gave out and the dam that kept her tears at bay crumbled. She cried there and smudged her glasses but she could not care right now. She felt unworthy of forgiveness, especially because the Sanadas did not know what actually occurred that night. It was not she who slayed the rest of the youkai pack or the oya that came with it. In fact, she was as good as dead too, stuck in a ditch unable to see anything because she clumsily lost her glasses. It was someone else who saved her and the rest of the family.

And that person may well be the same one sitting at the table with them.

“I’m sorry,” Junna whispered in between controlled yet painful sobs. “I wish I was better. I wish I was able to give you the chance to forgive me or not. But all I can do now is give you flowers… I’m sorry.”

She took a moment to gather herself enough so she could stand, but even after she shakily regained her ground the evening breeze pelted her with a chill that had her shivering despite her thick coat. She must look like a mess now, eyes swollen and her hair in disarray. It made her feel even more pathetic. With a sniffle, she removed her glasses and mechanically wiped it with a handkerchief.

“Maybe bringing her here wasn’t a very good idea…” Junna sighed morosely. Nana definitely did not sign up for this. She was probably in the house thinking that she should not have come. Perhaps this was too heavy and personal even though she felt that they were close.

Junna subconsciously searched for Nana’s ki and was surprised to find her warm yellow glow not too far behind her. She steadily approached and soon, Junna found herself enveloped in a pair of warm and gentle arms.

“Nana…?”

The taller woman did not speak and simply stood there hugging her from behind.

Junna stiffened at the contact before she felt her eyes dampening once again. Instead of being put off by this dark tale of tragedy and regret, Nana was there sympathizing her. She warded off the cold breeze and held her up when all she wanted to do was crumble. Sobs came and with them, another stream of tears.

Junna haphazardly pocketed her glasses and clung onto Nana’s sleeves, hugging the arms that held her. She just let the tears flow, all the anguish and regret that ate away at her soul in these past several years.

“It’s okay, Junna-chan,” Nana whispered softly in her ear, “Just cry and let it all out. I’m here for you.”

“Nana, I’m sorry I shouldn’t have--”

“Junna-chan, you really need to forgive yourself. I’m sure he has already.”

“H-how can you even say that? How can anyone know? Only he can a-and… he can’t. Not anymore.”

“Kano-kun is a spirit now, right? He must have seen how much you’ve blamed yourself and how much you’ve done for everyone else since then. If I were him--even if I never knew you before-- I would forgive you too. I would have forgiven you instantly…”

Junna shook her head and turned around to bury herself in Nana’s kindness. Crying into Nana’s scarf, she slipped her arms around the taller woman’s frame and clung onto her cloak until her knuckles turned white. She was unable to speak due to the tremors of her sobs, but she felt Nana hug her tighter, rooting her where it mattered; the here and now.

Nana even began to hum to calm her down and started rubbing her back. It was soothing and it lulled Junna enough that it induced the hurt to subside. Gradually appeased, she nuzzled deeper into the other woman’s embrace and breathed in her calming scent of pine needles. Her desperation for an anchor turned into a swelling tide of contentment, which allowed her to recollect herself. She gave Nana one last squeeze before pulling away.

“Thank you, Nana,” she smiled up at her, “I guess I needed that. I-I’m sorry for soiling your scarf though. I’ll make it up to you somehow...”

The expression on the golden-haired woman’s face left her breathless, however.

Though her vision was blurry due to both the tears and not wearing her glasses, Junna could still see that Nana had the softest smile and her eyes were shining with tenderness. It was an expression of understanding and affection. And if Junna was not so stunned, she would have called it loving.

“You don’t need to do anything, Junna-chan.” Nana secured her arms around the shorter woman’s waist. “It can just be washed off, I’m more concerned about you. Look, your eyes are all swollen…”

Indeed, they felt swollen. How could she go back in and join the Sanadas for dinner now?

“Let’s just stay out here for now,” Junna muttered to herself. She was about to propose that they just waited until dark settled then bid the family a farewell so she could avoid having to show the children that she had cried, but Nana stole away all the words in her mind when she leaned down and pressed their foreheads together.

“Nana?”

Her companion only smiled but did not relinquish their proximity. Instead, she spoke in the softest of whispers, “I knew Junna-chan was strong, but I never anticipated you to be this strong. Although, even the strongest get tired too, right?”

“I suppose so. Everyone has burdens to carry.”

“I know but at the same time, I can’t help but feel sad.”

“Sad? Why?”

“...because I wasn’t here for you until now.”

Junna’s breath hitched. “T-that’s silly. You were out there exploring the world.” But before Junna could absorb herself into a soliloquy of how much that time would have been wasted looking after her and her feelings, Nana’s expression reverted back to that calm and loving smile. Her gaze was focused solely on her and her reactions, and with them so close together, it was easy to forget their surroundings.

Junna basked in this warmth Nana radiated, and before she knew it, she had the latter’s cheek cupped in her hand. Nana chuckled softly at the touch and its sound untethered Junna from her worries completely. The parts of her heart that were once filled with only regret was now being flooded with something far brighter.

Love.

Intuitively, she angled Nana just right and tip-toed to kiss her lips.

Having done so without thinking, Junna shrunk back immediately, aghast. The image was certainly in her mind but she never thought she would actually do it! Ignoring the fact that her face was red, Nana looked like she turned to stone since she stilled and became rigid. Junna opened her mouth but she could not decide how to apologize or if she should, so she just pressed her lips together and attempted to untangle herself from Nana’s arms.

“Junna-chan… don’t.” Nana refused to loosen her hold. She kept her close and that made Junna feel like she would melt; from embarrassment or the tenderness of the moment--whichever-- it did not matter. Since she could not flee, she buried her face into Nana’s damp scarf again, but even then Nana coaxed her off with a gentle hand.

The taller woman was smiling when she looked up and seemed quite happy. She then affectionately brushed Junna’s fringe with gentle fingers, just like how she had done many times prior, before leaning down and kissing her. Junna’s internal alarm went off but it was quickly silenced by the softness of Nana’s lips on her own.

Inexperienced, Junna deduced that the kiss was sloppy and embarrassing but Nana did not seem to mind. In fact, Nana also did not seem to know what she was doing either and that made laughter bubble in Junna’s chest. The lighter atmosphere allowed both women to relax enough to enjoy the kiss, despite the weather-chapped lips and awkward strokes.

They pulled away red-faced, breathless and smiling.

“Um,” Junna cleared her throat and instinctively made the motion to push her glasses up only to realize that she was not wearing them. Hastily, she fished it from her pocket and put them on.

“Junna-chan…”

“Y-yes?”

“M-May I kiss you again?”

Junna’s face burned at the request. She certainly did not expect this from Nana, who was quite shy at times. However, the taller woman’s expression was serious, anticipating even, that all Junna could do was nod dumbly and subconsciously licked her lips. She then snaked her arms around Nana’s neck as the latter leaned down for a third, and finally, proper kiss. It was far more enjoyable that their first two because at least they were both expecting it now. She smiled into the kiss when Nana let out a soft giggle and was about to experimentally nip at her lower lip before she heard tiny footsteps running up the hill.

Alarmed, the two women pulled away from each other so fast that Nana almost tumbled down the slope.  

“Junna-chan! Banana-chan! Okaa-chan said dinner’s ready!” Michiko chirped before going to her elder brother’s grave to offer a gesture of respect. Hiro, who had escorted his younger sister, also did the same.

“Ah, Junna-chan, did you cry?” Michiko tilted her head only like an innocent girl could. “Did onii-chan make you cry again?”

Junna shook her head, “Don’t worry about me, Michiko. It’s perfectly okay to be sad sometimes.”

Hiro crossed his arms and muttered under his breath, but Junna could clearly hear him. He said, “if nii-chan was alive, I would’ve smacked him for making girls cry, hnff.”

“Let’s all go now then,” Nana took and squeezed her hand. Junna could not help blush at this. How could one tiny gesture, one kiss, suddenly change the meaning of the simplest of touches? Still, it was nice so she squeezed back.

She paid respect to Kano’s grave one last time before following the other children, her steps feeling lighter than they did when she climbed up earlier.

As they walked hand-in-hand, Junna watched the silhouette of Nana’s face. That latter did not seem to notice at first, and when she did, she only smiled--a genuinely happy and giddy smile. Junna felt her own cheek tug at her lips because, while she did not expect to kiss Nana in front of a grave of all places, she was glad that her first kiss was given to the person she felt so strongly about. She could still recall their proximity during that mock play in town, how close Nana had been and how seriously she said her improvised lines that for a split second Junna believed them to be real.

She would never forget the butterflies in her stomach that day.

However, recalling such a pleasant and exciting memory also reminded Junna of her conversation with Mahiru that morning. Her heart ached at any possibility that there might be some questionable things happening but she was not one to let such thoughts linger and fester. Moreover, her heart was set on Nana now, of that she was certain, and she only wanted to know more about the taller woman with an angel’s smile.

“Nana,” she gently tugged on other woman’s hand. “If you don’t mind, um, I have a question. I apologize in advance if I offend you or anything like that, it’s just…”

Nana turned to face her and brought her hand to her lips, kissing the knuckles before hugging it to her chest. “Hmm? What is it, Junna-chan?”

Junna bit her lower lip, trying to choose her words as carefully as possible. “I talked to Mahiru this morning and, well, there are just some things I wish to clarify. Um… she seems to be seeing this Kagura-san lately and when we talked about her, Mahiru told me the weirdest of tales. She said that her family’s new hand was also from Vertalis and was trying to earn money to go to Albion. I… I just thought it was weird because… that is also what you told me.”

Nana’s smile diminished a bit but she recovered the expression a moment later. “Vertalis may be far away, Junna-chan, but it’s very possible that another person is also from there. Acacia is a nice big town with plenty of miscellaneous jobs. I mean, that’s one of the main reasons I decided to stop over as well, to replenish my funds so I can move on.”

Move on…

Junna did not know why hearing that hurt her more than her stupid suspicions.

“I-I see... you’re right. That was presumptuous of me.” She sighed and averted her gaze, feeling foolish. “You’re a wonderful person, Nana, I just wish I knew a bit more about you. I did not mean for that to sound interrogative.”

Nana tilted her head like a curious pup again, an expression that Junna could admit was very endearing. “More about me? Um… let’s see. I know Junna-chan is from a well-known family in Acacia.”

“Yes, we talked about that the other day.”

“So I guess I can share something similar? It’s only fair.” Nana turned back towards the Sanada’s house and tugged her along. “My family history isn’t as interesting or elaborate as yours though. You see, Junna-chan, I’m… I’m an orphan.” Junna could not see her face but she detected a slight tremor in her voice and suddenly she regretted pressuring Nana into telling her more about herself. Being an orphan was never easy or pleasant after all. “My parents… they were killed when I was really young. Um, I managed to run away from their killers and I’ve been on the streets ever since.”

“Nana…”

“I was lucky to have been adopted by an old blacksmith a few towns away.” Nana’s voice was uneven as if sorrow and grief gripped her throat. “He taught me everything I know about swordplay and even forged my katanas for me. It was… it was his last work. I left the smithy after he passed away and decided to travel, to see the world. I had no more reason stay there, after all.”

“I…” Junna clutched her free hand over her heart. “I’m sorry. I’m sure those aren’t easy memories to recall.”

Nana faced her with a sad smile. “I haven’t been happy enough to be able to talk about them until now. So, I think it’s still a good thing.”

“Still…” Junna wanted to kick herself then and there. Now Nana’s apparent secrecy made sense. She was a lost soul, wandering the lands to leave behind such a tragic childhood. She was running away from such painful memories and thus did not want to speak about it. Junna should have respected her privacy instead of practically forcing her into revealing such things.

“Besides,” Nana added as she swung their interlaced hands to and fro, “if it’s to Junna-chan, it’s a lot easier to talk about. But um, there has been too much sadness for today, ne? Let’s just put this behind us for now and give the Sanadas some smiles.”

Junna nodded and was relieved. “You’re right.”

The two of them joined the family at the dinner table. It was crowded with three children and the food was simple but they made do. Kiko was on Nana’s lap by the time supper ended, quietly but contently nibbling on a sweet banana. Kazuo and Keiko were observing them both throughout, but they seemed satisfied of the atmosphere. Junna had an inkling that they have noticed her swollen eyes after crying in front of their son’s grave, but thankfully they did not revisit the topic. Instead, they talked about the farm and how well the crops were coming in.

“I noticed you grew wheat this year, Kazuo-san,” Junna commented while they enjoyed their post-meal tea.

“Ah, yes. Crop rotation is important,” the farmer responded, “rice has been grown on this farm for generations. Don’t get me wrong though, the Norinaga strain of rice is top notch, but I thought it’ll benefit the soil if I change it up a bit this year.”

