Actions

Work Header

Familiar and Unfamiliar

Chapter Text

Hyakkimaru woke up in a familiar environment, which was odd by itself, as it had been a long time since he spent more than one night in the same place. 

He tried to sit up and a wave of pain and nausea hit him hard, so much that he almost passed out again. There was the pain in his chest, which was almost familiar by this point, a dull ache where that foul creature had sunk his talons into him. All manner of evil creatures had ravaged his body for nearly as long as he could remember, but it was only recently that he even had reason to notice it after it happened. This pain , this new sensation, was threatening to overtake all his thoughts. 

And there was this new, terrible, awful pain in his right leg. Or where his right leg used to be. Something that he had gained and now it was missing, and knowing that he had lost this part of himself made him feel like the wound in his chest was getting bigger and bigger until it threatened to swallow him up.

His entire life he had lived in darkness, with only living creatures standing out to him as contrast to the murky, vague world that surrounded him. But the feeling of losing his leg came with a new kind of darkness; one that threatened to crush him. It almost made him gasp for air, even though he was not really struggling to breathe. 

Though his head was spinning it began to register the sounds around him. Noise, noise, so much noise that only made him feel worse. Why did his throat hurt as well?

As he became more and more conscious, he also became aware that he was surrounded by white shapes. They gradually came into focus and he slowly recognized them.

 

There was the small white spirit that had been following him around for the longest, the one who constantly trilled “Aniki! Aniki!” at him. Hyakkimaru somehow understood this was the name the small white spirit had chosen for him, even though he was Hyakkimaru. Maybe the little spirit didn’t understand how names worked.

There was another familiar shape, one hunched over, ancient and silently radiating strength. Hyakkimaru didn’t quite like this spirit, for he had shouted into his ear when Hyakkimaru was feeling overwhelmed, making him feel quite bullied. Still, from his colour and his aura, Hyakkimaru knew that this spirit was not a threat— in fact, it was rather benevolent. It was this spirit whom had helped him survive…

Memories of how he’d lost his leg a few hours before hit Hyakkimaru again and suddenly he realized the constant discordant noise was his own scream. He immediately shut up, and then the only thing he could hear was a small gurgling sound that almost sounded like breathing but it was frequently interrupted by hiccups. Now more awake, he tried to sit up again, this time a lot more gingerly.

“No, Aniki! Stay down!” The small spirit leaped forward and pressed him down again with a gentleness Hyakkimaru found surprising. He realized that the gurgling noise was coming from this white spirit. He also felt his chest get slightly cold and wet, as if the small spirit was dripping water on him.

 “Oh, Hyakkimaru.” The sound of his own name made Hyakkimaru recognize the third white shape in the room. It was that lovely spirit with the lovely voice that didn’t bother him. But that voice sounded sad, almost with the same gurgling quality as the small spirit. Was the lovely spirit also in the same state? Dripping water from their face?

Hyakkimaru didn’t like that. He didn’t want to make the lovely spirit sad. And he wouldn’t mind if the small spirit perked up too. He could see their auras, tinged with misery, the same misery he had seen in countless white spirits as he passed through this confusing, violent world.

He allowed the small spirit to lay him down again, still confused by their hiccupping noises. He put his prosthetic hand on those tiny shoulders and felt them shaking. The small spirit was really upset. 

It was a very unfamiliar feeling. He didn’t want the lovely spirit or the small spirit to be miserable. He wanted to be alright, he wanted to know more about the lovely voice, he even wanted to learn the name of the little spirit. For the first time in his life, Hyakkimaru felt a desire. He wanted something to happen, instead of reacting to things that were happening to him. The overwhelming emotion threatened to spill out of his lips again as a scream, but he bit that down. A noise must have escaped him, because the lovely spirit took his hand. Hyakkimaru could not feel them squeezing his hand, but he could feel the warmth radiating from their soul. He knew this soul was trying to make him feel better, all three spirits were. He wanted to let them know he understood that.

 

Words. He knew the noises the spirits made meant things and now it seemed that he was capable of making noises himself. It couldn’t be too hard. He even understood a couple already. Left. Right. Watch out. Demon. In spite of himself he was somewhat grateful to the small spirit and their constant chattering; whatever the mysterious reason for this little creature to follow him around, it was proving useful to Hyakkimaru.

He reached out and put his other hand on top of the lovely spirit’s, even though it hurt to move. Then he gently squeezed the shoulder of the small spirit. He tried the words. At first the only thing to come out of his mouth was rasping sound. He took a steadying breath and tried again. It was the words he had heard only a couple times, but he knew it meant something significant.

“Thank. You.”

 

Hyakkimaru didn’t know how he had been expecting the lovely spirit to react, but them suddenly putting their arms around him and holding him close surprised him so much he almost pushed them away. But in a moment he was glad he did not, because having the warmth and caring of the lovely spirit surround him felt incredibly soothing and calming. It reminded him of another spirit he knew, the first one that ever was as far as Hyakkimaru was concerned. That spirit had radiated the same nurturing aura.

Well, not quite the same. There was a tinge in the aura of the lovely spirit that was different. A feeling that Hyakkimaru somehow knew his first spirit was incapable of feeling, or at least feeling towards Hyakkimaru himself. A feeling that, he was surprised to find, he was starting to return towards the lovely spirit. He wondered if they could feel it. He pressed his face against their soft chest, and heard a small rhythmic sound. He stayed quite still, almost not breathing, and the rhythm became more obvious— so obvious he could feel the vibration against his ear.

 

Without really thinking about it, he wrapped his arms against the lovely spirit. He wanted to stay like this forever. The pain in his leg was still present, as well as the dull ache in his chest. But he had the feeling that if he could keep being supported like this, he’d be alright.

Chapter Text

Hyakkimaru was forced the spend the next few days resting, even more prone and weak than when it was just his chest injury. Being still for so long drove him crazy, so he preoccupied himself with learning how to speak. It gave him an odd excitement to finally match words and names to concepts he had known his whole life has hazy objects or spirits.

 Food, bowl, cloth, fire, sleep, bandage, blood, children, monk, Dororo, Mio.

He called out to those last two the most, despite not understanding himself why their presence made him feel less heavy and tired. There were other spirits about, small ones the size of Dororo or even smaller, but they didn’t register with him as strongly. Dororo spent the most time with him now, constantly talking and explaining, and Hyakkimaru was grateful for his new skill of communication because he could ask to be left alone. To his annoyance, Dororo did not always acquiesce his wish, as he seemed to simply forget or ignore that Hyakkimaru did not want to talk all the time.

Worse, now that the monk knew that Hyakkimaru could understand better, he’d given him a stern scolding for his recklessness. Even if he only got the meaning of about half or fewer of the words thrown at him, he could detect their intent; in his heart, he knew the words were true. It has been wrong to go after the demon while he was still weak. It had been wrong to charge ahead before getting a proper layout of his surroundings or a sense of his enemy. It was his own fault that he was so terribly injured. It was his actions that made Mio and Dororo sad. For the first time in his life, Hyakkimaru experienced the feelings of shame and regret. He didn’t care for this feeling at all. He didn’t care for being scolded. He would rather never make his companion spirits worry again.

 

Adding that to the awful pain he was feeling, determination rose in his chest to never let this situation happen again. He would be more careful with himself.

Thinking of this new mission, he was suddenly reminded of that first white spirit, that constant presence in his childhood. Wasn’t that spirit always protecting him and his body? They were always looking out for his prosthetic arms and legs, but even more so for his soft body. When Hyakkimaru couldn’t feel anything, he hadn’t understood why they always seemed to be hovering over him— it almost seemed annoying. But now he understood that the spirit had been worried about him, more than Mio, more than Dororo.

Had he ever thanked them? Hyakkimaru remembered their parting, how the spirit’s aura was tinged with worry and tenderness at the same time. They had embraced him, much like Mio did the night he came back injured. Back then, Hyakkimaru was not able to feel their arms around him. Why did that bother him so much all of the sudden?

When he felt strong enough to finally sit up and move around, Hyakkimaru went off to find a piece of wood along with cloth and bandages to make himself a new leg. The stump was painful and tender and he didn’t quite know what he was doing. A few times as a child he had lost one of his limbs and he had been forced to have a makeshift one until a new one could be prepared. Those times he didn’t have the capacity to feel pain and discomfort, which he was finding really troublesome. It took him a lot of trial and error, but eventually his little contraption was attached well enough that it didn’t cause him sharp pains and it allowed him to walk around haltingly. He knew it was much inferior to the leg and foot that had been crafted for him by his guardian spirit and this strengthened his resolve. He wanted to see that spirit again. He needed to see them.

“Aniki, are you sure you’re well enough to be walking around?” Dororo appeared next to Hyakkimaru as if he’d been summoned by Hyakkimaru’s thoughts of leaving.

The older boy moved his head down, a gesture that Dororo tried to figure out as a nod or just facing the person who was talking to him.

“I go. You stay.”

“What…” The reply was not really a question, but rather a statement of disbelief. If Hyakkimaru could have seen Dororo’s face he might have laughed, or just be surprised at how offended the boy looked. “If you’re going anywhere, I’m going with you!”

“No. You stay. You stay and Myo.”

“Her name is pronounced Mio, and if you’re worried about her, you should stay too!”

“Why worry?”

Hyakkimaru could not see Dororo open and shut his mouth a few times, nor the worried furrow in his brow. He wondered why the boy was struggling for an answer. Was it the demons? The war? Mio had survived so far without Hyakkimaru’s help. In truth he was worried that something foul and dangerous would hurt her, but he was conflicted because he did not want to be reckless again. Being reckless and trying to clear demons from her path had landed him in this predicament. So he had decided that he would trust her survival instinct. Mio is clever, Mio is resourceful, Mio will be less worried and sad if I come back with a proper prosthetic leg. Hyakkimaru kept telling himself this to squash his instinct to just stay at Mio’s side all the time.

He had sensed in Mio’s aura that whatever she did at night made her unhappy. He wanted to help her, to protect her and make her feel as safe as she made him feel. But he knew that in his current state, his abilities were severely limited. So he had to make it a priority to get better.

He did not ask what Mio did that made her so unhappy. Mio did not ask him about his body, his prosthetic limbs and his ability to hunt demons, much unlike Dororo and all the other children that had been endlessly pestering him with questions left and right. Mio, on the other hand, sat quietly with him and sometimes sang. He liked Mio. He liked her a lot.

 

Hyakkimaru lifted his makeshift leg for Dororo to see. Then he pointed to his well crafted prosthetic leg. “I need this.”

“Oh! You’re going to see the person who made you those arms and legs? He must be quite the craftsman! Or she, heheheh.”

“So stay.”

“You’re joking , right? There’s no way I’m going to pass the opportunity to meet this person! Hell, maybe he’ll give me some cool swords too!”

“I say. Stay.”

“Absolutely not! Especially not in your state! You need someone to look after you, and what better person than me, Aniki?”

