“I’m sorry, Sango!”
Kioshi turned slowly to watch as the taijya glared daggers at the monk in question. Traveling through the forest, he could only shake his head. It was simply a matter of time, wasn’t it, until something like that happened. After all, Miroku had been a little too well-behaved for the duration of the journey.
Akira stopped, too, setting Kumiko on the ground. The little girl ran over to her brother and clapped her hands as she bounced on the balls of her feet. “Nii-chan! Are we there, nii-chan?”
Kioshi smiled at his young sister and ruffled her dark brown hair. “No . . . Miroku got himself into trouble again.”
The nearly four year-old girl heaved a sigh and shook her head in mock dismay. “He’ll never learn,” she remarked sagely. Kioshi tried not to smile.
“Some things never change,” Shippou, the kitsune who traveled with Miroku and Sango, commented with a disgusted shake of his head as he stomped over to Kioshi and Kumiko. Though on the short side by youkai standards, Shippou still stood almost as tall as Kioshi, who, at nearly seventeen years old, wasn’t even close to fully grown. “You’d think he’d learn his lesson, but no . . .”
Kioshi shrugged off-handedly, unable to control the grimace that twisted his countenance when the taijya’s hand cracked soundly against the monk’s cheek.
“That’s going to leave a mark,” Shippou sighed in disgust.
“It was the curse of the hand,” Miroku maintained, following after an irritated Sango as the exterminator stormed past the waiting youkai.
“Save it, monk!” Sango growled pinning her husband with a significant glower before reshouldering Hiraikotsu.
Miroku sighed, catching Shippou’s disapproving shake of the head. “She won’t stay angry,” he asserted then offered them an apologetic bow. “Pardon my interruption.”
Akira narrowed his gaze on the itinerant monk. “You are a strange one,” he allowed slowly.
“You have no idea,” Sango muttered under her breath.
“Shall we move on?” Miroku cut in pointedly, rubbing his cheek to alleviate the sting left behind by Sango’s love-tap.
Shippou wrinkled his nose and rolled his eyes. “Once a lecher, always a lecher,” he muttered.
Kioshi scooped Kumiko off the ground and settled her on his shoulders as the colorful entourage moved on through the forest.
The village was quaint, quiet, and not at all what Kioshi had expected. As picturesque as it seemed, though, he couldn’t help but wonder just how safe they really were—just how safe anywhere was these days. Akira had agreed to aid the newly rebuilt village of youkai-exterminators. Though he’d never said as much to Kioshi, he knew that it was because of Kumiko and him. Rumors of uprisings against otherwise peaceful youkai had been swirling on the winds, and even the Inu no Taisho had become less visible overall. Guns presented a very real threat, and as the weapons spread, so did the tales of uprisings against youkai.
Still the peace that they’d found seemed false to Kioshi. Shippou had taken to staying close to the slayers’ village, and Kioshi had been cautioned to do the same. Uncomfortable enough that he opted to live on the outskirts in the forest near the village but refusing to move his family into one of the dwellings inside the stout wooden barricade, Akira had built a modest dwelling in a network of caves at the base of a small mountain with Kioshi’s help, and while Akira accompanied the slayers nearly every day, he expected Kioshi to remain nearby in case his mother or sister needed him.
“It’s your birthday!” Kumiko sang as she sped out of the dwelling and into the yard where Kioshi was scanning the horizon for signs of trouble. “Birthday, birthday, birthday!”
Sparing a moment to glance at his sister, Kioshi shook his head and rolled his eyes but couldn’t repress the little smile that quirked the corners of his lips. “A nuisance, as ever, Kumi,” he grumbled, his eyes taking on a heightened glow of amusement as she scampered off toward the sakura trees.
Using her claws, the girl scampered up the tree, grunting and fighting to reach the first thick branch. Swinging her legs over the limb, she scooted along, holding on with one arm as she reached for the nearest blossoms. “Catch me, nii-chan!” Kumiko hollered.
Kioshi lifted his hand to shield his eyes from the bright morning sun filtering through the leaves and blooms. “Don’t you dare—oof!” Grunting as he caught the impetuous child, Kioshi pinned her with an irritated scowl as he set her on her feet. She giggled happily, skipping around Kioshi’s legs as she clapped her hands and gathered the flowers she’d dropped in her fall. “You could have hurt yourself,” Kioshi pointed out.