“That’s right, they brewed sake back then.”

“Mhmm, and they were really good at it too.” Kazuo sighed as he swirled his small cup of sake. Evidently, the bottle he was enjoying now was of inferior quality.

“Ano… by Kano-kun’s grave, there were other gravestones. I understand that the former owner of this house was… cursed but are those… theirs?” After Nana asked, Junna could not help but wonder as well. She had always been so absorbed with her own grief to spare the thought of asking about the other graves. It did not help that the gravestones were just worn slabs devoid of names, but now that Nana brought them to attention that Junna recalled that those gravestones were the ones directly underneath the white pine tree.

Kazuo’s brown eyes examined Junna’s reaction carefully before nodding in ascent to Nana’s question. “The Norinagas…” the man sipped his drink before continuing, as if he tried to recall the long deceased. “They’re not frequently talked about--they lurk inside many of the residents’ minds but no one bothers talking about them. They’re cursed, they’re evil, they’re possessed, whatever. But, whatever others have told you about them are most likely wrong.”

Junna have indeed heard many conflicting tales about the Kyuubi no Kitsune’s birth family but most of the tales were dipped in myth and superstition.

“You knew them?” Nana leaned forward over the table, uncharacteristically interested in people she had never met before.

“Knew them? I helped them harvest rice when I was younger. My father was also a friend of Rui’s, the uh… head of the family.” Kazuo told his tale as he poured himself another drink, “That grump, always growling and always meticulous. He demanded that the rice stalks be stacked in a certain way and that they have to be cut at a precise height. But I guess it’s that attention to detail that made his family’s brew unique. My father had nothing but praise for him; hardworking, a man of his word, and the best person to talk to if you needed an ear or a simple kick in the rear.”

As Junna listened, a different image of the family that had once lived here was painted her mind. For the longest time, all she saw in the Norinagas were victims, but with Kazuo’s tale, she actually saw them as people.

“Oh and did you know that his wife was from Albion? Shirley had been her name, I think, before she changed it after she married Rui.” Kazuo chuckled as he recalled fonder memories, “As a boy, I thought she was the prettiest woman ever. Mile-long legs, equally long hair, elegant and feminine demeanor, and she played the piano on top of it all.” He then grinned sheepishly when Keiko gave him a look. She just chuckled at her husband’s shenanigans though and shook her head. “If I remember correctly, she was a traveling musician before she finally settled down here.”

“I never knew that about them…” Junna told the couple in wonder.

Kazuo frowned and threw back another shot of sake. “No one dares talk about them now. It’s very sad. It was not their choice that that beast took root in Shirley’s belly instead of their firstborn child.”

Junna looked down on the table as well, feeling sorry that innocent people had to suffer such a fate. They were indeed victims of the Kyuubi no Kitsune, but it was doubly tragic that most people have forgotten who they were before then.

“They… they s-sound like wonderful people…” Junna immediately looked at Nana when she heard her broken voice. The golden-haired woman held her head down, almost to the point that she was hiding her face behind Kiko’s head. She was also wringing her hands in front of the oblivious child as if to distract herself. “Why? Why did they have to die? If… if it was just the Kyuubi that was the problem, why them too?”

“I asked that to myself often when it happened,” Kazuo admitted. “But Seishouya was convinced that the Norinagas were too tainted to be allowed to live. The Kyuubi child burned nearly half their land when it awakened to its demonic powers. And ever since Saijou-sama slayed the previous Kyuubi, Seishouya had been on a hunt to prevent the next one from being born or growing up to be a menace.”

“B-but they were human…” Nana clenched her fists under the table, which troubled Junna greatly. So, in a small attempt to comfort Nana’s fierce sense of justice, she reached for her hand and entwined their fingers.

“Junna-chan…” Nana looked at her, blinked, and the hurt in her eyes gradually dissipated, though not without a few controlled breaths. “It’s unfair.”

“I know,” Junna stroked her knuckles under the glove with her thumb.

“I just choose to remember them with fondness,” Kazuo added to lighten up the mood. “I used to get carrots and strawberries from them after an afternoon’s work. Yes… I’d rather remember them that way because no one else would.”

Junna heard a sniffle from Nana and was alarmed. She had never seen her this affected by another person’s tragedy. But as soon as they noticed it, Nana wiped it away.

“Oh, dear, you’re just making girls cry today, aren’t you?” Keiko sighed as she began collecting their empty cups.

“Ah, I never meant for that to happen, geez,” Kazuo scratched the back of his head. “I mean I was just--”

Kazuo’s pause did not go unnoticed. In fact, Junna felt the sudden change in the atmosphere all too keenly. The temperature dropped and that tell-tale humidity could only mean one thing.

“Kiri no Yoru.”

She sprung into action, standing up and reaching for her weapons leaning against the doorframe. Immediately, Junna instructed, “No one leaves this house, do you understand?” She stressed this most to Hiro and Michiko, who both nodded fearfully huddled behind their mother’s skirts.

“Nana, please look after them. I’ll go outside and make sure no youkai comes near here.” She fixed her quiver on the small of her back with snaps of fasteners to her belt, and once she was prepared, she made her way through the door.

“Junna-chan! You’re not going out there alone!” Nana had also stood and handed little Kiko to her father. Within moments, she had her katanas belted.

“But there might be youkai outside. Stay here.”

“It is because there might be youkai outside that I’m going with you.” Nana’s voice was like steel, strong and unyielding. “At the very least, I can watch your back.”

Junna considered it with difficulty. She was already planning on shooting a ki flare to alert her fellow Hachi, but at the same time, that might just attract youkai towards them. Alone without back-up from her comrades, she decided to play it safe. And to play it safe, another pair of eyes would prove invaluable.

So, she relented and let Nana come along.

By the time Junna exited the tent, the Fog was already thick and it covered the whole farm. She gave one last instruction to the Sanada family to lock their doors and windows, and to never, under any circumstances, peek outside. Dread pooled in the pit of her belly because of the distressing memories this particular scene dug from her mind, but Junna steeled herself. She was older now, more experienced, and she was not about to let the same mistake happen twice.

“Nana!”

“I’m right behind you, Junna-chan.” The other woman’s voice was grave and an octave lower than her usual speaking voice, but it reassured Junna all the same.

She was not alone this time.

They hurried towards a vantage point, an elevated part of the farm that faced the source of their troubles. Junna hoped that there was more cover than this but being in an agricultural area, the best places she could spot were the sparse growth of trees and the many ditches that supplied water to the crops.

Not the best but it’s what we have.

Many pairs of eyes glowed in the distance like tiny and menacing red lights crawling out from the undergrowth of the forest. Junna’s first thought were small goblins which were more a nuisance than a threat. However, as they exited the perimeter of the trees, they grew, and they grew huge. The youkai were numerous and they sported spindly bodies, long arms and stunted legs. Because of this, they walked on all fours like beasts even though their features were disturbingly human. They cackled and burbled as they approached, like a group of contorted children with blackened skin, elongated fangs and gnarly claws.

Junna took a deep breath and exhaled as was her way of preparing for a fight.

“Have you fought youkai before?”

Nana, whose eyes stared ahead at their foes, gripped her katana’s scabbard and pushed at the guard with her thumb to release the blade. “I can manage, Junna-chan. We just need to focus on protecting this place.”

After a nod, Junna lowered Hisuiya’s gem to her lips and began chanting. There were too many enemies so there was no way she could possibly purify them all but she stored as much ki into the bow as she could safely manage. The emerald glowed brightly, like a beacon at sea, and Junna’s natural holy ki pushed away the Fog that surrounded her and Nana. Her eyes snapped open the moment she was done and saw that the youkai were galloping towards them already, mouths foaming with hunger for human flesh.

Nana braced herself next to her, tilting her katana forward for a smooth draw. However, Junna had no intention of letting the youkai come close. She pulled three arrows from her quiver and flicked them with her wrist. The motion had ki surging into the projectiles’ heads until they sparked and ignited with brilliant blue flames. Junna then fired them in quick succession in different directions, painting blue streaks through the Fog that looked like dragon flame.

All three found their marks, which instantly fell lifeless on the ground.

“Mouryou,” Junna told Nana as she reached back into her belt quiver. She could recognize their cries anywhere, even if she could not see them properly because of the Fog. “Be careful. They’re very fast and since they’ve grown this big, I assume their powers have increased as well. They’re grave diggers that feast on corpses but with the Fog, they might have a taste for living flesh.”

She scowled, insulted that such youkai were here this very night.

Nana appeared impressed by the first volley, “Looks like Junna-chan is indeed very powerful.”

Appreciative that the other woman was controlling the building tension, Junna spared her a small smile. “I can’t disappoint you now, can I?”

“Ehe~” Without another word, Nana charged into the fray as a few of the mouryou were climbing the slope of their perch. She slid down the slippery grass and in between the nearest youkai’s arms. Junna held her breath as she watched, since it looked like Nana just disappeared in range of sharp claws and fangs, but a split second later, she saw a glint of silver inside the chaos. There was a slash, then two, three, and four followed, before the two youkai that had been standing side-by-side screeched in pain, their green blood spurting out of their severed limbs and disemboweled bodies.

“Nana!”

“I’m fine, I’m fine! Don’t lose focus!”

There, standing just a few steps away from the pool of green was Nana, her cloak still somehow pristinely white.

Junna let out a breath but then suddenly noticed black ki sprinting towards the golden-haired woman. Gritting her teeth, Junna immediately nocked an arrow in an oblique angle on the string and fired it at Nana’s direction. The projectile flew off the bow then almost instantly curved its trajectory around the white-clad warrior and found its mark in between the mouryou’s eyes.

This time it was Nana’s turn to release a breath. “T-that’s amazing, Junna-chan! I didn’t know you can make arrows turn like that.”

Junna groaned. She was genuinely frightened for her back there. “Eyes on the enemy, Nana.”

Nana’s smile was quickly replaced by an determined expression. “Right. I’ll keep them off you while you shoot them down.”

“There should only be three left as youkai always attacked in packs of nine,” Junna informed her cohort as she scanned the vicinity for the others. “Two more of these mouryou then their oya.”

“That’s the pack leader, right?”

“Yes, and it’s almost always far more powerful.”

The youkai oya did not make Junna wait long as it appeared as a giant mass of pitch-black shadow under the canopy of the trees. Its ki was so dark that it absorbed whatever moonlight managed to pierce through the Fog. As it exited the shade of the forest, its salivating maw was the first thing Junna saw. It was much larger than the two mouryou that flanked it. An Oni, perhaps? It was hard to tell at times as youkai tended to change forms and appearances when afflicted by the Fog. Whatever it was, Junna needed to bring it down.

She wasted no time in pulling three arrows from her quiver once again, each held between the fingers of her draw hand. She knocked each projectile one at a time and shot them in quick succession with ki imbued in every shot. Light blue light flew through the air and pierced the oya’s neck, torso, and belly, but to Junna’s dismay, it did little to slow down the youkai. It even pulled off the arrow embedded in it thick throat, making it look like nothing more than a splinter in its huge hand.

“That’s really big,” Nana commented as she rejoined Junna on the hill.

“Oyas tend to be huge. We need to distract it and keep it from heading towards the house. We have to stop it here.” Without another word, Junna descended from their vantage point and ran to the east to divert the youkai’s advance. Her movement caused the mouryou to chase after her in a wild flurry but that was what Junna wanted. Oyas were much easier to deal with when they were alone.

She ran and hopped over ditches, pleasantly surprised that Nana could keep up with her when she looked over her shoulder. Nana told her before that she was used to dealing with bandits and protect herself, but she was definitely handling herself well against youkai. Maybe even a little too well. This made Junna feel like she was fighting youkai with an actual Hachi partner and it energized her, made her feel almost giddy.

This isn’t the time for that.

She turned around to shoot at the oya, making sure that the giant humanoid monster wearing a loincloth of bloody flayed skin was following her instead of going after the helpless Sanadas. She grabbed six arrows three at a time and fired. She feathered the youkai, pleased to know that at the very least, the ki was burning the oya’s flesh, keeping it preoccupied.

“I don’t think that’s very effective, Junna-chan!” Nana grunted as she flicked her katana free of green blood. While Junna was busy shooting at her main target, Nana had naturally taken over fighting the two remaining mouryou. She had already killed one and had somehow muscled its corpse towards the last gangly monster that now screamed at her.  

“I know.” Junna considered blasting it with a strong ki arrow but she was conserving her energy. Unlike the other Hachi members, Junna’s ki reservoir was not very big so she always took the path of efficiency over brute force. Karen and Mahiru could afford to use highly concentrated ki strikes to bust down youkai and still be fit to fight the next day, but if Junna overused hers, she would be not be very useful if another Fog Night occurred right after.