“No one.” Hyakkimaru was beginning to get annoyed at Dororo’s insistence, but he was also annoyed that he couldn’t quite articulate why he didn’t want the boy tagging along. There was something about Dororo meeting his guardian spirit for the first time that he didn’t quite like. Hyakkimaru did not know how he would react to his guardian spirit, or how the guardian spirit would react to him, and having Dororo witness all that felt, well, vulnerable.

Perhaps it was a good thing that Hyakkimaru could not see Dororo sticking out his tongue while he was contemplating him.

“Face it Aniki, you’re stuck with me. I’m going to trail after you like goldfish poop! You can’t get rid of me that easily!”

Hyakkimaru was struck by a new set of conflicting emotions, this time towards Dororo. How could the young boy be such a pest, but so endearing at the same time? How could he be struck by the urge to hug him and strangle him? Hyakkimaru wanted him to go away, but he also didn’t.

Without really understanding his own actions, Hyakkimaru put his hand on top of Dororo’s head and moved it back and forth as if he was petting the younger boy’s head. But he began doing it more roughly, knowing that it was making Dororo uncomfortable because he was stepping away from him.

He suddenly grabbed Dororo and held him immobile with one arm, and then continued to roughly stir the top of Dororo’s head, making sure to thoroughly mess up his hair. Dororo screamed, first in surprise, but then with a laugh in his voice, trying to wrestle himself off Hyakkimaru’s grasp. When Hyakkimaru felt he had “punished” him enough, he let the tousled Dororo go.

“You. Do not listen. Do you?”

“No, and I never will!” Hyakkimaru could still hear the mirth in his voice.





Chapter Text

Dororo was very surprised that Hyakkimaru tousled his hair like that, but it made him happy. It had been a while since he had laughed like that after being caught by surprise.

But as as he watched his aniki limp away, his thoughts returned to the dark place they had been nearly all morning.

Dororo had contemplated telling Mio that he knew the truth, but he kept going in circles in his head, knowing that this is the sort of thing she wouldn’t want anyone else to know.

You do what you must to survive. Survive! Especially to spite those samurai dogs . His father’s words echoed in his head over and over. Mio was surviving.

 

Still, Dororo knew this sort of work was very dangerous and Mio would be better off not doing it. He wanted to help her.

In the days when Hyakkimaru was recovering, he had gone down to the soldier’s barracks to spy on them. It was to his advantage that nobody cared about yet another dirty orphan child hanging around for scraps. To keep up the facade he begged them for food, which resulted in them throwing stones and mud at him.

These soldiers were a ruthless bunch; in other towns, Dororo had managed to get some rice balls if he put up a pathetic starving orphan act, but here the soldiers threatened to spear him if he didn’t shut up.

Fortunately Dororo was familiar with being treated as lower than dirt. People often saw him as stray dog to shoo away. He knew they would stop paying attention to him as soon as he slid out of their field of vision and he used that to his advantage.

Within a few days he had scoped almost the entire soldier camp and knew all the important places: where the food was kept, where the soldiers slept, approximately when the rounds of guards passed and where they changed.

He decided to visit the barracks one last time before leaving Mio and the children behind. He had figured out a way to sneak into the food storage without being seen, and he knew how to take a little of everything so it was not obvious someone was skimming off it. The guards would just assume some random soldier helped himself to a little extra, if they noticed at all.

 


 

Today he was careful not to be seen even hanging around the camp. He did not want the soldiers to start recognizing him. Even if they were too stupid to figure out he was the one stealing their food, they might think he was a nuisance to be cut down. Dororo paused as he was stuffing another piece of dried meat into his shirt. Samurai would truly cut down a peasant like him just for standing in their way.

A memory of his father and mother standing on the side of the road, a regal looking palanquin passing in front of his family crept to the front of his thoughts. Dororo shook his head and chased the thought away. If he got caught right now, he’d end up like his parents. He needed to concentrate.

It was a good thing he started paying attention when he did because he heard someone approaching the storehouse and opening the door. Quick as lightning, Dororo dashed behind a huge barrel of sake and perked his ears. He was at the back of the storeroom and his two exit points; the main door and his secret hole, were in view of whomever was inside. Ever the optimist, Dororo told himself that it still meant he had two places he could dash to, he’d only have to be quick enough if things got hairy. But the way the soldiers were taking, they hadn’t even noticed anything was wrong at all.

“Yes, in two weeks’ time, how many times do I have to tell you?”

“I suppose it’s a good thing. There’s nothing else good about this place except watching the general fart himself to sleep and screwing whores.”

“Screwing a whore, you mean.”

“Yeah that’s the other thing, what do we have to for some variety here? I still say we should get a group together and find ourselves some local farmgirls, and bring them back here, eh?”

“Idiot, the general doesn’t want us riling up the peasants at this point. He wants outsiders to know as little as possible about what’s happening here. We’re lucky he lets that one girl come and go here every night.”

“Yes, and that’s the only reason I haven’t cut her down after I’m done, we’d be out of our one relief outlet. But by the gods her humming is so annoying! It’s hard not to strangle her.”

Dororo sharply inhaled some air and immediately regretted it, clamping his hand over his mouth. Fortunately the soldiers were still scooping rice into burlap bags and talking and paid no attention.

 

“Well, you’ll get your chance when we leave. It will be our parting gift for her!” Rough, cruel laughter emitted from the lips of the soldiers.

“Of course! And then we’ll have to burn down that shitty temple and those shitty kids too!”

“We should get the whole garrison together to have a turn on her, she’ll be split in two!”

 

The blood going up Dororo’s spine ran cold and he felt his entire body chill. He stood frozen even after the soldiers finished scooping the rice, closed the door and their footsteps faded away. He felt some tears stab the corners of his eyes and he tried blinking them away.

He wanted to kill those soldiers. He wanted to be big and strong like Hyakkimaru or Biwa-hōshi and hold a sword high and strike those soldiers down. Not just those two, but the entire camp. He choked quietly on a sob as he finally understood his father’s rage against the samurai.

 

“I am Dororo, son of Hibukuro. By my blood, I will take vengeance on the filthy samurai.” He wished he could scream this with a sword held aloft instead of whispering it while crouching and hiding. Looking at the sake barrel he was leaning on, he had an idea.

He started looking around the storeroom and it didn’t take him long to find what he needed: flint and straw. He also grabbed items with impunity, knowing he would not come back from now on. Once his pouch and his shirt were full, he stacked the straw underneath the barrel and struck the flint.

His hands were shaking as he struck the flint stone. He had expected the feeling of revenge to feel good— hot and righteous— but instead he was feeling cold and clammy. He almost wondered if he should stop. But it was too late, the spark had been struck, and the dry straw quickly caught aflame. He used this own breath to fan more flames into existence before taking a moment to admire his handiwork. He could not stay long. Soon the soldiers would notice the smoke and there would be dozens of them here. Nevermind being caught stealing, they would surely execute him for this act of sabotage. He told himself he would gladly die with his head held high for having made their lives worse. But, he thought to himself as he exited by the secret hole, he would also rather live another day than give them the satisfaction of killing him.

He managed to leave the camp undetected and started running with all his might. But he did not run towards the half destroyed temple with Mio and the children. No, he ran to the place where he had witnessed Mio working for the soldiers, the soldiers from the other camp. He dumped his stolen food in a shrubbery where he had hidden that night.

 

He was about to step out into view before he remembered that he needed to put on an act and his face scrunched in rage would not convince them. He took one deep calming breath, or three and then stepped into the light.

“Ho! Who goes there?”

“Mister, oh mister, it’s terrible!” Dororo put on a whiny squeaky voice, which was embarrassingly easy. His tear-streaked cheeks also helped, even if he didn’t remember actually crying. “There’s a fire in the barracks to the east!”

“What the hell are you talking about, kid?”

“A fire! In the barracks that way!” C’mon, take the bait you morons, don’t make me spell it out for you…

“To the east...you mean Daigo’s camp?”

“I don’t know! But those guys really seemed in trouble! Oh, golly geez, mister, isn’t there anything you can do?”

Slowly, in what felt like an era and a half in Dororo’s mind, the dawning of understanding spread across the guard’s face.

“Oh I see, yes kid, we’ll go help them, sure. You did good in telling us.” As the soldier turned and started running back to the camp, Dororo felt himself smirk. But even without looking at himself he knew it wasn’t one of his usual smiles. It was one without mirth, one with a certain viciousness.

As he went back to pick up his stolen food, it dawned on him that he had lost another piece of his innocence in this same spot.

This is a cruel world Dororo, a harsh world. Make sure it doesn’t turn you cruel as well. It was now his mother’s voice that rang through his head.

He could hear the soldiers mobilizing, and he knew that soon there would be the din of battle. Because of his actions today, soldiers would die. Would his parents be proud of him right now?


Hyakkimaru sat beside Mio at the top of the stairs. Midday had come and gone and Dororo was not yet back. At first Hyakkimaru had planned to leave without him— after all, hadn’t he said that Dororo should stay so he could go alone? But couldn’t quite bring himself to leave and when Mio had said the two were brothers and they ought to stay together, he stayed and waited. Because Mio said so and absolutely no other reason , he told himself.

But as the day stretched and Dororo was not yet back, Hyakkimaru began to fret. Where was that little pest? Had he gone on before him to find the white spirit? Impossible, Dororo did not know even the vaguest description of the white spirit because Hyakkimaru did not know what they looked like. Would the young boy be foolish enough to leave in any random direction?

Eventually he began to hear a noise that was unfamiliar, but it carried a feeling that he knew quite well: the sounds of battle. Dimly in the distance he heard men shouting, swords clashing and things being destroyed. Mio heard it too, because her aura of worry intensified greatly.

Hyakkimaru wished he could tell her that Dororo was smart enough not to get caught up in a big fight, but at the moment he was doubting it himself.

“Dororo!” Mio’s shout startled Hyakkimaru. But she was correct: the small familiar white figure entered his field of vision. It was dimmer than usual and tinted with negative emotions but there was no mistaking it.

In spite of himself, Hyakkimaru ran down the stairs to meet Dororo.

“Where! Were you!” Hyakkimaru tried to grab Dororo by the arms and he realized the younger boy was holding various items. “What. Is this?”

“It’s….it’s food, Aniki. Food I stole from the soldiers.”

“What? You went to the barracks? ” Mio was now beside Hyakkimaru, the worry in her aura completely obvious in her voice. “Why would you do such a thing?”

“I wanted to take advantage of the confusion to grab some food for you and the children, Mio nee-chan. You probably won’t be able to...you won’t be able to work for a while thanks to this fight.”

“Don’t you know what they would do to you if they caught you! Don’t you know what soldiers do to little children?” Mio’s voice was becoming more and more hysterical. She had grabbed Dororo by the shoulders and was shaking him so hard he dropped nearly all the food. “Do you realize what could have happened?!

Neither Dororo nor Hyakkimaru had heard Mio shout before, and from the looks of the gathering children, neither had they.

Dororo wondered if Mio was going to hit him, and at this point he felt he deserved it for making her worry. She surprised him by hugging him tightly as tears streamed down her face. “Oh, if those soldiers touched a hair on your head I’d kill them.”