“Birthday flowers . . . birthday flowers . . .” Kumiko sang, completely ignoring her brother’s obvious annoyance. “Sit down, nii-chan! I’ll give you the flowers!”
Heaving a sigh—she never did listen to him—Kioshi knelt down and waited for the humiliation of his sister’s annual birthday gift to him.
Her face contorted in intense concentration as she wandered around him, examining him from every conceivable angle. Pausing every now and then to lace flowers into his short, shaggy hair, she didn’t stop until she had placed every last blossom, giggling happily as she hopped back and thoroughly examined the results of her efforts. “Seventeen flowers for seventeen birthdays!” she exclaimed, bouncing up and down on the balls of her bare feet. “I got a new kimono,” she said suddenly, holding out the skirt of her yellow silk outfit. “It’s pretty!”
Kioshi chuckled—he never could stay angry at the four year-old—plucking a flower out of his hair and tucking it behind his sister’s ear as her giggling escalated. “It’s my birthday . . . why are you getting a new kimono?” he asked.
She shrugged, her black eyebrows rising to hide under the fringe of her dark brown bangs. “You got special clothes,” she reminded him. “Hahaue says I’m not old enough yet.”
“Kumiko-chan!” their mother’s voice drifted out of the humble hut.
“Better run,” he told his sister as she careened around to dash away.
Watching her go with a tolerant little smile gracing his lips, Kioshi let out a deep breath and plucked more flowers out of his hair, staring at the delicate pinkish blossoms before dropping them onto the ground. His father had made a huge deal six years ago when he’d presented Kioshi with his youkai raiment. Created from the thin pelt of numerous pitch-bats, the clothing had special properties that protected him against the effects of base elemental attacks and blunted more advanced techniques. The black clothing was the only thing Kioshi ever wore . . .
A sudden shift in the air brought Kioshi to his feet. The scent of his father permeated the clearing as Akira strode out of the trees. “Almost a man,” Akira mused when he spotted Kioshi, altering his path and heading straight toward his son. He didn’t smile, but his deep brown eyes shone with a brightness that bespoke his pride. “Nice flowers,” he remarked, reaching over to pull an errant bloom from his son’s hair.
Kioshi grimaced, cheeks pinking as his father’s smile finally surfaced. “Kumiko,” he explained with a shrug.
Akira nodded as the girl in question sped out of the dwelling only to launch herself onto her father’s broad back. “Chichiue! You’re home! You’re home!”
“Yes, I’m home,” he agreed, peeling the child off his back and setting her back on her feet before ruffling her hair. “You shouldn’t be sticking flowers in your brother’s hair,” he chided. “He isn’t a girl.”
Kumiko scrunched up her shoulders and shot her father a winning smile. “It was a birthday present,” she insisted. “Birthday flowers for nii-chan!”
“Any news, chichiue?” Kioshi asked, watching as Kumiko ran off to gather more flowers though hopefully not for his hair.
Akira sighed and rubbed his temple, slowly shaking his head as he scanned the horizon in much the way Kioshi had been doing before Kumiko’s unceremonious interruption. “Tensions are rising,” he admitted. “Humans distrust what they do not understand.”
Kioshi shook his head, unable to understand exactly why they would be mistrusted when they’d helped the villagers time and again. “But we—you—have helped them . . . that’s why we’re here.”
Akira nodded slowly, pondering Kioshi’s words. “True, but there have been whispers . . . It would be unnatural not to worry.”
Digesting that in silence, Kioshi scowled as the wind blew strands of his long brown bangs into his eyes. “Do I . . . need to worry?” he asked at length.
Akira stared at his son for several moments before affecting a wan smile and slowly shaking his head. The fleeting thought flashed through his mind, and he knew somewhere deep down that Akira didn’t really believe what he was about to say. The tension that Kioshi could sense in the very air . . . it was real, after all . . . Still, his father put a hand on Kioshi’s shoulder and squeezed in an effort to reassure his son that everything was going to be fine. “No, Kioshi . . .” Akira said. “No.”