But it was only her and Nana here.

So she must step up.

Junna drew another set of three from her quiver and chanted. She poured ki into the silver heads of her arrows until they all glowed white hot. She fired on of these arrows into the head of the last mouryou that was about to pounce on Nana then sent the other two flying towards the oya’s head. The projectiles embedded themselves into their targets, where they sizzled and exploded as soon as Junna released a seal sign she held with her bow hand.

The final mouryou died but its oya bellowed in fury. Viscous green blood poured out of the eye socket that Junna had blown up, while saliva foamed from the youkai’s mouth. She managed to break off one of its fangs as well but even with such dire injuries, the oya still thumped its thick chest and charged at them.

Before Junna could jump away, Nana had suddenly picked her up and brought her to safety.

“T-there’s no need to do that, Nana,” she stammered as the taller woman knelt to put her down.

“It would’ve reached you if you jumped the other direction.” Nana pointed out. The oya had apparently outstretched it arm to make sure it squashed the annoying pest that had been shooting it.

Junna blinked in realization. “Oh, um… thank you then. For saving me.”

Nana beamed at her and drew both her swords, “Anytime, Junna-chan! But since its down, let me see what I can do.”

“Eh, Nana? Where are you--!” But the golden-haired woman had already leaped onto the oya’s shoulder as it struggled to push its sizeable bulk off the ground. Aghast, Junna watched as Nana sliced off one of the oya’s ears with her wakizashi and then used her katana as a pivot to change positions and jump onto the other shoulder to do the same to the youkai’s other ear.

The infuriated youkai relentlessly tried to catch its offending rider but Nana expertly dodged it massive hands. Junna was stunned. She knew that Nana carrying weapons was not only for show but she did not expect the taller woman to be able to combat youkai, let alone oyas, so aptly. Momentarily out of harm’s way, Junna observed her companion more closely, specifically her ki.

Nana glowed bright yellow in the darkness, her ki fluctuating like fire in the breeze. However, it was consistent in its luminosity, meaning Nana was consciously using and controlling her innate power. While it was not unheard of, people using spiritual energy to such an extent without formal ki training were very uncommon and usually held great potential. Karen was such a case. The brunette had a large pool of ki despite not coming from a magical family, and it just suddenly awakened during a Fog Night. But even then, Karen needed a lot of training. Even now, she was still nowhere near where she could be in terms of just how much ki she held.

Nana was a different creature altogether.

Junna watched her sheathe her katana with her ki, bolstering its sharpness and even lengthening its reach. This was how she managed to cut the oya’s flesh even though it endured Junna’s arrows prior. Then, as if simply flipping a switch, the ki was gone and Nana used the sturdy blades to smack the oya on the jaw. It appeared that she had concentrated her ki into her arms this time as the youkai toppled backwards as if hit by an invisible club. Junna only knew two people who used that technique freely; Futaba and Claudine. Mahiru could perform it but she was still working on smoothly and safely releasing the bound ki from her limbs. If not done correctly, she could potentially rip her muscles. Mahiru had so far opted to concentrating her ki into the gauntlet she wore on her dominant arm as a surrogate since it was safer.

Yet here Nana was, a non-Hachi, doing such stunts.

Where have you been all this time? Nana could potentially be the final piece of the puzzle, the final member the Hachi was looking for! She could help them defeat the Kyuubi no Kitsune with that sort of skill!

“Junna-chan watch out!”

“What?”

Distracted by her discovery, Junna did not sense the dark deluge coming from the forest. A large, three meter long blade loomed overhead intent on cleaving her in half. Thankfully, she retained the muscle memory of leaping away from danger.

Panting after rolling to negate the impact of falling, Junna immediately scanned the perimeter. The mouryou’s oya was dead, its neck slit by twin blades but there were still enemies in the vicinity.

“It’s another pack,”Junna warned as place more distance between her and the forest border. “Be careful.”

Nana stood on guard next to her as soon as she landed, her swords covered in youkai blood. Junna studied as much as she could from what her sense could see. It was one of the thing she was thankful for. She might have poor physical eyesight but her ability to see ki was well above average. From what she could scout, the new pack was comprised of similarly sized humanoid youkai, but they were bulkier and appeared to have enough intelligence to use weapons.

The first one to emerge was almost samurai-like, with rustered layered armor and a giant sword. How fitting it was that the first wave was a bunch of grave diggers while this wave seemed to be comprised of long dead ghouls. Others followed suit, some wielding spears while others have crude clubs. They all have something in common, however.

Armor.

It ranged from old and rusted overlapping iron to thick rotten straw paddings, but they were armor all the same and that troubled Junna. These must be the unsettled souls of warriors past, awakened and turned into youkai by the Fog. After all, Acacia used to be a battleground located in between the territories of two great rivaling kingdoms centuries ago. There must be thousands of remains in these lands.

“They’re ghouls, Nana.” She told her companion. “We just need to hold them off and prevent them from hurting the Sanadas or getting into town. I’m certain that the others have already deployed and they’ll help us.”

Nana nodded grimly with a frown etched on her face. “I understand.”

Before Junna could go over any sort of battle plan, however, Nana had already begun stalking towards towering youkai. She shuddered at how fearlessly the other woman marched towards monsters but reminded herself that they were fighting as a team right now. She must take advantage of whatever openings Nana gave her. So, Junna ran and jumped on top of a lone tree several meters away and reached behind her for another set of three arrows. She repeated her enchantment earlier and shot explosive arrows at the straw-clad ghouls, hoping that that would bring them down.

She managed to slay one, but the other two only stumbled but continued their march.

Thankfully, Nana was there to pick up where she left off. The golden-haired woman automatically focused on the youkai that Junna had already injured and engaged them in a flurry of her blades. In Junna’s ki sight, it was almost like Nana was swinging flaming swords and the fire effectively burned any youkai flesh it touched.

By the time Nana reverted back into her guard stance, three ghouls lied on the soil, ripped into ribbons.

Nana shifted her weight and stood face to face with the iron-armored youkai from earlier that almost cleaved Junna. With her katana and wakizashi held forward, she braced herself for a powerful strike. The ghoul delivered with an overhead slash but the katana-wielder rooted herself and infused both arms and blades with ki enabling her to parry even such a large weapon. With its weight diverted to an awkward angle, the ghoul stumbled forward, allowing Nana to slice off one of its arms in between the rusted plates and jab her wakizashi up into its jaw until the tip protruded on the other side its face.

Meanwhile, Junna did her best to incapacitate the other youkai. She was running out of arrows and she was reluctantly in using the handful she had left against foes that could deflect them. So instead, she shot at knees and feet on those she could not immediately shoot at the head. One staggered enough that she was given a clear shot, so Junna used her last arrow to make sure it went down.

Without ammunition, she was rendered ineffective in the fight now and there were still three left, including this pack’s oya. Junna gritted her teeth and resigned herself to using pure ki arrows. As if sensing her uselessness at that point, one of the lighter armored ghoul bellowed an ululating cry, a battle chant of some sort, before sprinting towards Junna with reckless abandon. It approached so quickly that Junna had to run to the side to avoid its club, but the moment it got past her position, it became clear that it was not she it was targeting.

It was sprinting towards the Sanada house.

“No!” Junna ran after it and fired pure ki from her bow. Shooting pure energy was no easy feat and since it did not obey worldly laws, like gravity, the first two Junna shot missed by a hair. She had to stop briefly to aim and shoot properly. The ghoul went down, but a moment later, she heard Nana yelling towards her.  

In a split second, she saw a shadow looming just behind her, another youkai grinning evilly and holding a rusted sword.

Relying on instincts, Junna used Hisuiya to strike the sword’s flat side, which effectively changed the path of the downward slash. She then drew the tanto from her belt and drove its blade into the rusted gap of the ghouls armor, stabbing it in between the ribs. This angered the youkai which picked up Junna with its massive hand and threw her several meters away like a ragdoll. She rolled back onto her feet just quickly enough to dodge its fist that almost crushed her. With a scream of determination, Junna ducked under the youkai’s reach and jammed the tanto deeper with the palm of her hand. Then she poured ki into the blade until a peculiar symbol glowed red upon the handle. This allowed her to copy the technique Nana had used earlier with her katanas, lengthening the blade so that it would pierce through the inside bits that mattered. Junna even infused it with a bit of purify ki so that the ghoul cooked from the inside out before it toppled sideways with a frightful and haunting cry.

“Junna-chan!” Nana slid next to Junna as she fell on her knees, panting from the exertion. “Junna-chan, are you hurt?!”

Junna took a moment to catch her breath and recollect herself. She was truly feeling the chill of ki depletion at this point and it was beginning to blur her vision and her body ache from the impact of being flung to the hard ground. However, there was still one youkai left and that could prove to be biggest challenge. She wished her comrades from Seishouya would arrive soon. Junna had never fought a pack on her own for long, let alone two. And while sure Nana was a great help, she feared that if there was a third pack lurking in the shadows, there was nothing more she could do.

The Hachi must arrive soon.

“I-I’m fine, Nana,” Junna staggered as she stood and quickly gave the taller woman a once over. Fortunately, Nana did not seem injured. Her white clothes were dirtied because of all the earth that these club-wielding brutes have been kicking up but she appeared to be just fine. What caught Junna’s attention though was a red glow on Nana’s pure white coat. There was a symbol at the hem of the garment illuminated by an odd red energy.

“Nana, what is that?”

Nana’s jade-hued eyes widened and before she could explain, Junna had already left her arms and hurried towards the tanto still embedded in the youkai’s disintegrating body. The top, circular half of the symbol burned on the tanto’s handle, while the lower lines were similarly etched on the scabbard that Junna had pulled from her belt. She stared at the knife and then looked up at Nana with realization dawning in her eyes.

“It’s you…”

Unfortunately, before she could unload the myriad of questions that flooded her mind, a black void came into her ki vision. She barely had the chance to get out of the way before a blazing wheel came rolling out from the forest, its many spokes burning with red fire that made Junna freeze in place.

There were a lot of youkai that used fire but, as a Hachi, Junna thought more gravely about fire. After all, fire could equal the Kyuubi no Kitsune, and in this case, the youkai’s ki was much stronger than what they have been fighting before.

For the briefest of moments, she actually feared that the Kyuubi came out with yet another pack of youkai.

Junna groaned as she pulled herself up from the ground to recover Hisuiya several meters away. As she ran, she felt the hot blaze chasing her so fast that she had no choice but the duck down to avoid its dive.

“Junna-chan!”

With yet another painful moan, she looked up and found--with some small relief-- that she was not facing off the same monster that defeated their powerful Tenkai. The wheel-like apparition was merely an optical illusion. Once the youkai stopped, it revealed itself to be a bakeneko, or a Kasha to be precise. Large, bipedal and long-fanged, it was a fearsome sight but in addition to that, all four of its limbs burned with cursed fire. Already, the grass around its feet were turning to ash.

The demon cat spat at Junna, showing its innate hatred for humans, specifically the Hachi, and crouched down on all fours. It was easily three times her size, with viscous saliva dripping down its fangs. She could not dare to move. Hisuiya was only a few feet away though. If she could just reach it, she could possibly shoot it quickly with a ki arrow to stun it long enough to get even a rudimentary purification enchantment completed. It was long shot, quite literally, but it might just be the only thing that she had at this point.

The Kasha seemed to have sensed her intention and pounced, covering itself with red flame. Junna got onto her knees to roll out of the way but even she knew that would not be fast enough. She would still be scorched by the fire even if she managed to dodge the strike.

It might be hopeless but Junna has always been a survivor.

She rolled away and braced herself from the heat. She could always jump into an irrigation ditch to combat the flames, but then she noticed that she was unscathed.

Looking up, Junna saw Nana had blocked not only the Kasha’s pounce but also prevented the fire from going past her ki barrier. The golden-haired woman roared with great ferocity as she pushed her twin katanas against the Kasha’s claws, before a powerful blast of ki hurled the youkai away, making it roll like a ragdoll on the dirt.

Nana’s shoulders trembled from the effort while her grip on her katanas shook. And as she stood there with the Kasha’s embers sputtering out around her, her yellow ki shone gold.

Junna was astonished. The sight brought her back five years ago, when a scene so similar to this happened. “Nana…” she stammered as she sat up and tried to reach for her companion.

Nana, however, refused the touch and stepped away. She said to her as she look over her shoulder, “Junna-chan, let me handle this. Please, just stay safe.” She then marched on towards her enemy with her swords held low.