Dororo began crying too, because he wanted to tell Mio how he had felt the way she was feeling for him an hour earlier. He wanted to tell her that he understood her pain, her worry, how he did know the cruelty the samurai were capable of, how that cruelty turned you into a different person. He wanted to tell her that he did this for her, but he couldn’t reveal her secret, and he couldn’t tell her he robbed her and the children of a source of food thanks to his own pigheaded ideals. So he cried into the shoulder and apologized, and wished, not for the first time, he lived in a world where he wouldn’t have to make such decisions.

 


 

It was late afternoon when Hyakkimaru and Dororo were finally setting off to leave for good. Biwa-hōshi had agreed to escort Mio and the children to another spot for safety, even if it was only for a few days. Dororo was glad he didn’t have to say aloud that it was because the soldiers were likely to come looking for Mio, but because the losing side of the battle was bound to have dangerous stragglers, and even more dangerous victorious soldiers after them. It would be good to leave this area for a while.

Dororo felt a bit awkward saying goodbye after crying in front of everybody, so he shook Mio’s hand, winked at the children and stuck his tongue out at the monk and began to head off. Hyakkimaru stood a bit longer, staring at Mio without really seeing her. Impulsively he took her hand and held it in his.

“Be careful. Myu.”

“I will, but you too Hyakkimaru. Please take care and don’t get injured further.”

“I want. Will see you. Will come back.”

“I hope you will! I want to see you and Dororo again.”

Hyakkimaru leaned closer and for a wild moment both Mio and Dororo thought he would go for a kiss. But he surprised them both by bringing Mio into a hug. Mio found herself blushing.

“Miu. I want to see you.”

He pulled away and tapped his glass eye. “One day. I will see you.”

Still blushing, Mio tucked her hair behind her ear. “Yes, that would be wonderful, Hyakkimaru. I can’t wait for that.”

As Hyakkimaru pulled himself away from Mio, he wondered what it was about her soul that felt similar yet different from the soul he was off to find. When he hugged her, it felt as if there was something else he could have done. He just wasn’t sure what it was yet.

 

Chapter Text

Hyakkimaru mulled over the events of the day as he silently stalked through the wilderness with Dororo in tow. Despite the pain on his injured leg he took long strides, walking at nearly the same pace he normally would when he was alone. Dororo struggled a bit to keep up, but he did not get left behind. During the first couple hours of their journey, the younger boy was uncharacteristically quiet, but eventually he broke the silence.

“Say, Aniki-.”

“Be quiet.”

“Hey! You don’t even know what I was goin—”

“Quiet.”

“Why? You’re being so—”

“I am not. Happy with you. You did bad.”

This shut down Dororo’s words as he opened his mouth again, though not for long. His face was red with indignation.

You’re one to talk! You went out to kill some stupid demon when you were still hurt and nearly got yourself killed!”

“...”

“Oh, now you suddenly can’t talk, huh? I thought so!”

“You worry. Miu.”

“And you think that you didn’t?! She was crying over your lost leg!”

Hyakkimaru turned around for the first time since they began walking to look at Dororo. His soul was slightly brighter than it had been when he had returned, but still duller than yesterday. It was hard to tell if the negative emotions that had tinged his aura were still there because there was one overwhelming emotion that overshadowed all others: righteous anger.

“You suck, you know that! You insensitive clod! You jerk! Crap head! Dirt bag! Hypocrite !”

Hyakkimaru was taken aback by Dororo’s passion.

“Hippo...crate?”

“You big dummy!”

Dororo ran off, leaving the older teen at a loss what to do. He felt a twinge of shame in knowing that Dororo was telling the truth— his own behaviour had also been rather reckless. He scratched the back of this head, and wondered why his cheeks felt warm. Dealing with people was something he was really new at, and he felt he was botching it up.

 

He set off in the direction that Dororo ran off to. The young boy was easy for Hyakkimaru to find— his aura of explosive emotions made his soul brighter. He found him crouched at the roots of a big oak, with his head on his knees.

“Doro. Ro.”

“Go away.”

“You did bad.”

“I said-!”

“I did bad.” Dororo lifted his head slightly as Hyakkimaru sat down next to him. “Both wrong.”

Dororo did not reply, but his aura of anger subdued significantly.

Hyakkimaru tried to find words for his feelings, for the feelings he had earlier today when he didn’t know if Dororo was safe.

“You did not. Come back. Mio worry.”

“I apologized to her.”

 

Even though he could not see Dororo, Hyakkimaru turned his face away from him, not knowing why he was embarrassed.

“I worry.”

There was a pregnant pause that was only broken when Dororo giggled.

“Really, Aniki? You worried about me?”

Hyakkimaru felt his cheeks get hot again and he knew it had to do with the confusing feeling in his chest. Why was it hard to admit? Hyakkimaru was not at all used to feeling sheepish.

“Only! Only because you. Bring trouble!”

“Hmph! I could say the same about you! You’re the chief troublemaker!” But the anger in his aura was completely gone. Dororo’s soul was shining bright again, which made Hyakkimaru more relieved than he’d care to admit. He got up and offered his hand to Dororo.

“Come. We leave.”

Dororo seemed on the verge of taking his hand, but hesitated at the last moment. Now he was the one turning his head away for no reason. “I can get up myself! I’m not helpless you know!”

Hyakkimaru stared at him blankly for a moment and then simply grabbed the boy and flung him over his shoulder like a sack of potatoes. Dororo’s protests echoed throughout the forest.


Despite Hyakkimaru’s best efforts to take a direct route, they ended up traveling in a semicircle. Hyakkimaru could remember where he had travelled, but his wanderings had always been aimless except when he was chasing demons, so retracing his steps was not efficient. It did not help that nearly everything distracted him now that he could hear and feel. The towns were noisy, the nights were cold, his mutilated leg ached and throbbed, he was itchy all the time and his stomach hurt with hunger. Is this how people lived all the time? 

“Hey Aniki, you know that’s Mount Fuji, right?”

Hyakkimaru saw that Dororo’s soul arm was extended, probably pointing at something. He turned to the direction where he was pointing to but could not see how that landscape was any different from all the other forests, hills and towns they had passed through.

“What is. Mount?”

“It’s a big, big, big hill, Aniki! I thought you might be able to see Fuji because they say the gods of fire live there. When the gods get angry, they spew fire and ash all over the land!”

“Sounds bad. Gods are demons?”

“I guess not? But gods sometimes kill people on a whim, so maybe they’re closer to demons than to humans?”

“Hmmmm.”

“Anyway, if Fuji is over there, then Edo is to the east of here. I know where the temple where Mio and the kids are, we’re not that far off!”

“Hmmph.” Hyakkimaru grunted in annoyance, for he knew this trip was taking longer that it should. He took comfort in the fact that returning to Mio would not be very hard with Dororo by his side.

“What is. Edo?”

“Oh, some backwash town nobody cares about.”

 

Hyakkimaru was thinking he didn’t like crowded towns and their terrible din when he noticed something. The path he was walking on was sloping upwards and to the left. At the top of this small hill, there was a rock imbued with spiritual energy. He began walking faster, almost breaking into a run.

“Aniki! What is it?” Dororo ran to catch up to him and stopped in front of the rock. “Oh, do you want to leave an offering to this Buddha? We don’t have much, but Buddha understands.” He rooted through his pouch and took out an apple that he had picked earlier today.

“Do you know how to leave an offering? You put it in the stone dish over here and give thanks to Buddha for keeping us safe in our travels.”

 

Hyakkimaru was hardly listening, he was staring to intently at the rock which Dororo told him was a Buddha statue. There was no mistaking it. Its spiritual energy might fluctuate and be different every time he saw it, but its placement atop of this hill and the line of trees behind it confirmed it. He had seen this same rock many times before during his childhood.

 

He looked at the fork in the road ahead of them and set off on the rightmost path. Without really thinking about it, he broke out into a run. He passed a small village, crossed a bridge and followed the river upstream while it skirted a forest. He only stopped when he got to the edge of his destination. He stared intently at the structure he knew so well, even though he could not really see it; only murky darkness spotted by a few objects with their own energy. He knew exactly where he was, having crossed the threshold a million and one times.

 

“Jeez, don’t take off running like that!” A wheezing voice said next to him. “I could hardly keep up!” Panting, Dororo finally caught up to him, putting his hands on his knees and struggling to regain his breath. “I’m—” he gasped “— I’m guessing this is the place, since you’re so excited.”

Hyakkimaru did not respond, worried his voice might betray the flurry of emotions he was feeling. He walked the short steps to the entrance of the house with Dororo now in tow. With the practiced motion of someone who has done something many, many times, he slid the door open into the house. Glancing around, his chest fell when he realized there was nobody in the house.

 

“Hey Aniki, you knocked this off the door.” Dororo picked up some wooden object off the ground. “Looks like a sign. I wonder what it says? I wish I could read.”

Hyakkimaru was still looking around, even though he knew it was futile. If there was any person in this house or close to it, he would know right away. He sank onto the step to the entryway, letting out a dejected sigh.

Dororo sat next to him and dumped the sign on his lap. “Aw, don’t be so sad Aniki, I’m sure they’ll be back soon, eh?”

Hyakkimaru ran his fingers across the small wooden sign, knowing it was the handiwork of the person he was looking for.

“Meanwhile, look at all this stuff!” Dororo made a motion to step into the threshold but Hyakkimaru grabbed the collar of his frayed kimono. He then pointed to the barrel of water next to the entrance.

“Dirty feet. You wash.”

“That’s annoying! We both had our feet cleaned yesterday when we crossed that river!”

“You wash!”

“I don’t want to!”

“Then stay here.”

Dororo made a few more attempts to cross into the house but he could not get past Hyakkimaru. Exasperated, he eventually he gave up but kept looking inside.

“Wow, it’s easy to tell this person is a craftsman for prosthetics. Look at all these arms and legs hanging off the walls. It’s kind of creepy. I can’t imagine sleeping here. Oop- I mean, well. I don’t mean it like that Aniki…”

“I sleep here.”

“What? When?”

“All time. Before I go.”

“Before you went where?”

“Out. Find demons.” He turned to Dororo and pointed and his face. His index finger came close enough to touch the tip of his nose. “Find you.”

 

Wait! Wait, wait! Hold your horses!” Hyakkimaru stared bemusedly at Dororo, he almost wanted to look around for horses. He certainly wouldn’t miss a creature that big. “ Are you telling me this is the house where you grew up?

“Yes. I was little.” Hyakkimaru held his hand up to Dororo’s height. “Then I grow.” He held his hand higher. “I grow big. I go look for demons.”

“You sly dog! I thought this was simply the place where you got your prosthetics! Don’t get me wrong, your sword arms are very cool and all- but I get to meet your parents! You should have told me!”

“Parents?”

“Yeah! Your mama and your papa! Mother and father! The people that raise you and protect you and feed you and make sure you’re alright.”

 

Hyakkimaru contemplated that for a moment and then he turned to Dororo again.

“Two? Two parents?”

“Yeah! Everyone gets one mom and one dad.”

“But. I have one. Only one.”

“Oh.” Dororo’s voice sank as much as his body as he sat down again. He thought about it hard for a moment. “Well, my papa. He— he di-died, you see. So even though I started out with a mom and dad, eventually I only had a mom. M-maybe you lost one too?”

“Only one. Always.”

“I- ah….maybe you were a baby when you lost your other parent?”

“Baby?”

“Yeah! When you were so, so little you don’t even remember anything. I mean, nobody remembers being a baby.”

 

Hyakkimaru thought about this long and hard. The earliest memory he ever had was of having no arms and legs and being carried around by his guardian spirit. Some time after that the spirit had made him that first set, which he so clumsily used. Was there a time before that?

He concentrated. He had always assumed he just started existing in the care of his guardian spirit.
But if he shut out the world around him and focused only on remembering, he felt that there was something else. Something from earlier in his life. So early it did not seem real, it seemed like a bad dream or a collection of fuddled thoughts. It felt like a string of borrowed emotions. Elation, pain, rejection, fear.

“Aniki…?”

Dororo’s voice brought him out of his reverie. “Aniki, you’re making a scary face…”

“Oh. Careless, is all.” Hyakkimaru relaxed his face and thought about how it was the first time he consciously did that. People normally control their faces?

“So you say. Mama and papa, yes?”

“Yeah!”

“Which one. Is which?”

“Huh?”

“They are same? Different?”

Dororo put a finger on his chin and thought about it. His mother had taught him a few things about how babies were made; enough that he understood why there was one of each in the making of children. But he wasn’t sure if Hyakkimaru would be able to understand it yet.

“Uh, the thing is- well...one is a man and one is a woman. The woman is the mom and the man is the dad.”

“Huh. How. To tell them apart?”

Dororo raked his brains. He was completely unprepared to discuss gender with someone who was blind and, until recently, completely deaf and mute.

“Ah- the thing is- th-the main difference…” He sputtered. “Men have beards!” He nearly screamed the first thing that came to his mind. “And women don’t! So there you go!”

 

Hyakkimaru stared for a moment and then brought his hands up to his own cheeks, obviously looking for a beard. “H-hey! I know what you’re doing! You don’t have a beard yet because you’re a boy, not yet a man! You’ll get your manly beard later.”

Hyakkimaru lowered his arms, but put one hand gently on Dororo’s cheek.

“You are. A boy. Too?”

“Bah! I’m already twice the man that you are!” He boasted, crossing his arms and putting on a high airs face Hyakkimaru could not see.

 

Hyakkimaru would have said something else, but suddenly he snapped his head back towards the entrance. Dororo was about to ask if he saw a demon when Hyakkimaru simply stood up and took off running. Dororo was about to follow when he realized that Hyakkimaru had not taken off his prosthetic arms, as he usually did when he was going to attack. He squinted his eyes at the dimming sunset light and saw a figure walking the path towards the house. The figure Hyakkimaru was running towards.

 

Hyakkimaru’s vision was filled with different things: living plants, animals, objects with a certain energy, and now there was white soul in the distance that was growing bigger and bigger. As he got closer, the white soul took up his entire field of vision; not because he was upon them, but because that’s all he could concentrate on.

The soul noticed him. The soul dropped what it was carrying. The soul moved towards him.

A choked sound came out of Hyakkimaru’s throat as the distance closed. His hurt leg was sending streaks of pain up his body as he ran but he did not care.

And for the first time he heard his name being said by the person he loved the most in the world.

“Hyakkimaru!”

And he was there, he was there with the soul of of his father. Hyakkimaru grabbed the sleeves of the older man and looked into his face, nearly blinded by the radiating emotions but he did not care. He ran his hand from the man’s bearded cheek to the back of his neck, bringing him closer.

“P-papa!” He cried, his voice strangely hoarse.

And he felt those strong arms surround him, it was a gesture that had happened many times in his childhood, but this was the first time he truly felt being embraced and he thought he would disappear into this feeling.

“Hyakkimaru! Oh, Hyakkimaru! You spoke ? You can speak? Say something again!”

There was a strange prickling feeling in his glass eyes, which felt really odd on his skin against the glass. Hyakkimaru blinked, which is something he very rarely did ever since he got back his skin. As soon as he did, his cheeks were wet as water slid down from his eye sockets.

 

He cupped his hand against his ears. “I hear. You. I hear. Your voice.”

There was more wetness in his face, this time coming from up above, coming from the face of his father. Hyakkimaru felt the grip around him get stronger and he responded by embracing the older man in return. He buried his face in his chest, feeling the rough cotton brush against him and thinking it was the best feeling in the world. He was home.

 

His chest began shaking and heaving and his face felt like it was soaked. Strangled sounds came from his mouth, almost as primal and unintentional as the night he’d lost his leg, though fortunately not as loud. A tight knot in his chest he had not realized he’d been holding in was becoming undone here, in the presence of his father. But despite the feeling that something inside him was splitting, Hyakkimaru welcomed that feeling. Whatever it was that was breaking, it was being fixed at the same time. He was home.

Chapter Text

Jukai held on tight to his son, a million questions flaring his head like fireworks, but he bit them down and enjoyed this treasured moment. It was bizarre in a fantastic way, holding on to him the same way he had held him as a child, but now having his gesture fully reciprocated. There had been times while Hyakkimaru was growing up when Jukai had wondered if the boy understood his affection or even wanted it. Now he knew for sure, because there was no way someone would race to meet him like that if he didn’t care for his love.

Both Jukai and Hyakkimaru may have wanted to stay in that embrace indefinitely, but the sunset had turned into full darkness and kneeling on the dirt road was beginning to hurt Jukai’s knees. He gently stood up and grabbed Hyakkimaru’s arm to help him stand as well. Even in the dimming twilight he could see the tears making his son’s cheeks shiny, so he wiped them away with his thumb. He nearly jumped with surprise when he realized he wasn’t touching the cool porcelain mask. He put his hand on Hyakkimaru’s face again, this time fully feeling the softness of his cheeks and their natural warmth. He could even feel some bumps where some scars had healed over.

“Hyakkimaru, you have skin?” He asked in wonderment without taking his hands off his face.

Hyakkimaru grabbed his father’s hand and held it in place where it was cradling his cheek, and he nodded. Jukai smiled widely, then immediately wondered if Hyakkimaru was able to see that.

“Is there anything else that is new?” He asked delicately. For the first time, Hyakkimaru looked bashful and shook his head, unintentionally shaking Jukai’s hand off at the same time.

“Well, great things don’t happen all at once; they take time. Hyakkimaru! This is wonderful progress you have made! I’m so proud of you!”

He clapped a hand on Hyakkimaru’s back and nearly laughed at his son’s look of surprise, it was nearly certain nobody had done that to him before.

They began walking back to Jukai’s house. Jukai was wondering what he would prepare for food when he felt a tugging at his sleeve. He turned around to see that Hyakkimaru had stopped walking.

“One thing more.” His voice was raspy and unsure, and Jukai was sure that he only recently gained the ability to speak.

“One thing? Something else you gained back?”

“Yes.”

“What is it?”

Hyakkimaru looked at him rather forlornly, and it was clear that he didn’t yet have the language to describe what he wanted to say. The teen wondered for a second and then wrapped his arms around himself and shivered rather dramatically.

“Cold. Hot.”

Jukai stared at him, comprehension dawning on his face. “You can feel temperatures now? That’s amazing! I always worried you might overheat or freeze to death without realizing it.”

Hyakkimaru shook his head, looking disconcerted. “Do not. Like. Bother.”

“Son, that bother you feel is your body talking to you; you should listen. From now you’ll know if you’re somewhere that’s not good for you.”

Jukai put his arm around Hyakkimaru’s shoulder and started walking towards the house again. “You’ll get used to it eventually, and trust me, you’ll be thankful as well someday.”

Jukai was silent for a moment, reflecting on his own words.

“One day, you’ll know what pain is. It’s not something that will bring you comfort, but something that is incredibly useful. I know you won’t like feeling it, but since I’ve known you I been worried that this is one of your missing senses. A healthy respect for pain will keep you alive.” He wondered if his words were making any sense to Hyakkimaru, or this whole concept was too abstract. Perhaps he was babbling now, having spent sixteen years without being able to impart knowledge directly. There were so many things he had wanted to teach Hyakkimaru, things that he might be able to now.

Hyakkimaru stopped walking again.

“I know. Pain.”

Jukai’s eyebrows shot up in astonishment. “Are- are you serious?”

Even though Hyakkimaru could not see, he averted his gaze in shame and nodded. Jukai correctly intuit that Hyakkimaru felt that pain was his weakness, something that stopped him from being the stoic juggernaut that slayed demons without batting an eye. He wanted to explain that he would rather have him be alive and vulnerable than see him as a relentless killing machine. One that did not realize he was falling apart in pieces. He wanted to explain that everyone learnt to deal with pain as they grew up and that it was a good thing he was learning now.

But looking at Hyakkimaru’s despondent face chased those words away. He put his hands on Hyakkimaru’s face again and made him turn to face him.

“Do not define yourself by weakness or by strength. That’s not all that you are. You are changing, and you will change more and find out things about yourself you never knew. Sometimes it will hurt. Sometimes it will feel like shit. But it’s an important part of growing.”

Hyakkimaru blinked as if he might cry again, but he did not. Instead he leaned his body forward and let his forehead rest on his father’s shoulder. Jukai put his arm around him again.

“I can’t wait to see the man that you will grow into.” He meant it. He would stop worrying about Hyakkimaru losing himself in bloodlust to kill demons. He would trust his son.

“Until then, I will do my best to help you deal with the pain. I am a doctor after all.”

“Ah. Help me. Yes.” Hyakkimaru lifted his right leg, showing a bloody bandage that  ended up in a wooden rod. “Help. This?”

Perhaps it was a good thing that Hyakkimaru could not see his father’s eyes widen with horror.

What did you do you to your leg?!



Dororo watched Hyakkimaru run towards the person at the end of the road and practically leap into their arms. He’s a kid like me after all , he chuckled to himself and wiped his nose as he saw them embrace.

For a moment he felt like going over and introducing himself, but he thought the better of it and decided not to. So he watched them from the doorway, at first with a slight smile in his face, but his face darkened as time passed as much as the sky. He felt an emptiness growing inside, one that he was usually able to ignore, but seeing a parent hug their child with so much love made it come to the surface.

Maybe I shouldn’t have come.

Dororo slumped against the doorway, having forgotten all about exploring the inside of the house now that Hyakkimaru was not stopping him.

He walked outside and grabbed a handful of grass and started tearing it apart blade by blade.

Get ahold of yourself.

You don’t need anyone.

You don’t need someone to make you feel safe, you’re the great Dororo.

You’re not lonely.

You’re just a child.

You’re not jealous.

“Who are you?”