“Nana, wait!” Junna’s protests came too late. Nana had already engaged the Kasha and was moving so differently from how she was fighting earlier. There was haste in her movements as if she wanted to slay that youkai as fast as possible, but at the same time, it could just be due to the fact that she was simply moving faster. The kasha was an agile foe, with sinewy limbs, feline reflexes and it frequently used its flames to blind and burn enemies yet Nana managed through everything with little difficulty. In fact, she was keeping up with the oya in a way that Junna had only ever observed Maya accomplish.

Agitated, the Kasha spat and hissed as it swung a flaming paw at the dual-wielder, forcing her to guard. It then jumped back and threw a fireball at her. Junna yelled a warning, but the golden-haired woman did not make an effort to evade the projectile. Instead, Nana blocked the flames with her katana and hurled it back to the kasha at a much faster velocity. It even exploded upon impact, blasting the youkai into the ground, where it yowled its last.

Junna sat there with her mouth agape. She had never seen anyone do that before. Kaoruko could block youkai flames with her barriers, while Claudine simply barrels through or cleaves it in half with her ki-infused sword. Maya had once shown that she could negate cursed flames but even she admitted that it took a lot of effort and was not very combat-worthy.

“Just… who are you?” Junna murmured as she began to feel the toll of her earlier combat. The more she learned about Nana, the more questions she had. Nana the traveler, who bought simple ingredients and placed value in home-cooked food. Nana the fighter, who wielded two swords effortlessly and expertly. Nana the actress, who could take a script she never seen before and make it real through her acting. Nana the kid magnet, who enjoyed the company of children and made sure she could at least provide them with some treats. And lastly, Nana the slayer, who could erect ki barriers, throw cursed fires right back at youkai, and defeat an oya in less than ten minutes.

Nana the golden, the kind, the gentle.

Which one was she really?

Junna knew her body would ache in the morning, but she felt none of that pain right now. She could not even care less about the fact that she had depleted her ki enough she might have to sleep far longer than usual to recover. The only thing that occupied her mind now was the woman who walked towards her, with her slightly charred and smoky grey coat, tired eyes, and fearful expression.

“It’s over,” Nana’s voice was tiny, as if she did something atrocious instead of saving not only Junna and the Sanadas but also Acacia. “Look, um, the Fog is clearing.”

Indeed the Fog was clearing and it was still many hours before sunrise. Two packs, they fought, and two oyas, and they managed to clear them out so quickly.

“Um, do you… d-do you want me to escort you back to town, Junna-chan? I-I understand if you’re really tired now.”

Tired was an understatement.

“I have a lot of questions and I don’t even know where to begin.” Junna began, ignoring her exhaustion and body aches, and Nana winced, clearly not looking forward to answering any more questions about herself today.

“Junna-chan, I--”

“No, I will not ask them today.” Junna held up her hand to calm her obviously anxious companion. “But I do want to confirm one thing, Nana.”

The golden-haired woman took a deep breath in anticipation.

“It was you all along…”

“W-what do you mean, Junna-chan?”

“You were the one who saved me, didn’t you?” All her questions about Nana’s abilities and training, those did not matter. At least not right now. She just wanted to know if that golden apparition from five years ago, the person who had saved her life and changed it completely, was in fact her.

Instead of giving her a straight answer, however, Nana only fidgeted in place, squirming under her scrutiny. “That… that couldn’t be possible.”

This time, it was Junna’s turn to take a deep breath in order to control her emotions, “But the tanto has the same symbol as your cloak and I have never seen that symbol anywhere else no matter how much I researched.”

“Junna-chan…”

Junna then spoke in the gentlest way possible, “Is there a reason why you cannot tell me the truth?”

Nana remained tight-lipped and only looked down on her boots.

Truth be told, Junna was saddened that Nana could not confirm or deny her suspicions. Trouble churned in the latter’s jade-hued irises, as if she wanted to say something but used all of her willpower not to say it. Perhaps she was bound to secrecy or something even darker. Junna knew of curses that did not allow its victims to speak of it to prevent it from being broken. If that was the case with Nana, then Junna vowed to bring that to light and maybe even break it.

“Nana, I understand that sharing one’s past is not easy and I do not wish to force you.” She reached up towards Nana’s hand and held it like they always did nowadays. “But… do you wish to bring harm to Acacia?”

This spread panic across Nana’s expression. “No!” She answered, “Of course not. I wouldn’t harm anyone!”

“Then… then I won’t ask for anything else anymore.” Nana’s response was real and it was as true as Junna could possibly detect. She meant no harm to anyone, and maybe, for now, that was enough. Nana’s past, though mysterious and painful, could wait until she was more ready to share it. “I trust you.”

“Junna-chan…”

“The present is more important,” Junna smiled up at her and tried to pick herself up from the ground but all she could manage with the least effort was kneel. She needed a moment to make sure nothing was broken or sprained. Though, wincing, she continued, “I’m very impressed with how you fought, and uh… I have a proposal to make.”

“A proposal?”

“Yes.” Junna gripped the tanto in her belt with one hand and Nana’s gloved fingers with the other.

“Daiba Nana, I want you to be my partner in the Hachi.”

Chapter Text

“I can’t. I’m sorry.”

The bare wind brushing past her pigtails seemed to mock her for what she did. Nana replayed the moment from that night in her mind, trying to see how she should have reacted instead of the cold-sounding rejection she gave to Junna.

They had not seen each other for a week now.

Nana inadvertently kicked at a pebble on the road, staring at it in a forlorn daze as it rolled and rolled. Time had been a vague concept in her life prior to meeting Junna. She had grown so used to Junna’s presence that her absence created a gaping hole that she had no idea how to fill. Because  of her unsuccessful attempts at distracting her mind, she had decided on her last resort.

The Tsuyuzaki Farm.

It was not surprising that a loner like Hikari would be captivated by this place. Even Nana felt a certain degree of solace just walking through the field of flowers. It was simple, was it not? All Hikari had to do was remain with Mahiru and they could achieve the peace together. No more hiding in the dark, living off of the lands and always in fear of being found out. Here, she could live proudly with a loved one, surrounded by kind family members.

Nana clenched her fists in frustration, at both Hikari’s adamant stance on this matter as well as her own treacherous sense of relief. Hikari was the only one who knew the whole truth about her so of course she did not want to part ways with her friend. However, the consequent guilt of barring her companion from obtaining happiness was too much. It had been accumulating for years and now, finally, she was on the verge of breaking.

She had no idea what to do. Just what was right? Just what should she do?

Her mind inevitably drifted back to the argument they had earlier the day and the tension from the memories made her stomach churn.

“You should stay with Tsuyuzaki Mahiru.”

Hikari, who had been staring contemplatively outside the window, turned to face her with a blank expression.

“What brought this on?”

“Junna-chan, she… she mentioned the cover stories we both used and, well, I know she has her doubts and I’m sure her friend does too.”

“... yes, there are times when I feel like Mahiru wanted to ask me questions,” Hikari subconsciously rested her hand over the white bear accessory, which was clipped to her belt. “But she is too kind. She’s sensed my reluctance in speaking more about myself and never pushed the subject. I… I am very grateful.”

Nana smiled lightly at the aura of affection around Hikari, something that she was certain the latter wasn’t aware of. “She sounds like a lovely person, and Junna-chan always speaks so highly of her. That’s why, I believe you’ll be better off with her.”

“You speak as if you are going somewhere else, somewhere far,” Hikari narrowed her eyes, her voice an octave lower and cooler. “Explain.”

“I feel like I’ve stayed here long enough. No, I’ve stayed here for far too long. I’ve become too attached and… I don’t know what to do except cut off my ties.” Nana lowered her head, stroking her hand at the same spot where Junna held that Fog Night. Thoughts of her parents, brutally and unjustly murdered, crashed against the fond memories of her shared kisses with the endearing Hachi. “Those associated with the Kyuubi… with me all have terrible fates. Why stick with me, when you can be happy?”

Hikari closed their distance in a swift stride and glared up at her coldly. “You think I will just forget all about you, all the injustice done to us, and leave you by yourself? You mock me.”

She was angry, Nana knew, but she returned the gaze just as firmly. “It’s better off this way and you know it.”

“No I don’t,” Hikari hissed, giving Nana a rough shove on the shoulder. “You and I are in this together.”

“Exactly - you’ll end up like my parents-”

“We’re both survivors,” the black-haired woman brushed away her thick locks, revealing the jagged scar on her neck barely peeking above the collars of her shirt, “You told me those very words yourself, Daiba Nana. I’m not afraid of whatever the accursed Kirin has in store for a traitor like me. No, I’m true to my cause and I know that you and I are in the right.”

Nana sighed and looked away. “But the Hachi is also fighting for what they believe is right too. They’re good people.”

“They are. And so rather than running away, I’m staying close to Mahiru so I can, perhaps, protect her if needed,” at this, the fierce expression on Hikari’s face softened as amusement flickered across her blue eyes. “She can handle herself fine. Either way, I know what I feel and that’s the end of it. I am not listening to you.”

“But our identities-” Exasperated, Nana reached for the scruff of Hikari’s cloak, intending to shake sense into her, but she was intercepted by the latter’s unyielding grip on her wrist.

“It would be dangerous if they know who we really are, I agree, but it’s still more preferable than just disappearing,” Hikari tightened her hold, scowling. “I’m sick of your lost puppy mode this past week. I may not know what happened between you and that other Hachi, but I do know you must have screwed up-”

“... thanks for that vote of confidence...”

“Quiet, I’m still talking. You go make amends, have a closure, anything. Just stop moping around. My time with Mahiru and her family taught me to listen to other people’s opinions and I believe that’s exactly what you need to do. Have a proper talk.”

Nana found it ironic that the usually untalkative woman was teaching her how to interact with people. However, she could no longer find it in herself to argue anymore, not when a part of her deep down was glad that Hikari did not discard her like a nuisance.

Besides, she missed Junna dearly.

“Looks like things finally got through your idiotic skull,” Hikari said irritably, though she continued to hold onto Nana’s hand. “One day, we will fix everything. There shall be justice.I’m not going anywhere, and neither are you. That’s the end of this discussion.”

Hikari was never one to mince on her words and those really struck home. Nana agreed that she must do something at least to end this awkward limbo, to fix the loose ends. Her awkward handling of the situation must have caused Junna pain, which was the primary reason for Nana to avoid her in fear of seeing her change in attitude.

She just never wanted to see the hurt look in those green eyes again. Even though Junna had hid it well, she still saw the fleeting hurt in those emerald eyes when she turned down the Hachi’s offer.

As she strolled down the path through the expansive farmlands, she greeted a few of the workers in the distance and wondered if this would have been her life, had she grown up normally as a Norinaga. But, if the she had grown up there, the Sanadas would not have moved in, and Junna might not have gone there as part of her Hachi trial and their lives might not have ever crossed.

No, it was pointless to muse about the what-ifs.

She shook off those pestering thoughts and headed towards the small patch of garden where Hikari had hinted she would find the person she was looking for. The silhouette was humming to herself quietly, seemingly absorbed in her task of planting seeds into the freshly tilled soil.

Nana swallowed dryly and spoke up. “Excuse me, are you Tsuyuzaki Mahiru?”

“Hmm? Yes, that’s me. Oh, you’re Banana-chan-?” Mahiru paused, her brows slightly furrowed as she dropped her friendly voice to a cooler tone. “You’re Daiba Nana-san, right?”

“Banana-chan is fine, Tsuyuzaki-san,” Nana replied without hesitation, hoping to reel back that amiable atmosphere so that they could have a proper conversation. “Do you have a moment? Could I please speak to you about something?”

Mahiru, her expression still wary, gazed at her briefly before placing her shovel against the bench. Nana subconsciously relaxed a little at that, having heard about this Hachi’s fearsome skills with her mace from Junna. As much as she wanted to cut to the chase, she had not received any indication of agreement from Mahiru. Therefore, she patiently waited while the silent woman gathered the rest of her gardening tools and dusted her kimono.

Clearly conflicted, Mahiru took a deep breath as if to convince herself of something and turned to face her fully. It was just as Junna had described, that her close friend was warm-hearted and would always hear someone out no matter what.

“Daiba-san, are you here to ask about Junna-chan?”

“Yes! I…” Nana winced at her immediate response and tried to remain calm. “I’m just wondering, um, how is she-?”

“It’s obvious to us that she’s been feeling down. She’s barely left Seishouya - she’s usually reading in her room or practicing at the range. Lately, she’s even taken over some of Tendou-san’s paperworks.” Though frowning, Mahiru sounded sad rather than upset. “At first we thought she was just tired from the Fog Night a week ago but this was definitely more than that.”

At this, Nana cringed again and hung her head low.

“Junna-chan won’t tell us what happened, and we didn’t want to push her. Even then, we all knew that it must be something to do with you since she hasn’t been going out to meet you. Karen-chan and Futaba-san have actually been all over Acacia, looking for you to demand answers.”