Dororo was snapped out of his thoughts by the arrival of the man who was with Hyakkimaru, presumably the one who lived here. He realized that he was surrounded by a patch of mangled grass and weeds, most of it on his lap, so he quickly got up and brushed it off. Dororo had somehow been expecting Hyakkimaru’s parent to look cold and hard, not this kindly looking middle aged man with a beard.

“Did you come here for treatment? I have someone else to attend, but I’ll look you over since you came all this way.”

“Huh?” Dororo struggled to answer as his mind was still chasing those dark thoughts away.

“Um. F-Father.” Hyakkimaru could not say the word easily, thought it was unclear if it was from lack of practice or because he was slightly embarrassed. “This. Is. Doro. Ro.”

“Dororo?”

By this time, the young boy had recovered enough to revert back to his usual self. “Yes! I am Dororo, the world’s greatest thief! I travel with Aniki here because he can’t look after himself. I adopted him like my own brother! Who might you be, sir?”

Jukai just stared at the lost, sassy child in his doorstep and tried to process what he was saying. In the end, his brain could not deal with all the new information he’d received in the last hour, so he decided to take one thing at a time.

“I’m Jukai, I am a doctor. If you’re Hyakkimaru’s friend, you’re welcome in my house. But please do not steal anything, I need my tools to do my work and most of the things I own are useless to anybody outside of this trade. Please excuse me.”
He reached past Dororo to the barrel of water that was at the entrance, took a wooden ladle and washed his hands. Hyakkimaru did the same, washing his prosthetic hands with practice and then sat down and washed his wooden foot as well. He paused when he got the crudely made wooden leg he’d carved himself.

“Don’t worry about cleaning that Hyakkimaru, you’re going to take it off soon anyway.” Jukai called out.

Hyakkimaru nodded without turning his head to where’s his father voice had come from. He filled the wooden ladle with water again and thrust it at Dororo.

“Wash.”

“I told you! I won’t!”

“Don’t care. You wash.”

“I said I won’t!”

“You wash. Or. Not come in.”

“Fine! I’ll sleep outside then! I’ll sleep in the mud and then I’ll die and you’ll be sorry!

Hyakkimaru was seconds away from dumping the water over Dororo’s head when he was interrupted by Jukai.

“Boys!” It was surprising to them both to be called at the same time, but strangely it almost felt natural.

“Hyakkimaru, please come here, I want to take a look at your leg as soon as possible. Dororo.” Jukai approached the younger boy and Dororo had to keep himself from flinching away. Jukai observed this and he made an effort to make his tone his tone more gentle. “My house is where my patients see me and it’s my duty to keep this place clean so they do not get sicker than they already are. If you clean up before you come in, you’ll make that easier for me. Would you, please?”

Dororo had been expecting to be yelled at, threatened, or even thrown out, but not this. He felt his cheeks tinge with pink and he nodded slightly and took the wooden ladle. This doctor guy reminded him of Biwa-hōshi, except a lot more disarming. Dororo could not decide if that was better or worse.



Once Hyakkimaru was laying down in the patient area and he had lit nearly every candle and oil lamp he owned, Jukai very carefully unwrapped the bandage that held the wooden rod at the end of his right leg in place. As he got into the deeper layers, the bandage became stained with dried blood, then fresh blood. Jukai was glad to see that the blood was merely seeping and not gushing. Once he got to the actual fleshy stump he was even somewhat impressed with the wrapping job someone had done to stop the bleeding without cutting into the leg so much it would cause necrotic damage.
He’d have to remember to ask Hyakkimaru if he’d done this himself or he’d had any help. If Hyakkimaru could feel pain when this injury happened, he almost certainly passed out. It was an awful wound, as if something had ripped his leg off in a bite.

He looked at Hyakkimaru’s face and despite the teen’s best efforts to be stoic, Jukai could see the discomfort in his furrowed brow and the slight grit in his teeth.

Jukai pushed his worry and and anxiety aside and set to work. He was in doctor mode now and his priority was his patient. He cleaned the wound, made completely sure that the major veins and arteries were closed off and then applied a salve that would keep the germs off and stop further bleeding.

During this procedure he could see Hyakkimaru tense up in pain at times, but the teen still refused to make a sound. Stubborn boy, where did he get that from?
The cleaning and the salve were temporary measures. Tomorrow he would have to do a surgery to realign these veins and arteries and attach the nerves to what would be Hyakkimaru’s new prosthetic. He knew that neither himself nor Hyakkimaru were in a state of mind tonight for that surgery. Besides, he would need good light to do this intricate work.

He involuntarily let out a sigh as he wrapped up the leg in a clean bandage.

“Father?”

Jukai started in surprise a little bit. He would have to get used to his son’s raspy new voice.

“You can. Help me. Yes?”

It took a moment for Jukai to realize that once again Hyakkimaru had “seen” his emotions and had noticed his worry.

“Of course I can, in fact I know exactly what I’ll do and what I’ll need. My only concern-” He looked into Hyakkimaru’s expectant face. It was so odd being able to directly communicate with him after so long. “...my only worry is that now you’ll feel the pain you were not able to before.”

“Hurt? More than now?”

“A lot more than now, you might faint from it.”

Hyakkimaru considered it as he stared into the nothingness of the ceiling.

“I’ll endure.”

Jukai couldn’t help but smile at this son’s resoluteness, even though he did not agree. He squeezed his shoulder. “You don’t have to endure anything tonight. Just rest up and- ow!”

He yanked his hand away and stared at the back of it. Carefully, he picked off a black speck, squeezing it between his fingers. He he squeezed tighter and flicked his fingers as if he was going to snap them. The speck exploded into a splatter of blood.

“Hyakkimaru, I think you have fleas.” He croaked, trying to keep his voice even.

Dororo heard this on the other side of the screen that Jukai had put up. He scratched his hair absentmindedly. Who doesn’t have fleas?

Chapter Text

“No! Not on your life!” Dororo sprang up and ran to the other side of the room, putting as much distance between himself and the older man as was possible. “I’m not doing it!”

Jukai’s voice was resolute. “I’m not having my home become a breeding ground for parasites! It’s disgusting! Besides-” he put his hand over his nose exaggeratedly, “you two positively reek. What did you do, jump into a pig sty?”

“Look, we did not jump in , we’re not stupid. We just walked across it, alright?”

“You’re taking a bath!”

Hyakkimaru watched the two white souls argue while he gingerly sat up, his right leg giving him a dull ache. He’d seen these emotions flare from his father’s spirit before, but now he was hearing the sounds accompanying them for the first time. He was honestly surprised Dororo was able to not only flout his father’s orders, but he even talked back.
When Hyakkimaru was little and he saw this aura surrounding his father, he’d learned that he would not be able to get out of whatever was going to happen. Whether it was eating soft, mushy things with no texture that brought him no joy, or taking off his prosthetics to clean them or switch them out for newer ones, it was always something his childish self wanted to avoid. He surmised that this bath that they were talking about was another unpleasant activity that he’d have to get over with.

He recalled that in the time before he had skin, his father would cover his soft body in cloth strips— bandages? was that the word for them? — but those strips would have to be switched out eventually. During those times, Hyakkimaru was forced to sit in a wooden tub full of liquid, which was incredibly dull and tedious. Was that what a bath entailed?

“You’re going to get clean and that’s final!” Jukai started advancing on Dororo, really meaning to pick him up and dump him in the tub if that’s what it took.

“No, wait, I- sto- please don’t !” There was true panic in Dororo’s voice now, enough to stop Jukai. He regarded the boy carefully now that his tone had gone from haughty and confident to nearly crying.

“If you’re so against it, there must be a reason.” Jukai waited for Dororo to answer, but he only draped his own arm on himself defensively and stared at nothing.

“It’s unhealthy not to bathe…” Jukai pinched the bridge of his nose, thinking. “But if it will make you feel better, I can stay on the other side of the screen, until you’re done.”

Dororo stood there, fidgeting. “...so you say I gotta take a bath, no matter what.”

“Absolutely.”

“And you’re not going to come or look or anything until I’m done?”

“You have my word.”

“What about him? Will he stay on this side of the screen?” Dororo flicked his head towards Hyakkimaru, who was laying on the floor rather nonchalantly “watching” the scene unfold.

Jukai gave a little bemused chuckle. “Hyakkimaru is blind .”

“Oh, right, yeah. I guess he can stay.”

Dororo did not like the knowing look Jukai gave him after he consented to have Hyakkimaru around. It was as if he knew . Had he been figured out?

Careless, careless, he admonished himself. Who wouldn’t suspect something after putting up a scene like that? He panicked too quickly, but it had been a while since Dororo had been backed up into a corner. He would need to think of a good excuse in the future for situations like this.

He waited until Jukai was preoccupied with boiling water to stick his hand in the back of his shirt and feed the raised bumps of his scarred skin against his fingers. Anybody who saw his back would notice that immediately. He glanced at Hyakkimaru and suddenly he had the horribly alarming thought that the older boy would be able to see it with whatever hocus pocus spirit vision he had. Wasn’t Hyakkimaru able to see magic objects and artifacts? In fact, didn’t those stand out to him more than regular things?

Panic was rising in him again. Should he run away? Would this doctor Jukai chase after him? Would Hyakkimaru? Where would he go? It was night and he was in an unfamiliar region.

Hyakkimaru sensed Dororo’s dismay surging again, so he carefully dragged himself forward on his elbows until he was at a distance that he judged he’d be heard by Dororo but not his father.

“I. Dislike. The Bath. Too.” He said in his best conspiratorial whisper, which was still too loud. “But. Over. Before you. Know it.”

This was the longest sentence Hyakkimaru had spoken so far. Dororo realized he was trying to make him feel better and he relaxed a little. Hyakkimaru would do right by him, even if he noticed that on his back. And he wouldn’t understand the significance of it anyway , he thought as he crossed his arms. One day, when he understands more, will I be able to trust him?

While Dororo was deep in thought, Jukai was preparing a bath with something to get rid of the fleas. Years ago, when he’d been picked up by that ship of foreigners, one of the things he’d learned was very good for washing were these little bricks of sabon . But they were impossible to obtain in Japan, he’d even asked merchants bringing goods from China to no avail. He tried to make his own approximation from what he remembered. He combined ashes of saltwort, cypress oil and sesame seed oil and after years of experimenting, he had more or less something that worked.

He was glad he had experimented carefully, because the saltwort ash mixture could be incredibly caustic if it was concentrated enough, enough to melt away the very flesh. He’d once entertained the wild idea of giving caustic water to Hyakkimaru, for even demons would disintegrate with this powerful mixture. He wanted his son to have one last resort if he encountered a demon that could not be put down by brute force. But he’d laughed at himself for even thinking it. Where would Hyakkimaru keep demon-melting water? In a special compartment in his leg? Why didn’t he build an explosive nose while he was at it?

He finished setting up the bathing area and checked it over to make sure everything was ready. He intended to keep his promise to Dororo to respect his privacy, so he wanted to be certain he wouldn’t come back here.

“Alright, Hyakkimaru, let’s get started.” The teen was already disrobing and Jukai noticed he had a slight pout in his face. Did he think this was going to be like those soaks he used to have as a child? As if!  He had skin now! And Jukai intended to give him a good scrub, because he was certain that he hadn’t washed since he got his skin. He helped his son sit on the bathing stool and undid his hair tie. He then poured a tubful of hot water on Hyakkimaru’s head.

Hyakkimaru was so surprised he almost gasped. He didn’t expect this to feel so nice . He felt the warm water sluice down his body as if was gently caressing him. He then felt strong but gentle fingers massaging his scalp, weaving in and out of his hair. Then more hot water was poured on him, so heavenly! Is this what he had been missing out his whole life without skin? Without temperatures? This feeling was almost worth feeling cold, itchy or sweaty all the time. He unconsciously leaned back, nearly purring with pleasure if he was capable of making that sound.

“Dororo, make sure to wash your hair like this, are you watching? I’m going to be checking your head after.”

“Hnnghngh.” Was the boy’s reply. You don’t have to look so damn happy, stupid Aniki. You said you disliked baths! You liar! Traitor! What’s so great about grooming anyway? We’ll get dirty again soon enough .

“Hyakkimaru, you pay attention too, you’ll be washing yourself from now on.”

The teen had to stop himself from whining in protest when his hair was done being washed and his father moved on to scrubbing his back with a washcloth that didn’t feel nearly as nice.

“Here.” He gave the cloth to Hyakkimaru after soaking it again in water and his home-made sabon mixture. “Wash your front as rigorously as I washed your back. Not just your chest, under your arms too.”  

Was this the annoying part Dororo hated? Granted it didn’t feel as nice as getting his hair washed, but Hyakkimaru could name one hundred worse things than this and after sleeping in the outdoors with Dororo, he was sure the boy could too.

Jukai, for his part, was observing all the scars on Hyakkimaru’s body. Were all of these new? Did he get them after he got skin? Or were some of these scars somehow retroactive, matching the places where he had been injured years before? Even after all these years, Hyakkimaru continued to puzzle him.

Jukai rinsed him off one last time and showed him how to get in the soaking tub without disturbing the bandage in his right leg.

“Dororo, your turn. Make sure to put your dirty kimono in this tub her-”

“Fine, fine, fine, fine . Just go over there and close your eyes!”

Dororo made sure Jukai was truly behind the screen before taking off his clothes. He could this quickly, right? Strip, wash, rinse, done. This should take a minute or less.

He looked at the wooden tub of frothy water he’d been instructed to use. The weird mixture didn’t smell like fresh water, but it didn’t smell unpleasant either. It was a clean, spicy and, even somewhat masculine fragrance. It reminded him of tree sap, but when he stuck his hand it, it was not sticky at all.

Well, here goes nothing , he thought, and dumped some of the frothy water on his head. He immediately regretted not fully closing his mouth. This stuff might smell nicer than tree sap, but it tasted a million times worse!

He sputtered and spit, trying to get rid of the awful taste. He’d rather drink river water downstream from a village! Alright, maybe he wouldn’t go that far, but this was still the worst thing he’d ever tasted, which was saying a lot considering all the things he’d put in his mouth.

He shook his hair a little bit, rubbed his forearms and his knees with the frothy water and declared “Done!”

“Not. Done.” Hyakkimaru was calmly observing him from the tub. “Do. Properly.”

“This is good enough!”

“Is not.”

“What do you know? You can’t even-” Just then Dororo noticed some black specks on his shoulders. His ran his palm over his shoulder and looked at them. Fleas, desperately trying to flee the frothy water. Huh, maybe there was something to this.

“Wash hair. Properly. You do. Or I do.”

“Don’t you dare!”

“Then you do. Properly.”

Dororo gave his best death glare, which was entirely wasted on on Hyakkimaru. He sat down on the bathing stool and actually started giving his hair a good scrub. He closed his mouth and his eyes as tightly as he could, he wasn’t taking more chances. It wasn’t until he finished that he realized he forgot something.

“....Aniki.”

“Hmmm?”

“...please rinse me off.”

“Come closer.”

He blindly tried to make his way to where he thought Hyakkimaru was and stopped when he heard the clatter of the wooden tub being picked up. He then felt the rush of warm water over him. He wiped his eyes and dared open them. The water flowing down his body was a muddy colour. He could see streaks running on his arms and legs, the places where the frothy water touched much cleaner than the rest of him. He saw Hyakkimaru offering him the washcloth, and after hesitating for a moment he took it.

Hyakkimaru kept looking at Dororo as he washed. He’d noticed an odd colour coming off the younger boy’s back when he had first undressed and now that he was closer it was really evident.

There was something on Dororo’s back that he could not figure out. It wasn’t a ghoul that had attached itself, nor a curse; it was almost as if it was part of his body. It looked like a delicate thread of gold and silver draped on him, making a pattern Hyakkimaru could not make out. He really wanted to ask about it, but the fuss Dororo made about not wanting to be seen gave him pause. Maybe it would be rude, so he decided to let it be.

When Dororo was done, Hyakkimaru relinquished the soaking tub, dried himself off and went to get dressed using a crutch that Jukai had left within his reach. It was somewhat exhilarating being back in such a familiar place, he knew where everything was without even looking. He took out a clean kimono from its storage space next to the screen and put it on. To his surprise, he could barely close it around his waist.

He heard his father laugh. “I don’t think that one has fit you for a couple of years, and you’ve gotten stronger since you left. The one that’s truly your size is going to be washed, so put on one of mine.”

This kimono had the opposite effect, now it was too big. He assumed it looked absurd on him because he heard Dororo sniggering and even his father repress another chuckle. But somehow that didn’t bother him.

“And. Dor. or. Ro?”

“He can borrow one of yours. Pick one from the bottom, it’ll be closer to his size.”

Hyakkimaru wanted to ask his father why he’d bothered keeping clothes he’d outgrown years ago, but seeing Jukai’s aura as rather pensive, he left him to his thoughts and brought the bottom kimono from the pile to Dororo, holding it under the arm opposite of his temporary crutch.

“Aw, Aniki, why did you bring me that one? I’m not five years old you know.”

Hyakkimaru glowered at the younger boy. “I. Am. Blind.

“Well not entirely! I mean-um…” With a splashing sound, he got out of the tub. “Hey old ma— miste— doctor guy! You better have your eyes closed!”

“My eyes have been closed this entire time.”

Dororo paused while drying himself. “Is he pulling my leg?”

“He can’t. He is. Over. There.”

“Nevermind.” Dororo draped the drying cloth over himself like a cape, covering as much of himself as the length would allow. Satisfied that he was well protected, he went to pick out a kimono that was closer to his size.

By the time Jukai was finished with his own bath and he’d put away everything, both boys were fast asleep. As he put out the lights from the candles, Jukai realized he’d never seen Hyakkimaru sleep with his eyes closed before. With the last oil lamp in his hand, he kneeled over him and gently moved some strands of hairs out of his face. It was a while before he put the oil lamp and the house went into total darkness.

Chapter Text

Dororo woke up feeling more refreshed than he had in years, not least because for the first time he had not spent the night scratching fleas off himself. He truly couldn’t remember the last time in his life he hadn’t had some critter crawling on him, and it was almost unnerving. It probably helped he had slept indoors last night on proper bedding. The only thing that bothered him was the borrowed kimono he was wearing. He wasn’t used to sleeves falling on his wrists, or the hem falling below his knees. Now that he could see it in the sunlight, it was more of a burgundy colour than the brown he’d thought last night as he put it on. He hoped he’d get his own clothes back as soon as possible.

As usual, Hyakkimaru was up before him. No matter what Dororo did, Hyakkimaru would always be awake first. Dororo had set up an internal contest he always lost, even if he woke before dawn. He was beginning to suspect Hyakkimaru could sense him stirring awake somehow.

“Tch, you win again Aniki! Good morning!”

“Good morning.”

It wasn’t Hyakkimaru who returned the greeting but his father, Jukai. Dororo gave him a guarded smile, hiding the fact that he had forgotten about the old man completely. Jukai smiled at him as well, warmly and openly and Dororo could feel his defences lowering despite his instincts.

Stay sharp! You just met this guy! he admonished himself as they sat down for breakfast.

His mood returned to being chipper when he saw Jukai preparing several small bowls of food. He was finally going to get a proper meal! His excitement increased when he saw that three bowls were just for him— one with miso soup, one with millet and one with...beans?
Dororo took the third small bowl and smelled its contents. The sour and pungent smell hit him so hard he almost recoiled. The smell reminded him of the rotten piles of food scraps he encountered in cities. Surely he hadn’t been given putrid food?

“You’ve never had natto before?”

Dororo looked up to his two companions. Hyakkimaru was digging into his food like nobody’s business, his own bowl of weird beans empty. Jukai’s was in his hand, already halfway gone. Dororo decided to ignore eats-raw-fish-Hyakkimaru and turned to the doctor.

“I guess not? What is it?”
“Fermented soybeans, they’re healthy for you. But you don’t have to eat it if the smell is too strong.”
Dororo picked up a single bean with his chopsticks and lifted it, and a long sticky tendril followed it. He had the strong impression that this is exactly the definition and texture spider eggs had. If not regular spiders, demon spiders.
But he wasn’t fazed. He’d eaten rotten scraps out of those piles of refuse in the city, he’d eaten insect grubs and he’d eaten grass when there was nothing else to be had. Sticky beans were not going to get the better of him!
He scooped up a good two dozen into his mouth and chewed them down. Jukai was staring at him, waiting for his reaction.

“Well?”
“I don’t like them, but I don’t hate them.” He replied truthfully. The taste was actually not that bad, considering the smell. He was glad he ate them first, so he could wash down the taste with miso. He tried to not pay too much attention to Jukai’s approving smile.

Jukai finished his own breakfast and set his chopsticks down.

“Dororo, today I want to equip Hyakkimaru with a prosthetic for his foot. It’s a delicate procedure, so I don’t want to be distracted.”

Ah, he’s telling me to scram already. Dororo nodded, wondering what he would do to spend his time and feeling a small pang of loneliness at being thrown out so soon. He was surprised when Jukai passed a small money pouch to him.

“Why don’t you go to the town market and get something that we’ll use for dinner? I won’t have time to do it myself. You saw the town on your way here, right?”
Dumbfounded, Dororo took the pouch and rattled the coins out. This was at least three hundred mon . Not exactly a king’s ransom, but not a meager sum either. Why was this doctor trusting him so much?
“Uh, yeah, I guess I can do that.”


 

Jukai watched the back of his son’s new friend recede from view, vaguely wondering if he’d see the kid or that money again. Dororo was allegedly a thief after all. But seeing these two interact last night gave him the impression they had grown close in a short time. Hyakkimaru had never had friends before, and Jukai wanted to trust this first one.

 But for now, he had a different priority. He turned to his son.
“Hyakkimaru, I don’t want to perform this operation without giving you a opium tincture that will put you to sleep.”

“But!” Hyakkimaru only said one word, but it carried his whole protest.