It was a good thing that Nana had also been moping around the cabin since that night, in spite of Hikari’s many attempts to throw her out. Perhaps she looked pitiful, ashamed or both, for Mahiru kindly softened her voice.

“Junna-chan is a very dear friend of ours, Daiba-san, so we would appreciate it if you can tell us what had happened between you both.”

“It wasn’t my intention, but I had hurt her by handling a situation badly.” Nana was a bit embarrassed that her voice cracked but she just wanted to get everything off her chest at this point. “I wasn’t… ready, I wasn’t expecting it, so I rejected her offer too bluntly.”

“Offer-?”

Nana hesitated but decided to be truthful. “I helped Junna-chan during the Fog Night so she asked me if I would like to be her partner.”

Mahiru gasped, the wariness in her demeanor replaced by curiosity and concern. “You must’ve been really good, Daiba-san, for her to say something so serious. But I suppose everything makes sense now, of why she’s been so despondent.”

“Eh? What do you mean?”

“It’s understandable that she was disappointed at your answer, but that wasn’t the reason for her behavior the past week. You haven’t seen each other since that night, correct?”

Nana nodded slowly. “Usually, at the end of each of our meetings, we would make arrangements to meet the next day. But that night, after we made sure the Sanadas were alright, we parted ways without doing so. Since she doesn’t know where I live, and I’m too nervous to just approach Seishouya, we haven’t been able to contact each other.” As she said those words, she started to feel rather dumb and was once again filled with sense of shame. “I should’ve tried to contact her earlier, through you if possible… she must be angry with me…”

“That’s not it, Banana-chan.” The use of nickname had Nana blink in surprise. Mahiru was now wearing a maternal expression, her voice kind and quiet as if she was comforting a frightened critter. “She must have thought that you left Acacia already, for good. She’s very smart but there are times when she overthinks things.”

“...oh no, what have I done?” If Nana could go back in time, she would shake some sense into the past version of her. “I-I didn’t know how to handle the situation and I j-just ran away without telling her anything…”

“But you’re here now, aren’t you?” Mahiru’s voice remained soft and coaxing. “You’ve come here to find me as a means of getting in touch with her, right?”

Nana exhales tiredly. “Yes. I want to see her again. Even though awkward as I am, I still want to talk to her, apologize and hopefully she would be willing to spend time with me again. I want to fix this situation between us, especially now that I know how she may have perceived my behavior.”

“I agree that you both need to talk it out. I feel protective of her, she’s my dear friend, but I also remember how happy she looked whenever she talked about you,” Mahiru hesitantly patted the taller woman’s shoulder, a gesture she appreciated. “I will let the others know about this… misunderstanding. At least, enough so that they would give you both privacy to sort it out, I promise.”

“Thank you, Tsuyuzaki-”

“Mahiru is fine, Banana-chan,” the woman smiled kindly, and Nana was happy for Hikari to have found such a compassionate person. She was still adamant on convincing Hikari to live a peaceful, happy life with Mahiru, but she shall take both of their advice on resolving the situation between herself and Junna first.


 

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For the umpteenth time, Nana squinted at her reflection in the water fountain and tried to comb her hair. Whenever she heard approaching clicks of geta sandals, she would turn around with a smile, only to droop in disappointment at seeing a stranger walk by. This place appeared to be popular spot for couples and friends to meet up before heading for the main street where stalls, vendors and other points of attractions were set up. Nana had picked this place due to its convenience and the fact that it was out in the open, making it easier for her to search for Junna.

If she really did show up.

Nana had no doubt that a kind woman like Mahiru would pass on her message, but would Junna willingly attend the festival with her? She could have gone with any one of her Hachi compatriots, such as her close friend Karen, instead of a woman who had parted ways awkwardly and had not contacted her until yesterday. What were they, really? Girlfriends? Friends? A local and a traveller? By this point, Nana had no doubt on how she felt about Junna, yet there were countless fears and concerns preventing her from just outright declaring her intentions. She was hoping tonight would allow her to clear her thoughts enough to make her decision.

To either agree to Junna’s proposal or any other suggestions she may have, or formally bid the Hachi farewell.

Sighing in frustration, Nana resumed fixing her messy hair and smoothing the creases of her shirt and vest. While not every festival attendee wore traditional style garments, at least from what she could see around her, she would have preferred to blend in with a simple yukata instead of her usual outfit. However, there was only so much funds between her and Hikari for a nice new set of clothes.

A bit of bantering later, their arm wrestling match turned into an actual rough scuffle in their cabin in which they knocked over the shelves and all the other cluttered junk. Nana lost her hair ties during the fight and hadn’t been able to locate them since, while Hikari was all enraged when they rolled over her futon and Nana elbowed her precious Mr. White accessory. At the end, Hikari claimed victory by a margin and left the cabin early to prepare for her date.

No she cheated! She blinded me with the reflection from her stiletto and tripped me! Nana frowned, feeling rather unkempt in her outfit and disheveled hair. She did have enough savings just for a basic yukata, but she decided to keep it so she could maybe sway Junna at arcade games or buy delicious snacks and nice gifts at the vendors. The idea of Hikari awkwardly trying to impress Mahiru kept Nana entertained so she wasn’t as upset as she should be over the loss.

She was too anxious anyway.

The sun had long set, though the surroundings was lit with beautiful illuminations from the lamps, lanterns, and decor along with the merry atmosphere. Laughter was all around her, celebrating a fruitful year of abundant crops and the anniversary of the death of the Kyuubi. Nana  rubbed the bridge of her nose, chuckling inwardly at the irony of herself attending this event. All these people were ignorant of the truth, and a part of her resented them for that. Yet she was mostly glad for this brittle peace to remain. Ignorance was bliss, and there was nothing wrong with wanting to keep it.

“...Nana-? I’m sorry I’m late. Um, it took some time to get ready…”

“Junna-chan!” Nana’s heart skipped a beat at the much-welcomed familiar voice. She shook off her dark thoughts and mustered her best smile as she turned to face her date, “It’s okay, I’m just glad that you made it-”

Words were caught in her throat and she could only stare with her mouth open.

Junna was wearing a kimono. Not just any kimono, but an elegant azure one with periwinkle obi and patterns of stars over the sleek fabric. Unlike the usual sidetail style with the bell hair ties, Junna’s long and slightly wavy hair cascaded down her back with a glossy gleam. A simple gardenia pin was affixed to her hair as well, and the small bluebell flower trinkets dangling from it complemented the emerald green of her eyes. Nana had always considered Junna to be beautiful yet no mere adjectives were good enough to describe the ethereal presence before her at this very moment.

Has it really been that long since I last saw her or had she always been this pretty-?

Junna brushed a strand of hair behind her ear, and Nana’s eyes subconsciously followed her movement, noting how the kimono sleeve teasingly slid down her smooth skin before covering her wrist once more.

“Um, Nana…? S-Stop staring at me like that…”

Nana blinked slowly, at last noticing Junna’s shifty gaze and the blush blossoming on her cheeks. “I’m sorry but I can’t help it, you’re just so beautiful…”

“W-What’s with all the compliments?”  

“I’m just saying the truth, Junna-chan,” Nana murmured hoarsely, afraid that her voice would taint this breathtaking image before her.

“It’s nothing special...” Junna nervously played with the hems of her sleeves, seemingly uncomfortable in her attire. “It’s just a kimono. Hanayagi-san insisted that I wore this and she also did my hair for me. I-I feel exposed, to be honest, and it’s inconvenient that I don’t have pockets. See? I-I have to put your tanto here and that’s the most I could carry.”

Indeed, the marked tanto was kept under the obi. Nana felt oddly appeased by the sight of  an item that used to belong to her being kept so intimately close to the woman she fell for.

“It’s not just the kimono, Junna-chan. It’s you. I-I missed you so much,” she boldly took one step forward and tried to swallow her trepidation. “M-May I hold your hand?”

“E-Eh?” Junna blinked, her blush receding slightly. “Of course, you d-didn’t have to ask-?”

Nodding, Nana gingerly held Junna’s hand like it was porcelain to be handled with care. The warmth against her palm had her giggle happily, for she felt rather proud to accomplish this feat. After all, she got to hold hands with the most beautiful lady in attendance tonight.

“Mou, you’re making too big of a deal out of this.” Junna was wearing a familiar fond smile, the softness in her gaze prompting Nana to return the gesture. “Well then, I shall make my request too. Come closer please.”

Nana tilted her head and complied as the shorter woman tugged lightly on their interlaced fingers. Junna embraced her with hesitance at first but gradually tightened her arms around the blonde. At that moment, she felt as if her very soul became anchored and soothed. The intangible part of her had always felt like it was floating aimlessly, desperate for a place to settle. But now, there was peace and it was so pleasant that she closed her eyes to fully relish in this sensation. Returning the hug, she took a deep breath and instinctively kissed Junna’s temple.

“Thank you for agreeing to meet me here, Junna-chan. It means a lot to me. I would like to make up for how badly I reacted that night and-”

It took her a moment to realize that the shorter woman had interrupted her with a chaste kiss. Junna looked just as surprised as she was, peering up at her with wide eyes that were more emotional than usual behind the glasses.

“I… I missed you too, Nana.” She said quietly, as if it was more to herself than the blonde. “The past week felt really long…”

“I’m sorry to have put you through that.” Nana tried to be solemn in her response, but the kiss made her heart gallop and a giddy smile broke through. She tightened her hold around Junna’s waist and leaned down for another kiss, which the latter reciprocated just as tenderly.

Such warmth both sent pleasant tingles throughout her body and appeased her worries. She could keep doing this forever, just expressing her affection for this lovely woman in her arms, who seemed to care for her just as much.

“Geez, I don’t know whether to tell them to get a room or not because all the flowers and fluff bursting around them is confusing me~!”

At the sound of a stranger’s voice so close, Nana pulled away in embarrassment but she kept one arm wrapped protectively around Junna’s waist. The newcomer exuded a vibe of power and confidence that immediately placed Nana on guard. The elaborate and vibrant magenta kimono gave the voluptuous woman the air of a royalty, on top of the intricate needlework of the seiryuu design that covered the expensive fabric. Her shorter companion, a redheaded woman, was wearing a plum yukata and black haori of equal quality, but that did not diminish the aura of authority and vigilance that seemed to define her. The byakko insignia over the dark violet hakama pants eluded to her status just as much as the other did.

Nana had learned enough from Junna to know they must be important members of the Hanayagi and Isurugi Clan.

“W-What are you two d-doing here?!” Junna’s voice was adorably squeaky, though the distress signals had Nana tug her even closer.

“Aww! They’re so cute, Futaba-han! She’s protective of Junna-han! Why don’t you ever do that, you unromantic dumdum?” The woman with the azure dragon marking used her fan to tap soundly on her companion’s shoulder.

“Hey that hurts! And what did you just call me? Geez, as if you need any protection…” The one called Futaba rolled her eyes before smiling apologetically at Junna. “Sorry about this, but Kaoruko insisted that we make sure you made it to the meeting spot alright. I didn’t want to be a bother but I was also worried you might get harrassed on your way here.”

“M-Mou! I can take care of myself, you didn’t have to come, both of you!”

Junna’s voice was still high-pitched but at least Nana could sense that it was from embarrassment and not from imminent danger. They seemed like they were friends, perhaps even part of her Hachi family due to how familiar the names sounded.

“What, and miss you making out with the handsome big banana we’ve been hearing about? Hehe, I’m pleased that you’ve all grown up, Junna-han. We’ll need to get together for a proper talk, I can help you with the techniques and-”

“Kaoruko!” The redhead admonished before giving Nana a thorough scrutiny up and down. Nana tensed involuntarily, for the much shorter woman had a piercing gaze that made her more intimidating than her physical appearance. “Hnnn. Well, can’t say we’ve been too impressed by what happened recently but Mahiru’s talked us out of hunting you down. Besides, it seemed like it was just a misunderstanding and we’re in no position to say anything anyway if Junna herself was alright with-”

“She was more than alright, she was about to stick her tongue down-”

“Ka-o-ru-ko! Lemme finish speaking woman! I’m trying to be serious here-”

“Well you didn’t lemme finish either-”

“Because you were saying unnecessary things!”

“Unnecessary?! How rude, I was trying to bestow wisdom upon-”

Futaba placed her hand over Kaoruko’s mouth, only to pull away a moment later with a gasp. “Did you just bite me?”

“I can do more than bite if you want,” Kaoruko smirked and made a growling sound. “Come at me, tigress.”

“Are they always like this?” Nana whispered, half wary yet half amused by the exchange before her. In spite of the powerful ki she sensed in the Hanayagi and Isurugi women, they appeared harmless enough.

“Unfortunately yes. Don’t think too much on it.” There was exasperated fondness in Junna’s voice though, so Nana allowed herself to relax even more and muster a friendly smile when the pair’s attention returned to them.

“Anyways, I think you know who we are already, based on your expression. Don’t let us bother you anymore and just enjoy your date, alright? Have a great night, Junna, Banana,” Futaba returned the smile just as amiably.

“Whaaa I want to chat more! I want to get to know Banana-han~” Pouting, Kaoruko ignored her leaving companion and approached them. Like reflex, Junna stepped in front of Nana before she could get any closer. “Geez, I don’t bite other ladies’ meat. I just want to figure out why she’s so bright and gold~”

At this, the humor in Nana dissipated and it took every fibre of her being to maintain her friendly expression. Her instincts were correct, that this Hanayagi Kaoruko was more than she seemed.

As if sensing her inner thoughts, the heiress gave her a mysterious wink before hiding her smirk behind her fan. “Well, I suppose we can save that for a different night. Just remember not to have too much fun, ne, Junna-han? Though I wouldn’t worry too much about this kimono, you’re welcome to have it ripped off-”

“We’re going, Kaoruko,” Futaba stormed back and forcefully dragged her away. “Nice meeting you, Banana. I hope we can meet up and chat some other time! See you two later!”

Nana subconsciously let out a sigh of relief after the waving couple disappeared behind the sea of crowds down the main street. Junna rubbed her temple and muttered. “I’m sorry you had to meet them this way, Nana, but I assure you that their intentions are good, for the most part anyway. They’ve always been protective of me, even Hanayagi-san, but they just have… ah, interesting ways of showing it.”

“I can see that,” Nana couldn’t help but chuckle. “They seem like fun people though.”

“That’s an understatement. I adore my friends, but I’m glad that they’ve left us alone,” Junna glanced at Nana before taking hold of her hand. “I’d like tonight to just be us.”

“Junna-chan…” She shyly squeezed their intertwined hands. “I want you to understand that I never meant to push you away that night. I was too surprised, but becoming one of the Hachi was too much. An outsider like me,” she swallowed the tinge of pain in uttering those words, “cannot be part of Seishouya. Yes, I can control ki and fight youkai, but I could never become a Hachi.”

“I know,” Junna said softly, the small smile on her pretty features making Nana’s heart melt. “It’s okay, you don’t have to feel bad about it. I didn’t think the whole thing through and that must have troubled you. Although, I did mean my feelings behind it, Nana.”

She raised the blonde’s hand towards her lips and pecked her knuckles, much like how the latter had done that night at the Sanada Farm. “I’d still like you to become my partner, not as a Hachi, but just as my… my companion. We work well as a team, and I feel safe around you.”

“You want me to be...” Nana swallowed the lump in her throat. The encounter earlier already added doubts to her mind about being able to stay for long and immerse in Junna’s life. The longer she stayed, the more exposed she’ll become and it’ll be inevitable that the rest of the Hachi sensed something different about her. If not them, she would eventually see Tendou Maya again and that would be the end.

“You don’t have to answer me now,” Junna smiled kindly, as if sensing her dilemma. “I just wanted to elaborate on my request and make things clear. Let’s just enjoy the festival for now, Nana.”

“R-Right…”

Nodding, Junna tugged her towards the main street where delicious wafts of grilled food permeated the air. As a town by the waters, various seafood dishes were naturally abundant at a festival like this and Nana saw no end of creativity of what the locals did to attract the attendees. There were crab shell decorations, where children were able to paint them and wear them like masks. Dried fillets were even used as chips on mock gambling tables, where parents and their kids could add spice however they wanted before the vendor finished the meal for them. Nana saw a son boasting the stacks of clams that he won to his mother, while a daughter was giggling at the comical seaweed-shrimp skewers that her father put together.

And it wasn’t just the actual food either. Adults and kids alike were donning festive masks, some carrying koi-fish flags and some decorative lanterns that had one of the Four Clans’ emblems. The overall merry atmosphere and interesting sights allowed Nana to push the meaning behind this festival to the back of her mind. People were here to have fun and so should they. Laughing like an excited child, she pulled Junna towards a snack vendor that had caught her attention the most.

“What are these, Junna-chan? They look delicious though!” Nana held up the small paper tray of six round balls covered in sauces and shavings of what looked like dried bonito. Unable to contain her curiosity anymore, she picked one up with the provided toothpick and bit into it. “Eep! It’s so- haw-haw-”

“Careful!” Junna hurriedly bought a cold drink from a nearby vendor, which Nana gratefully took. “They’re called takoyaki - there are pieces of octopus inside each ball, which is made of flour.”

“Yes… I think I can taste it,” Nana assumed the chewy bit is the said octopus, but really her tongue was rather numb at this point to tell any difference.

“Here, this one shouldn’t burn you.”

Nana blinked at Junna, who had bit off a small piece and blew on the snack into the opening before holding it towards her. Suddenly self-conscious now, she bashfully let the shorter woman feed her one by one.

“Y-You should have some too, Junna-chan.” Nana was certain that her ears were red, judging from how heated they felt, and she supposed that it was because of how this might look like an intimate exchange between a couple to an outsider. She felt silly though, for Junna was unfazed by all of this as the latter helpfully dabbed at her cheek with a napkin.

“I’ll just have one piece - it seems like you really like the food and I’d rather you have more,” Junna smiled up at her before steadying Nana’s hand and ate the takoyaki that was on the toothpick.

Nana knew that she must be blushing hard now. It was terribly wrong of her to even think this but the way Junna took a bite and ran her tongue over her lower lip was rather tantalizing.

“... do I have some sauce on my cheek too?” This snapped her out of her trance. She stood there, conflicted for a few moments before mustering up her courage and gave Junna a quick peck on the lips.

“T-There, it’s all gone!” She hastily discarded the empty tray and toothpick in the waste container and gestured randomly. “L-Look! There’s strawberry dipped in chocolate! That’s a Gallian style dessert, isn’t it?”

“Y-Yes, it is…” Junna seemed to be dazed as well, her cheeks flushed. “Oh, I believe they have the banana version too.”

“Really? Let’s check them out!” Thankful for this distraction, Nana led her towards that particular shop where the lineup went all the way around into the alley way. A quick glance told Nana that the street over was the arcade area, where stalls were set up so a participant may win prizes depending on what the criteria were.

“Hmm, looks like it might take a while. Should we come back later-?” When she didn’t hear a response, she turned to find Junna staring intently at one of the game stalls. Nana followed her gaze and almost gasped upon spotting her wayward roommate and her date.

Hikari was wearing a pretty navy blue kimono with a maroon obi, a set she must have purchased with the pooled funds. Even though she was wearing a masquerade mask that covered the upper half of her face, Nana could recognize her ki anywhere. Mahiru, surprisingly, was dressed in a Gallian style shirt, vest and pants that was almost similar to Nana’s own. Her long ponytail swayed to and fro as she cheered for Hikari at the ring-toss game.

Festival HikaMahi

“...that must be Kagura-san.” Junna was still squinting hard. “Hmm, I thought Mahiru-san was supposed to be helping out her family’s stall. Each year, they would sell their famed potato stews and there’s always a huge lineup. That’s what she would wear, courtesy of Saijou-san, as she manages and directs the patrons. Foreigners would drop by too, that’s how well-known they are during the festivals.”

Nana could only nod, uncertain whether she should act like she knew Hikari or not. Mahiru did hint that she knew of their origins, having used the same Vertalis backstory, but had she and Junna spoken more on this subject?

Hikari managed to get all the rings over the same item, which must have been easy considering her deadly accuracy with her stiletto-throwing. Holding her chin high, she proudly presented the prize to Mahiru, who looked really happy with the way she gushed over the necklace.

“Oh, that’s the suzudaru cat, a character from a musical that Mahiru-san loves,” Junna said softly, shaking her head. “There are so many questions I’d like to ask that Kagura-san but, like I said, I’d like tonight to just be about us, Nana. I would not want to intrude on them either.”

“I agree. They look like they’re having fun.” Nana glanced at her friend, noting how naturally Hikari smiled even though the mask did cover most of her features.

“Anyway, let’s come back to these desserts later. I’d like to check out the Tsuyuzaki family’s stall if you don’t mind, Nana. I want to see if they can manage fine without Mahiru-san.”

“Of course. I’m actually curious about their stew - I keep hearing about them,” Nana thought about the countless times Hikari would go on and on about the said stew. While they managed to make some with the potatoes that Hikari brought back, she claimed that they still tasted different.

“If I remember correctly, it should be this way.”

Junna led Nana through the crowds of people on the main street, which was difficult to maneuver through due to just how many people there were. It was amazing how order was still maintained in spite of this potentially chaotic situation, but Nana supposed that the locals had years of practicing and learned how to keep peace.

They kept walking until they were almost at the town square, where there were enough space to accommodate all the patrons lining up for the Tsuyuzakis’ Yummy Potatoes. Nana was awed - indeed, there were all sorts of people in the queue, including foreigners judging from their Gallian dresses or Albion suits. A healthy strong voice was both attracting passers-by as well as keeping the lines organized. As soon as they approached the stand, the voice stopped momentarily before it was turned towards them.

“Junjun!!”

Instinctively, Nana reeled Junna behind her before the brown blur made an impact. The pigtailed brunette shook her head, blinking up in confusion at the person who intercepted her tackling hug. As soon as recognition flickered in her eyes, the shorter woman took a step back and made a comical expression.

And barked.

Nana blinked. Alright, that was kind of cute, but why?

“Um, Karen? What are you doing?” Junna had the same question as she greeted her friend. Grinning, Karen exuberantly moved to hug her now that there was no more obstacle.

“Oh! Kaoruko-chan told me to do that if I see Banana!”

“And you listened to her-?”

“Well, she said that would make Banana learn to be good, so why not?” Karen’s expression eased but there was a fierce spark in her eyes as she pointed at the bewildered blonde. “Making Junjun sad is non non da yo!”

“Um…”

“Geez, what should I do with you?” Junna exasperatedly peeled the brunette off of her but still gave her an affectionate pat on the head. “Thanks for being worried about us, but Nana and I are okay. Didn’t Mahiru-san explain it to you? It was just a misunderstanding.”

“I know… I guess I just want to see for myself. You’re important to us after all, Junjun,” Karen grinned at them and held out her hand towards Nana. “But! I’ve always thought that things would work out! I trusted my instincts the first time we saw you, Banana, and I still do! Name’s Aijou Karen. Has Junjun mentioned me? I’m one of her friends, like Mahiru-chan is!”

“Um, yes, Junna-chan talks about you, a lot,” Nana shook her hand, finding herself smiling. It was difficult to remain tense around this ball of optimism for long. “Thank you for your vote of confidence.”

“Hehe, no problem!”

Nana’s gaze lingered at Karen’s crown hairpin, sensing the similar energy emitting from it as Hikari’s star hairpin. While Hikari never elaborated on her past, she did mention a childhood friend who visited the Tsuyuzaki Farm numerous times when she was working there. She managed to avoid being seen and now Nana pieced together the puzzle and understood why. The former Albion warrior was still a fugitive and the Kagura Clan did not take well to her absence, so perhaps she simply did not want to drag Karen into the mess she was in. That and Karen was also a Hachi. So were both Mahiru and Junna.

We really are in quite a predicament, aren’t we, Hikari-chan? Nana wasn’t given much time to dwell on her musings when Karen grabbed hold of her hands, shaking them cheerfully.

“Ah, frowning is also non non da yo, Banana! I bet you’re hungry - come on, and you too Junjun!” Beaming, Karen ushered them towards the back of the Tsuyuzakis’ Yummy Potatoes, where Nana recognized some of Mahiru’s siblings while the rest must be her relatives due to their resemblance. After a brief exchange, both Nana and Junna were given bowls of stews by an austere elderly woman.

“Eat up! Obaa-chan won’t let you leave if you don’t finish every last bit, but I promise you it’s so good you’ll want to lick the bowl clean!” Karen held her arms akimbo, her chin high in utter pride.

“Erm yes, I’ve seen you done that many times, and why are you stating that as if you’re the one who made it?” Despite Junna’s grumbling, it was obvious that she was very fond of her friend’s antics. Karen playfully stuck out her tongue and watched in anticipation as Nana took a spoonful of the steaming stew. Her eyes widened in pleasant surprise - it truly was every bit as amazing as Hikari said.

When she finished the meal, she turned towards  Mahiru’s grandmother to thank her only to find the latter gazing thoughtfully at her face.

“Hmm, you look like someone I knew from a long time ago,” she muttered and waved it off, “I’m probably mistaken. I’m glad to see you drop by our shop with your friend, Junna-chan, but don’t let us keep you for long. I’m certain there are still many parts of the festival that you have yet to see.”