“Listen, there is no point in suffering needlessly. Some people might say it builds character, but I think it’s foolishness to seek pain and discomfort when it can be avoided.”
“Yesterday.”
“Yes, I know I said yesterday that pain is important and it will help you grow. This is different.” He put his hand on his beard and tried to think of a good way to put it. “Pain is good when it helps you learn. But what’s the use if the lesson that you would learn is something everyone else has learned before you? People gain wisdom not only from their own experiences, but from observing others.”

Hyakkimaru looked dejected. “I am. Strong enough.”
“I would never doubt that, you’re stronger than anyone else I know. But I want you to be wise as well.”

Hyakkimaru now seemed conflicted. His father was praising him, but it felt as if his fortitude was still in question. There was something else that was bothering him, but it was hard to put into words.
“You don’t like the idea of not being in control, right?”
Hyakkimaru looked up in surprise and then scratched the back of his head self-consciously.

Jukai was pleased with how well he could still read his son, even after he had changed so much.
“I understand. I’m essentially asking permission to drug you. It can be scar— well— daunting to be vulnerable like that.”

Hyakkimaru’s apprehension was fading from his face, but it was not entirely gone.
“I give you my word that I would never do anything to hurt you. I say that both as your doctor and… as your father.”

Jukai felt slightly embarrassed by his own awkward pause. By this point he was rather confident that Hyakkimaru did love him as a father, but there was still a small doubt in the back of his head. He wondered if he would have this small uncertainty forever, and silently prayed that he and Hyakkimaru would grow even closer.

At this Hyakkimaru shook his head, but he had a slight smile. He moved his hand hesitantly and closed it over Jukai’s, giving it a small squeeze.
“I trust you.”


 

Dororo dawdled in the town for a while, wondering how long it took to attach a wooden foot to a real leg. He walked through the entirety of the it, which wasn’t saying much with how small it was. He noticed some of the houses were smashed or burnt to cinders, which disturbed him and threatened to stir some bad memories of walking past starving farmers with his parents. But the ruins were years old and had weeds and flowers growing over them, and while some of the townspeople had scars or were missing limbs, no one seemed in the throes of desperation. In fact, it was a lively town. The war must have passed here a while ago.

Dororo also noticed that the people who were missing limbs had well-crafted wooden prosthetics. He suspected it was Jukai’s handiwork.

While buying vegetables he noted that the vendor had a wooden arm herself.

“Did Dr. Jukai make that for you?” he asked as she put a head of bok choy into the wicker basket he had borrowed.
“This?” The vegetable seller grabbed her wooden wrist with her good hand sheepishly. “Yes, I suppose so. Why do ask, boy?”
“I heard he’s quite accomplished.”

“Yes, that might be true, but…” The woman looked at Dororo up and down worriedly. “I can see there’s nothing wrong with you, so you better stay away from him.”
“Oh?” Dororo was not expecting this.
“Yes. He treats people with missing limbs like myself for free or next to nothing, which is odd by itself. A man of his skill could easily have a high and comfortable position with a daimyo, but he languishes away in a hamlet like this. It’s bizarre.”

It was clear from her expression that Jukai had been picked over as a subject for town gossip many times before.
“They say that the reason he gives treatment for free is so he can practice making unearthly, twisted things.”
“Really? Like what?”

The grocer leaned closer to whisper in his ear. “He built a fake person out of prosthetic parts. Imagine that! For years we’ve seen a weird doll-like boy hanging around Dr. Jukai’s house. That’s not normal! Wicked yokai always appear around that cursed child, surely he summons them for mischief!”

Dororo could feel his face turning red.
“You small-town hicks will believe any silly horror story! You see a goat in the hills and it’s suddenly a tiger; or a single ronin with bent legs and suddenly it’s a battalion of them come to burn the town! Pah!”
He knocked over one of the vegetable baskets full of cucumbers; but the grocer woman did not react— she was staring at him, completely frozen in shock.
“The doctor was kind and generous and you repay him by spreading nasty rumours!”

“Of all the things! Come here you nasty devil!”
She recovered enough to lunge at him, but Dororo was expecting it and dodged out of the way.
“Stop him! He destroyed my stall! Thief! Thief!”

Dororo knew it was time to escape. Dodging the hands that went to grab him, he made it out of the market in seconds. He heard the townspeople close behind him, and he considered ditching the heavy basket that was slowing him down. But it was full of food he’d bought with Jukai’s money, and his conscience wouldn’t allow it. So he ran into the forest that led to the path to Jukai’s house. Luck was on his side. The woods were thick and overgrown, making it difficult for the adults to make their way in. He found a nice thicket of hydrangea to hide in, so he made his little foxhole there, clutching the basket. It took all his fortitude to not fling a fat gob of mud at the back of the head of the grocer woman when she passed him by.

Eventually the villagers gave up and he cautiously emerged from the bush, looking for stragglers. Seeing no one, he started making his way through the forest, aiming to be back on the path once he was more than halfway to the house.

He tried to be vigilant of his surroundings, but his head was mulling over what he’d heard. Was this the sort of attitude that Hyakkimaru was forced to deal with all his life? Jukai as well? Those ungrateful ignorant bumpkins! Hyakkimaru was killing those yokai, keeping the people safe! How did they not see this?

He stepped on the path again and immediately heard a triumphant shout. The vegetable vendor had sighted him and was running to catch up.

Dororo muttered a foul curse and started running towards the house. He hoped her stall was getting vandalized in her absence.


 

Jukai was barely finished with the surgery when he heard some angry shouts outside his house. Grabbing a cloth to wipe his hands, he ran to open the sliding door. Outside, he saw Dororo kneeling, protecting the wicker basket and one of the women he recognized from the town mercilessly beating him down.
“Stop! What’s going on here?”

Jukai moved to put himself between them, but as soon as she saw him, the woman jumped aside, away from him.

She pointed an accusatory finger at Dororo. “That little monster wrecked my wares and stole from me!”
“Crazy bloody witch! I only kicked your rotten vegetables because you were running your mouth!”

“That’s enough! There is not need for violence!” By now Jukai put himself between the two, though his approach had made the woman retreat further away. “Madam, I am sorry for the trouble this child might have caused.” He bowed low to her. “Please allow me to repay you. How much was the damage?”

The woman darted her eyes from Jukai’s face to his hands. Too late he realized he had not wiped them completely off and they were clearly smudged with blood.
“Forget it! Just don’t let that beast near my stall again! Keep it in a cage!”

Jukai finished cleaning his hands as he watched her angry retreat, and then exhaled a heavy sigh before kneeling next to Dororo.

“Did she hurt you badly?”
“...I’m used to it.” Dororo shied away from Jukai’s hand.

“Why did you knock over her vegetables?”
“She was saying mean things about Hyakkimaru!”

“Oh.” He tentatively put his hand near Dororo’s face again and this time Dororo did not move, but he stayed tense. “Sadly, I’m not surprised. The townsfolk, they...well they don’t understand Hyakkimaru.”
He was as gentle as he could in checking Dororo’s injuries, trying to make his touch as light as a feather. Dororo was making a point of not meeting his eye.

“There might be some swelling but I don’t think you’ll get a black eye or anything.”
Dororo snorted derisively. “She punches like a baby. I’ve had a lot worse!”
“Really? You get into a lot situations like this?”

Dororo was not expecting his boast to be a conversation starter. “So where’s Aniki? Does he have a new foot now?” He very unsubtly changed the subject. Once again Jukai gave Dororo a perceptive look, one that made the boy suspect he caught more than he let on.

“He does, but he’ll be out of commission for a while I’m afraid.”
“How come?”
“Come inside and see for yourself.”

Jukai picked up the wicker basket and checked it contents. Rice, bok choy, edamame, lotus root and radishes. “I’m glad you were able to get this stuff at least.”
“Yeah! I even got your change!” He threw the much lighter coin purse at the doctor. Jukai caught it and this time gave him an inquisitive look, followed by a smile. Dororo didn’t know why he found himself blushing.

Inside, Hyakkimaru was laying on the patient bedding, waving one of his arms sluggishly and mumbling to himself. He had a new right foot, the wood slightly darker than his other limbs and definitely more polished.

“Hey Aniki! How are you feeling?”
“Toro samurai hera hera.”
“What?”
“Honge, hongetarapon.”
“Hey doctor! Why is he rambling nonsense?”
“I have him an anesthetic to lessen the pain of the operation. It worked, but he’ll be loopy for a little bit.”
“Huh! That’s weird.”

“Glowing in the red of sunset, burning armor and burning horses press forward to seize everything under the heavens. Beneath the boundless blue sky, they walk down a thorny path. This too for the sake for the world and its people.”
Both Jukai and Dororo stared at Hyakkimaru dumbfounded. Hyakkimaru continued muttering softly, ignoring them or not realizing they were next to him. It was Dororo who spoke first.

“Did you notice he can talk normally now? What’s that all about?”
“I honestly have no idea. Perhaps his vocal cords have been fully capable since he got them back, but he doesn’t realize?”

A wooden arm brushed against Dororo and he nearly jumped out of his skin. He hadn’t noticed that Hyakkimaru had turned to him.
“You're a bunch of hongetaras.” His tone implied this was a serious accusation.

This time Dororo could not keep from bursting out laughing. “Really, Aniki? That’s the best you can do? What’s a hongetara anyway?”
Jukai chuckled behind his sleeve and wiped a tear from his eye. He fetched a blanket and unfolded it over his son, prompting more cackles from Dororo as it tented over Hyakkimaru’s lifted arm.

“Time to take a nap, son.” He instructed as he tucked the blanket under the teen’s arm. Hyakkimaru immediately closed his eyes and within seconds his breathing was even, though he still muttered under his breath a little.
“Come, Dororo, let’s leave him in peace for a while.”
“But he might say more funny things!”
“The laundry needs to be done. Don’t you want to wear your own kimono again?”
“Oh yes! Definitely!”

He helped Jukai wring out all the clothes that had been soaking in the frothy water all night, presumably killing off the fleas for good and then helped carry the load to the river. They walked in silence, and Dororo wondered if they would work in silence as well.

He normally had no problem at all being a chatterbox, but knowing that this doctor was his friend’s father made him apprehensive. What if he didn’t like him? Belatedly he realized he probably hadn’t made the best impression by causing trouble at the market.

They were by the river and taking the clothes out to scrub them when Jukai spoke up.  

“So, how did the two of you meet?”
Ah, so no silence then. Here comes the interview. “Aniki saved me from getting drowned by some thugs I conned, and then from the living pile of garbage that ate those guys. It was pretty cool how he defeated it! And then he grew his skin back, which was even cooler!”

Jukai did not pause his work but he turned to face Dororo with raised eyebrows. “He got his skin back from garbage? That's uh… hmm.” He turned back to scrubbing and somewhat mumbled to himself. “I suppose demons can take on any form… and you followed him because he saved you?” the last part he asked at a normal volume so Dororo would hear.

“Well, yeah, partly. But then I figured that the two of us could make some money by defeating demons and saving people. He has no business sense, so I decided I might as well.”