“Will you be fine though? Usually Mahiru-san is helping out-”

“She deserves a break, especially…” the elderly woman glanced at Karen and tugged at the latter’s ear, earning a squeak. “Well, we got this pup, so don’t you worry about us.”

“That’s nice of you to help them out, Karen.” Junna sounded impressed, to which the pigtailed brunette gave her a happy salute.

“I do owe Mahiru-chan a lot, and besides, I’d rather help out her family because they’re all so nice to me! I think my parents are looking for me, actually, hehe…”

“Her family runs a confectionery so they have a stall that sells manjus,” Junna explained for Nana before sending Karen a half-hearted glare. “I do think it’s important that you go check up on them once the lines here aren’t so busy.”

“I will…”

“Don’t give me that hurt puppy look.” Sighing, Junna patted her head one more time, to which Karen perked up with a smile. “Well, you’re doing good. Remember to go and have fun at the festival too, when you’re free to go.”

“Okay! Don’t worry about me though, I want you to have the best time tonight!” Karen dramatically lowered voice and tugged at Nana’s arm. “Junjun always worked so hard every year so I don’t think she ever got to look around much! She was always involved with the committees or something. Mahiru-chan and I had a hard to time dragging her away, so I’m so happy you’re here to keep her company, Banana!”

“You made me sound so… nevermind,” Junna rolled her eyes and pulled Nana free. “We’ll see you later, Karen. Thank you for the food, Tsuyuzaki obaa-san!”

It seemed like more and more people got attracted to the food stand, for it took the pair a long time to weave through the crowds to get to the town square. Nana recalled how the area looked weeks ago when they were still prepping for the stage plays, and was now amazed by the transformation that took place. Rows of benches and elevated platforms were set up for audience who had arrived early to get proper view, while there were still an ample amount of space for latecomers to have good vantage points.

Upon the center podium were actors and actresses in the middle of a fierce battle, with an orchestra at the background playing a fitting tune as well as creating sound effects at the right moments. Special lamps were constructed so that the lights were focused on the main characters while the flickering flames shaded in particular ways to suit the mood of the scenes. As they walked past the backstage during the intermission, Nana spotted Amemiya-san and Masai-san directing members of their theatre troupes and distributing the appropriate props.

“This is the play we helped them out with, Vendetta , isn’t it?” Nana murmured in wonderment, watching as the Count acted out that scene they did with the Lady. They even styled the actresses’ hairstyles the same way! The audience seemed captivated by the performance though, and it made Nana quite happy to know that she had contributed to the success.

“Do you want to stay and watch the play, Nana?”

“Can we?” She perked up at that but sheepishly chuckled a moment later. “Oh, um, unless you’d like to check out the arcades or back to that dessert stand…”

“It’s okay, I’d like to watch the play too,” Junna smiled and led her towards the back of the elevated spectator area. “We did work on parts of it together. Oh, uh…”

There was only enough space for one person to sit down on the benches and, already, the people around it were giving annoyed them looks for blocking their view. Nana whispered a quick apology to Junna before sitting down and pulling the shorter woman onto her lap.

Junna stiffened in her arms but managed to muffle her squeak in time. Nana was rigid as well, her heart pounding uncomfortably fast and loud as her sensory system became overloaded with the woman she was attracted to. Her warmth, her pleasant jasmine scene, her soft wavy hair tickling her chin…

“I’m really sorry about this,” Nana murmured again, noting how Junna’s ear turned red at the proximity.

“It’s fine, I g-guess it worked out, if I’m not heavy… oh, the next Act is starting.” Junna rested one hand over Nana’s, which was loosely wrapped around her waist. Nana gulped and tried to focus on the play. At first, it had been difficult to concentrate on anything due to how aware she was of Junna’s body heat against her own, especially with the way the latter slowly but gradually leaned back against her.

However, as the story went on and unravelled, she became just as absorbed as Junna was to the performance. At one point, she even rested her chin on Junna’s shoulder and held her breath when the Count faced off against a friend-turned-traitor to save his beloved Lady. The battle scene was so realistically choreographed that she was worried someone might get hurt by the swords, which also glinted under the lighting and clanked like actual metal.

By the time the play reached the end and the curtains dropped, Nana found herself applauding just as hard as Junna and the rest of the audience.

“That was really good!” She exclaimed, subconsciously hugging the woman in her lap. “So that was what the whole play looked like. It’s so… wholesome and immersive. I can feel how the characters’ emotions, put myself in their shoes and understand their actions, even the villains’. It’s like I’m part of the story too.”

“Yes, they’ve really outdone themselves this year, though I think your help is one of the reasons why,” Junna shifted and smiled up at her. “I did remember the characterization of the Count from the original script and, well, Amemiya-san definitely took your version.”

“Hehe, I didn’t do much…” Nana then noticed how easy it would be to sneak a kiss due to their proximity and tried to rein in her impulse to nuzzle Junna’s cheek. Almost desperately, she looked around for some sort of distraction and discovered that the audience had become even more packed. In fact, she felt that their seat felt more squished as more people tried to fit onto the benches.

“Hmm? What’s happening now?”

“Oh, they’re preparing for the next performance, I think,” Junna squinted and fell silent for a moment. “Hmm, they’ve shuffled the schedule, since they usually did it as the last show just before the fireworks.”

“What is it?”

“The Hoshitsumi Festival, and yes, it is the namesake for this festival,” the Hachi straightened and gestured at the even larger gathering that expanded all the way to the edge of the town square. Some parents have even hoisted little kids onto their shoulders so that they could see better. “Much of the funds and efforts are put in this particular performance, for it is a main reason why foreigners would come, to see the history of Acacia played out.”

“You mean-” The elation from earlier plummeted. Nana tried to control the tremor in her voice and keep her body relaxed. “The slaying of the Kyuubi no Kitsune?”

“Yes, and of the formation of the Hachi, the Seishouya, and the blessing of the Great Kirin. All of it.” Junna furrowed her brows, “Is something wrong-?”

“N-No, I was uh, just surprised by the, uh, atmosphere that’s all.” Indeed, all the chatter in the background had diminished, replaced by solemn reverence that hung thickly in the air. Everyone looked eager to watch the performance, from excited grins to proud smiles.

It would arouse suspicions if she were to suddenly leave.

“I’ve only told you the gist of our history, and that’s because I’d like you to see this play instead of me describing it with words,” Junna whispered, her eyes shimmering in pride, “Now, you’ll see the origin of the Hachi, of how we came to defend Acacia from the evil creatures that hurt innocent people.”

“...so, this is how everything begins…” Nana trailed off as the lanterns around the whole perimeter were extinguished one by one, theatrically and ominously, until only faint moonlight was the only source of light that remained.

Suddenly, flames burst alive at the center of the podium, cackling and roaring. A performer, dressed from head to toe in golden armor lined with crimson red and a sinister mask, stepped out of the fire. Embers continued to lick at the metal on the person, prompting the audience to gasp in awe at the stage technique.

Nana could only stare.

That’s… supposed to be me? Or, rather, my past incarnation-?

It was one thing to know the history vaguely, and another to see it played out so thoroughly. All the vivid visuals and the emotional narratives assaulted her senses as she became morbidly mesmerized by the story of her past lives, depicted by a town that worshipped the victor of an ancient duel.

Whoever was the winner dictated history, which would be passed down to generations of people as the truth.

The story in front of her wide eyes spoke of the tenacity of mankind, of how brave warriors fought to protect the innocent against the sheer evil that was the Kyuubi no Kitsune. Outnumbered, the Kyuubi summoned foul creatures born of fear and sins, determined to lay waste upon mankind and engulf the lands in its malicious fires of hell.

The Kyuubi and its legions were too powerful, violent and cruel, and humanity continued to suffer. People sought refuge as the world disintegrated into chaos, allowing the demons to thrive further, until the arrival of the Great Kirin. The benevolent spirit was able to call upon the powers of the celestial bodies and forged special weapons that could stand up against the youkai. Seven women were able to harness such radiance of the stars, amplified by each of their virtues.

Passion; Faith; Bravery; Affection; Hope; Pride; Perseverance.

Nana’s stomach churned with disgust and her heart ached in sadness as the Great Kirin was heralded onto the podium. The massive construct of a mythical horse-like creature stomped once onto the wood, the thunderous sound echoing cacophonously in the now silent town square. Its long golden mane gently billowed along the night breeze while its single jagged horn gleamed under the bright moonlight. It was impressive though, how the team of performers hidden under the scaled body was able to move this creation like it was a sentient being.

With the Great Kirin at the helm, the eight of them gathered together and defeated the Kyuubi no Kitsune. The devious youkai, however, refused to leave this realm and vowed to return again and again, until all of humanity was destroyed. The Hachi was formed as a safety measure, and those with special gifts of ki continued to train and seek the terrible Kyuubi repeatedly, to prevent chaos and slaughter from ever happening again.

The Kirin might no longer mingle directly with mortal men, but it would always bestow its holy power upon a worthy warrior among the Hachi. The Tenkai, or the chief star, was always given the Kirin’s Blessing, a hallowed power capable of piercing through the miasma of the Kyuubi’s flames. With the Tenkai’s leadership as the Kirin’s representative, Acacia was kept for generations after generations.

An inspirational and amazing story indeed, if it were all true.

A small part of Nana appreciated the artistry of it all, of the talented performers and the intricate stage props used to simulate battles between the Hachi and the youkais. Nevertheless, it was painful to take everything in. She was too stunned and weary to look away from the play, let alone leave this area and the only source of comfort that was in her arms. In a way, she was glad that Junna could not see her expression, which she was certain to be a terrible sight to behold.

She had no idea how many times she was reborn and killed, for she had at most vague memories of her previous incarnations, but she knew herself to be in the right, and what the Hachi were supposed to be. The eight companions for the nine-tailed fox, whose story and fate were warped so much that anyone associated with the Kyuubi were slaughtered.

Like her parents.

Rui and Shirley. Those were their names, weren’t they? They were people. The Sanadas knew them, and they were simple civilians. They were innocent too. They were killed just because their child happened to the reborn Kyuubi no Kitsune.

It was only due to years of controlling her ki that she managed to temper her emotions. She pitied Acacia and its people for being ignorant of the truth; she resented the Hachi and the Seishouya for following the Kirin and its decrees; and most of all, she hated herself for being unable to do anything to change all of this, as well as being too cowardly to do so anyway.

When the play finally ended, she forced herself to clap her hands with the rest of the spectators.

“That was… informative,” Nana struggled to find the right words to say. Her voice sounded disgustingly calm to her ears but it was the best she could muster.

“It was more dramatic than usual,” Junna remarked as the crowd around them began to disperse, chattering excitedly about the play. “Usually they were never this… violent in the portrayal of Saijou-sama’s victory over the last Kyuubi, and this was the first time they even mentioned the execution of the Norinagas…”

Nana swallowed her thoughts bitterly and could only nod. From her peripheral vision, she saw some of the people recognizing Junna and approaching them, obviously delighted in being able to speak to a real Hachi. She gently nudged Junna and managed to stand up even though her body felt numb. She noticed her companion’s worried gaze but chose not to acknowledge it, and instead urged the latter to greet the people.

As she listened to the conversations around her, she tried not to wince at the utter respect that the people had for the Kirin. The Hachi was definitely commendable, for they risked their lives to fight off youkais. But from what she understood, the enigmatic Kirin was a spiritual presence that only the head priestess and the Seishouya had direct communication with. Even Junna had barely glimpsed at its true form when she received her weapon.

Alas, Nana was also unable to fault the people for their faith, not with the way history was shaped.

She was so absorbed in her musings that she almost failed to notice a formidable blaze of ki heading their way.

Salut , Junna. I’m glad that I’m not the only one who found tonight’s performance peculiar.”

Nana fought down the instinct to bolt and tried to keep her own ki as mellow as possible. This newcomer, a walking flame of power, exuded a similar aura as Tendou Maya, the Tenkai. That alone was alarming enough, but the sandy-haired woman was also dressed in an elegant obsidian kimono embellished with the genbu design.

She must be Saijou Claudine, the daughter of the one who had slain the previous Kyuubi no Kitsune.  

“Saijou-san!” Junna hastily gave the approaching woman a brief bow, prompting the latter to chuckle.

Ne sois pas bête! No need to be so formal, especially not during a festival like this,” Claudine had a confident but also charming smile, which also reminded Nana of Maya. “I wonder if it is because of the amount of foreigners in attendance this year that they… amped up the performance.”

“That’s a possibility. The Norinagas were almost never spoken of, their fates ambiguous and the Kyuubi…” Junna trailed off, shaking her head. “I admit everything was incredible - the detailed props, the use of fire, and the characters’ emotional dialogues, but I found some parts unnecessarily violent.”

Je suis d’accord . Impressed as I was of their replica of Maman ’s rapier, the Alarcos should not be wielded in such ungraceful manner. At least, the audience was impressed, and I assume that is their goal. Enough of the play though,” Claudine then gave Junna playful wink before turning to face Nana. “ Bonsoir . You must be Junna’s girlfriend, Daiba Nana. We have heard much about you.”

Taken aback by the sudden attention on her, Nana responded instinctively. “ Bonsoir. Comment allez-vous ?”

Junna blinked. “You can speak Gallian?”

Realizing her blunder, Nana cleared her throat and smiled sheepishly. “A little bit. I did pass by Gallia before I came here.”

“Learned something new, oui ? Then I definitely look forward to get to know you more,” Claudine chuckled as she held out her hand. Her gaze was piercing, and for a brief moment, Nana felt her soul was laid bare for this powerful Hachi’s judgement. However, there was only fierce protectiveness and no malice. Claudine’s grip was firm yet warm.“I’ve heard the gist of what had happened but I’d much rather see for myself who you are. You may have heard this already, but Junna is important to us. Elle est la famille après tout.

The way she referred to Junna warmed Nana’s heart, making it easy for her to relax and return the smile. “I know. I think…” her voice dropped to a soft whisper. “ Elle est ma raison d'être . That’s not something to be said lightly but, that’s the truth.”

Junna looked between them, rather embarrassed and uncertain what to make of this. “Saijou-san, we’ve already encountered Hanayagi-san, Isurugi-san and Karen earlier and they’ve already told Nana the same things, more or less. I appreciate you all looking out for me but I-I can take care of myself fine.”

“Oh we know, ma cherie , but it’s our privilege to get protective of you, c’est ne pas ?” Chuckling, Claudine gave the shorter Hachi a friendly hug. “Why, even Tendou Maya was asking after you.”

At the mention of the Tenkai, Nana discreetly scanned the crowd and was unable to pinpoint the familiar phoenix-like ki. Either she had not recovered enough or she was hiding her presence, and both possibilities shook away the brittle composure Nana had regained earlier.

“Speaking of which, I must head to Mahiru’s now to pick up some stew for that infuriating woman. Last I saw her, Futaba and Kaoruko are keeping her company. You’re both welcome to join us of course, but I also understand if you’d prefer some alone time.”

“Y-Yes, actually…” Junna muttered, and became flustered at Claudine lilting laugh. “Please do tell Tendou-san that I appreciate her concerns and that I hope she is enjoying the Festival.”

Bien sûr , and she certainly is having a good time, requesting me to do this and that… what am I, her servant?” The sandy-haired Hachi rolled her eyes. “ Alors , it was great speaking with you both. À plus tard , Junna, Nana.”

Nana unconsciously let out a breath she had been holding once Claudine was far away. She glanced at the now empty podium and pursed her lips, trying to keep flashbacks of the play and her emotions at bay.

“... are you okay, Nana? You look a bit, um, pale.”

Junna’s sincere tone only worsened the negative feelings brewing inside her chest. Everything became claustrophobic. It was too stressful, that she was paranoid of her identity being discovered. She would be forced to fight for her life, to fight savagely like that night against Tendou Maya even though she despised battles. She wanted to be able to get along with all the Hachi because they all seemed such nice people and were protective of Junna.

But how could that ever be possible? She was the Hachi’s nemesis.

“Was it because of my friends? T-They were a bit pushy but it’s only because they’re worried about me…”

“It’s not that, Junna-chan. They have good intentions. I quite like them actually,” Nana said quietly, forcing herself to look away from the podium. “Maybe it because I’m not used to being in a huge crowd for so long. Could we, go somewhere else please?”

“O-Of course! This way,” Junna gently took her hand and began to lead her around the block, taking detours and avoiding the bustling main street. Nana kept her head down as they walked in silence, suddenly feeling alienated by the festival and town that she was enjoying earlier. Now everyone’s smiles and laughter seemed to be mocking her, taunting her for living under a facade all her life. She gritted her teeth and tightened her grip on Junna’s hand, to the point that it must feel uncomfortable and perhaps painful, yet the latter did not say anything.

After a while, they managed to return to the fountain where they met up and thankfully there were barely anyone around. Nana sat on the brim, drained and frustrated at herself.

Junna stood there, looking helpless with one hand clutched against her chest. “Do you need something to drink? I could go get-”

“It’s okay. It’s not… it’ll go away, in a bit. I’m so sorry, Junna-chan. I’m supposed to be escorting you and making it up to you but, we didn’t even get to have fun at the arcade games or check out the food stands more…”

Silence ensued for a bit and Nana shrunk in apprehension, staring at the ground and trying to think. Her mind refused to cooperate and the negative emotions just would not leave.

“... was it the play, Nana? Did it bother you?”

She clenched her fists and unclenched them, the whole truth at the tip of her tongue. “I’m just a foreigner, so I can’t speak much on the Kyuubi, the Hachi and so on, but the executions of the Norinagas… I haven’t stopped thinking about them since I learned about them. They reminded me too much of what happened to my own parents,” the half-truth and convenient little lies just slipped out before she could stop herself. “They were good people, they didn’t deserve to die! Just because they happen to be at the wrong place at the wrong time? That’s not right! Where’s justice?! Why, why did they-”

Junna’s startled expression snapped Nana out of her tirade. Sighing tiredly, she buried her face in one palm and struggled to keep her voice from wavering. “I didn’t mean to have an outburst, I’m sorry… it’s just that, the play brought up unpleasant memories and I-I don’t know how to deal with that.”

When Junna wordlessly crouched  in front of her and hugged her, she nearly burst into tears.

“You don’t need to explain yourself. It’s okay, I’m here. I’m right here, Nana. Whatever you had experienced and endured in the past, know that you’re not alone anymore. If you’ll let me, then you’ll have me beside you from now on.”

Nana bit down the urge to sob and hugged back, clinging to the smaller woman as if she were her lifeline. I’m not alone anymore. I have someone I care about deeply, someone who returns my feelings. She burrowed her face against the crook of Junna’s neck as the latter gently caressed her back.

She did not know how long they stayed like this, but Junna patiently waited for her to gather composure enough to speak again. Bashfully, she pulled away so that she could wipe at her damp eyes. Holding tears at bay was more difficult than she thought. “I’m sorry y-you have to see all this…”

“Don’t take this wrong but, in a way, I’m glad this is happening - you’re opening to me. You were there for me in front of Kano-kun’s grave so I’m more than happy to do the same for you. Not to mention,” Junna’s arms remained loosely wrapped around her waist, “your tanto’s kept me company all these years.”

“Right, yes, my tanto. It was me who was there that night.”

“Nana-?”

She smiled softly at Junna’s surprised visage. There was no reason to hide the truth, not anymore. “I… I never thought I would see you again, and admitting it would invite too many questions. It’s gone on long enough, so I’ll try to answer anything you want to know about me. It’s the least I can do.”

Junna gulped, her gaze silently asking if it was really okay. At Nana’s light nod, the Hachi adjusted her glasses and spoke. “You said you came from Vertalis-?”

“I did. After my parents were killed, I stowed away on a boat to the faraway land,” Nana said simply. In this aspect she did not lie. She simply omitted anything associated with the Kyuubi and was surprised how easy it was to reveal most of the truth without having to lie. “There were close calls, many close calls. Looking back, I’m not sure how I managed to survive,”she blinked away the memories, not ready to share the details yet, of how unkind and cruel the world was to a homeless and penniless seven-year-old girl. “But eventually, I was fortunate enough to be taken in by an old blacksmith and his wife. They were kind people, Martyn and Nita. As I had mentioned before, he was the one who forged the katanas I now carry.  After he passed away, his wife followed not long after, and I decided I could no longer stay there. There were too many memories there.”

She paused for a moment, allowing Junna to digest her words. The bespectacled woman kept a comforting hand on her arm, her gaze encouraging and empathetic.

“I went from town to town, and I did stay around Gallia for a while, working odd jobs here and there. At one point I’d even worked as a bartender’s apprentice...that’s why I’m used to wearing black vests like these. All that time, I was trying to locate my parents’ killers,” Nana subconsciously rubbed at the center of her right palm, where the star-shaped scar was concealed beneath her gloves. As a young teenager then, she had so desperately tried to learn all she could about her homeland, about Acacia. She learned enough from Martyn and his wife, especially about the facet of the lore that most people didn’t even know about. “Eventually, I gathered enough resolve to actually go to Acacia. I was just passing through the farm that day because its atmosphere reminded me of my home or, at least, my faint memories of it.”

She could not recall the shape of her house, occupied by the Sanadas, yet the land itself called out to her. The Norinaga genes inside of her recognized it as the place where she had once lived peacefully with her parents.

“It wasn’t the first time I had fought against youkai. Their presence on the farm angered me, and so I cut through them. There, I met a girl younger than myself trying her hardest to protect innocent people from these youkais. I’d been on the road for long and did everything for myself and myself only. I had learned the hard way that the world isn’t always so kind. But seeing your determination gave me hope, and I wanted you to continue to hope and perhaps pass it onto lost souls like me.”

Nana gingerly tugged Junna’s arms from around her and covered her small hands with her larger ones. “And that was why, I gave you that tanto. I think, it belonged to my mother or was a family heirloom, just like the material that my cloak was made from.”

Junna started. “Why would you give it to a stranger? That’s invaluable- ”

“Not as much as the hope you had given me that night, Junna-chan. Besides, after all these years, it kept us… connected somehow, and here we are,” Nana nuzzled her hands, her voice husky in reverence. “You think I was the one who saved your life, but it was really the other way around. I no longer seek revenge after that day. I continued my wandering and was content to live peacefully.”

“I… saved you-?” Junna sounded so incredulous that Nana’s heart was filled with utter fondness. She really gave herself less credit that she deserved. Before she could speak more, several whistling sounds in the background shot through the air into the night sky, followed by explosions of bright colors.

The fireworks reflected from Junna’s glasses as well as the beautiful green of her eyes, almost as if they were depicting the state of Nana’s emotions.

I love you. She whispered into the deafening cackling of lights and the distant clamor of people. Without waiting to see if Junna had even heard her words, she tugged her onto her lap and kissed her with all the passion she had.

She should hate these fireworks. They represented the celebrations of the death of her family, of her past incarnations, of her suffering and having to live like a fugitive.

Yet she couldn’t, not when this was so bright and light, so full of life and joy.

Indeed, her family had perished unjustly, but exacting vengeance would not bring them back to life. Even if all these people learned the truth, her family still would not return and her life would not be undone. And, perhaps, the people wouldn’t be able to accept the truth, not when they had lived so blissfully free and happy all this time.

There was no reason to change this state of peace.

She has Hoshimi Junna and that was it. She was all that she needed. The one who soothed her pain of loneliness, who made her laugh, happy, made her feel like a normal person.

Junna wrapped her arms around Nana’s neck and kissed back just as fervently. Their lips crashed almost desperately, again and again. Unfamiliar as they were with such an act of intimacy and adoration, their desire to feel more of each other took over. Junna shifted in her lap and Nana tilted her head to deepen the kiss, addicted to the pleasurable sensation and taste. Nana broke away momentarily to pepper kisses up Junna’s jawline, nipping at the latter’s earlobe before nuzzling down towards her parted collars, where her delectable neck was waiting.

This clash of yearning and comfort was so overwhelming that she ended up placing a soft yet lingering kiss over her jugular, against the rapid pulse. Junna’s hitched breaths tickled her ear as the former played with the hair at her nape, lightly scratching up her scalp whimsically.

Nana sighed in contentment, closing her eyes and nuzzling against the warmth.

“I don’t want you to go, Nana,” Junna murmured, her voice rumbling pleasantly against the blonde’s lips.

“I won’t. I want to stay. I just want to be with you,” Nana smiled into their embrace. “I want you .”


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A quiet breeze travelled through the night sky, causing dapples of clouds to part and revealing the ominous moonlight behind. The eerie yellow light fell through the glass panels of the central shrine, down and down it went, until the obscured remnant reached the depth of the Seishouya.

Glistening forebodingly under such moonlight was a bony finger, leisurely tracing the maroon markings on an ancient scroll. The triangle’s tip touched the outer edge of the circle, as if it stood tall and proud to hold up the world, while eight wavy lines fanned out symmetrically on each side of this tower.

The finger stopped at the simplistic shape above the tower, the circle, and everything else. It moved away fully and allowed the miniscule moonlight to shine upon the small star.

A deep, throaty laughter echoed like the thunder after a lightning strike.

“I understand.”

festival jnnn