Jukai smiled and turned his face to the heavens. “Why do I get the feeling Hyakkimaru had no say in this arrangement?”
“He didn't stab me, so I assumed he didn't mind.”

“Ha! Hyakkimaru would not do that even if you really annoyed him. I've never seen him hurt a person.”
Dororo stopped his work, his lively face darkening. He shot a guilty look at Jukai and did not say anything, dipping the kimono in the water as if he was trying to drown it.

Jukai’s good natured smile disappeared. “What happened? Has he… attacked someone? Was he attacked? Were you?”

Dororo resumed his scrubbing, and he kept his face and eyes down.
“... A while ago, there was this guy and he… had a sword. It was an evil sword, possessed by a demon… or maybe the sword was the demon. I don't know. The guy fought with Aniki as soon as they saw each other. Aniki managed to get the sword away from him, but then… I went to retrieve it and it— it started controlling me, just like it did to that guy. That sword— that sword called for blood. All it wanted was to kill people to drink their blood. As soon as I touched it, it… made me feel like I wanted to bring suffering on the whole world.”

He was trying hard to keep his voice from hitching, and he didn’t notice his hands had stopped moving again.

“I don't think I hurt anyone. I hope— I mean, I’m pretty sure but…”
He blinked and noticed the wet clothes in front of him and started scrubbing again with all his might. “… But it's all a blur. I only remember fragments of it.

“I remember Aniki showed up in front of me, and I was so relieved… but then he started swinging at me.” Dororo shook his head. “But he didn’t hurt me. He managed to knock the cursed sword right out of my hands, and he didn't hurt me.”

Jukai was looking at Dororo intensely, wondering if the boy had noticed he had repeated himself. Dororo felt the acute gaze on him and he stopped talking, looking uncomfortable. Jukai turned his eyes back to his work, letting Dororo wait until he was ready to talk. It didn’t take long.
“I fainted, and when I woke up… the other guy was dead, and that awful sword was shattered, and the guy’s sister was crying. She called Aniki a monster for killing her brother. I didn’t see it happen myself, but I suppose it’s true and he did kill that guy.”

Jukai closed his eyes and brought a hand to the top of his head, not caring his hat was getting wet.
“I suppose it couldn’t be helped… even trained priests have trouble exorcising demons out of people, and this sword demon sounds like it was a vicious one. Still…” He covered his mouth and gazed into the distance. “I had hoped against hope Hyakkimaru could avoid killing another person, but that’s the age we live in.”

There was an awkward silence, broken only by the rushing and burbling of the river and the sounds of the cloth hitting the rocks.

Eventually Dororo could not contain himself. “Yeah. But… you should have seen him with Mio and the kids! He was very gentle with them!”
“Oh? Who is Mio?”

Dororo smiled brightly and told the story of them meeting Mio and her siblings.
“She's really nice. She works so hard to take care of those kids!”

The dark cloud had moved on from Jukai’s thoughts and he was back to grinning. “Yes, she sounds like quite a lovely girl.”

“I don't think she really wants to do… some of the things she has to, but she's still really optimistic.”
“What kind of job does she… actually, nevermind.” Jukai stopped his curiosity from getting in the way from his goal this afternoon: to find out more about Dororo. He could ask his son about Mio later. From the sounds of it, he had taken quite an interest in her.

“Dororo, do you… have anyone taking care of you besides Hyakkimaru?”
“Well, there's this old blind guy with a biwa who shows up sometimes. Come to think of it, I don’t know his name. Sometimes I wonder if he’s even real. Could he be a yokai? A good one? Is that a thing?”
“Aren't your parents worried about this traveling you do?”

“... Mama and papa died a long time ago.”
Jukai noticed that Dororo had perked up when talking about the mysterious man with the biwa, but he slumped when mentioning his parents. The small boy was curling around himself, and he would probably have hugged his knees if his hands were not elbow deep in water. Jukai almost worried he might fall in the river.

“I'm sorry to hear that. My condolences.” His voice was sincere. He considered showing his sympathy with a light touch, but Dororo shifted uncomfortably and did not answer.

“I'm glad you and Hyakkimaru have found each other. You probably already figured this out, but he hasn't had close friends before. So I want to thank you.”
If anything, Dororo’s discomfort intensified hearing that.

“Yeah, well… I don't have any other friends either, so I dunno if 'm any good at it.”
Jukai laughed, mostly to try to ease the boy’s tension. “I think you're doing great. You take good care of him.”

The doctor paused and took a covert look at the child in front of him. There was something he had been wondering since last night, since Dororo had refused to take a bath after what was clearly months of being on the road. It was something he wanted to confirm, partly to know if his suspicion was correct and partly because he had realized that he wanted Dororo to feel safe. But it was a subject matter that he would have to broach carefully, to say the least.

“I would almost say your care for him is-” He tried to choose a word carefully- “maternal?”

He was paying close attention to see how Dororo would react, but it was unnecessary, as the young thief immediately scowled deeply.

“I'm ten! I'm not his parent, you are! He's just helpless!”
“You're right, my apologies! I really worded that badly.” Tact, use tact! The doctor chided himself and wondered if he had blown it already.

Dororo seemed surprised that the older man backed off so quickly, but he was still fuming.
“You know, he was going to eat raw fish that he stabbed out of the river? Raw. Fish. Not sashimi! With scales and guts and everything!”

Jukai gave out a laugh in spite of the tension. “Yes, that sounds like him alright.”

Dororo eyed him, swaying between his irritation and his curiosity. Curiosity won out. “There's a story there, I know it.”
“It’s not a long story I’m afraid. I had the choice of teaching him to not eat all the critters he found crawling around in mud or teaching him to cook food. He's hopeless with a fire, so I chose the former. He used to grab crabs straight out of the river and just gnaw on them. I see he still needs to learn some sense despite my best efforts.”

Dororo grinned. “Did you know he also stomped on the fire with his real foot when he got his sense of pain back?”
“Oh no! did he hurt his foot?”

“Yeah, it was a little burned. I had to pull him back from the fire and then he had the gall to look surprised!”
Jukai shook his head sadly.

Dororo held his own kimono in the river and he noticed a pair of beady black eyes among the rocks. The little river crab scuttled away from him and Jukai's words sank in.
“Wait, live crabs? That's hilarious."

“Yes, live ones. They would pinch his mask.” Dororo giggled and then laughed louder as he pictured it in his head. Jukai dared to smile a little, at least the tension was gone.

“Even with no expression he managed to look annoyed.”
“I know exactly what you mean.”

By this time they were finished with the washing, now it was time to bring the clothes back and hang them to dry. As they walked back, Jukai took another quick look at Dororo. He seemed relaxed, too busy laughing to be annoyed at him.

He decided to try to inquire about his suspicion again, but with a different approach this time. He waited until they reached the house and Dororo was passing him garments one by one before speaking.
“You know, there are lots of things Hyakkimaru doesn't know about. So many things he needs to learn. He cannot name the stars and constellations. He can't watch the seasons or know the difference the castes and hierarchies.” He was looking at the clothing in his hands to avoid making direct eye contact with Dororo and intimidating him.

“I bet that in this short time he still hasn't learned the difference between men and women either.”

“Well, I think he knows Mio's a girl? Or maybe he just likes her soul.” Dororo put a hand on his chin as if he truly had not considered this before.
“Wait, he likes her?” So it’s a crush? No, filing that away for later, focus.

“Dororo, what I'm trying to say is...if he found out something different, about...you, I don't think he would treat you any differently.”

Dororo stiffened a little and side-eyed Jukai. At least he did not scowl this time. “Yeah, well, I'm a unique individual. Not everyone can be the greatest thief in the world, you know.”

He passed another robe with with more force than was necessary.

“Mama and papa were the best bandits in the country, until that scum betrayed them. We lost everything, but I’m still here.” For a moment he seemed to forget Jukai and stared at the laundry as if it was the face of the man he hated. “I’m still here and I'm gonna take over that title. I’ll be the greatest bandit there ever was! Not everyone can do that, you know, but Papa told me I would, one day.”

Jukai gave Dororo a careful look. “So, would you say you'll become the Bandit King ?” Not queen?

“Well, sure, but Bandit Emperor sounds even better!” He draped one of the kimonos over his shoulders like a cape. “Or maybe Bandit Shogun?”
“Shogun? I think ten or fifteen armies would have an issue with you before you can take up that title.” This was Jukai’s weak attempt at joke. Dororo did not laugh, but he did seem at ease.

A comfortable moment of silence passed with the two efficiently working in tandem. They were more than halfway done.

Jukai shook some water off the cloth in his hand before speaking again. “They say that bandits keep lots of secrets. Your secrets are safe in my house, Dororo.”
Dororo quirked an eyebrow at him. “I dunno. I have a lot of secrets…” He glanced around and then leaned in a conspiratorial way. “But you wanna know a really good one?”

“Yes?”

“I burned down an entire army camp! And then set the opposing army on them in the chaos because I heard that they were planning to kill Mio!” Dororo beamed, clearly proud of himself.

Jukai nearly dropped the clean laundry he was holding.
“I'm not… entirely sure that's a good thing.” He wanted to say more, but he knew a lecture would not go over well at this point.

“Yeah, Aniki said that too, but he has no room to talk after getting his leg bitten off!” He looked vexed. “And what was I supposed to do, let them kill Mio? And the the other children? They wanted to— to hurt her! They would have hunted her down!” His voice got much quieter. “Like they hunted Papa down…”

Jukai gave Dororo a look of understanding. “You really wanted to protect her, huh?”

Moving his hand slowly, he reached to touch Dororo’s shoulder in sympathy. He did it lightly since Dororo’s body language this afternoon had shown he didn’t like to be touched. To his surprise, Dororo not only tolerated the touch, but leaned into it.

“Of course I wanted to protect her! Her singing was the first thing that Aniki could stand to listen to, and she's really nice. I think she's hurt, too, but she doesn't want anyone to know.”

Jukai slowly withdrew his hand and then gazed into the far off distance “War makes everyone do things they would rather not.” He was talking almost entirely to himself. “One cannot… let himself be petrified by regret.” His face darkened. “Or you’ll find yourself standing at the edge, filled with nothing but bitterness.”

He remembered Dororo was with him and snapped back to reality. “Ah! Sorry! Please forget what I said.”

Now it was Dororo’s turn to give a look of understanding. “You too, huh?”

Jukai opened his eyes wide for a moment, but then closed them, his face contorting into a smile full of sadness. “You're far too young to know this much. In a kinder, better world, you wouldn't know. You wouldn’t understand and you’d be better off.”

He noticed the tub of laundry was finally empty. He turned it upside down and offered his hand to Dororo.

“But I am honestly grateful you've met Hyakkimaru in this world. I'm grateful to have met you, Dororo, Bandit King.”

Dororo grinned and stuck his hands on his hips. “Yeah, I'm glad I met you guys too. Aniki is a lot of fun! Maybe when I become the Bandit Emperor he can be my sidekick.” He gave a small chuckle at that thought and then took Jukai’s hand.