Disclaimer: I do NOT own Hakuouki or anything related to it.
"Expect everything, I always say, and the unexpected never happens."— Norton Juster (The Phantom Tollbooth)
He did not expect her to accept his offer.
That wasn't to say he was insincere in offering to let her stay in his village. He just couldn't imagine himself as the first person she'd go to. She could have sought out Sen or Matsumoto Ryojun. That was what he would have done in her position, considering his involvement with Kazama, who'd tried to kidnap her multiple times.
Yet here she was. Though it had been mere months since they last saw each other, it felt like years. Her old attire had been replaced with a western uniform, though her hair remained in a ponytail. Besides the clothes on her back and her sword, she'd brought a duffle bag with her.
She hadn't arrived alone. Kimigiku had escorted her under Sen's orders after Chizuru refused to stay anywhere but here. Which brought him back to his previous musings: why him?
He decided to wait a bit before questioning her. So he arranged a room for her in his home and ordered a bath and food to be prepared for her. She had bowed to express her gratitude, and he nodded in response. He wasn't skilled in consoling those affected by grief (hell, he could barely handle his own grief over Takasugi and Sakamoto). This had to be enough for the time being.
The next morning, he found her outside, watching the sunrise. Her hair was shorter, obviously having been cut by her last night, and she wore a green western dress. He stood several feet behind her, contemplating if he should approach her. After a moment, he decided to join her. She looked over her shoulder to see him when she heard his footsteps. There was a polite, tired smile on her face as she nodded in greeting as he came to stand beside her.
Only once the sun had fully risen did she speak."You haven't tried to speak to me since I got here." Her voice was scarcely above a whisper.
Shiranui shrugged."Didn't think pressuring you would be wise. I figured you'd talk when you were ready."
She looked back to the sky."I found Ryoma's family. Osen-chan helped me." Her smile widened a bit."Ryoma told me about his sisters, Otome and Chizuru." She noticed his surprised expression from the corner of her eye, and hummed."Neither they nor his parents believed me at first, but the things I said about Ryoma...they weren't things one could have known unless they were close to him, and," she bit her lip in hesitation,"I showed them my healing powers. That was enough to convince them."
He wasn't sure how to feel about that last part. Though he didn't share his fellow Demons' obsession with hiding from humanity, he didn't trust humans so easily either. Takasugi, Harada, and Sakamoto were exceptions. All of them had been crazy bastards, as well as dead men as of recently.
He hadn't told her about Harada, though she likely suspected him to be dead. Saito Hajime and Nagakura Shinpachi were missing in action, and the rest of her comrades were either dead or in prison following the surrender in Ezo.
"I was supposed to be his first mate," she murmured, wrapping her arms around herself as she began to shake. Tears formed in her eyes."He loved ships so much, he wanted to see the world with me." She choked on a sob which she then swallowed down. Tears now cascaded down her cheeks."He comforted me when I found out Kondo-san would be executed and tried to help me say goodbye to him. He soothed my guilt and sorrow after I found out about Kaoru. He teased me so much, and I was so annoyed by it, but he always protected me and supported me when I needed it. We weren't even supposed to be allies, but...but..." She choked again, then fell to her knees and broke down.
Shiranui looked down at her. What the hell should he do? Let her cry it out? Comfort her? How would he do that? He wasn't her friend, nor did he specialize in these things. But she had come to him. She had chosen to trust him over her other options. Even if she didn't expect anything from him except for refuge...
Sighing, he knelt down and placed a hand on her shoulder. She either hadn't noticed or ignored it, because her sobbing went on as before. He searched his brain for something, anything, to say.
"Everyone I love dies because of me," she uttered between gasps and sobs. His grip on her shoulder tightened. She still didn't react. He sighed again afore clearing this throat and speaking.
"I know the feeling." That got her attention. She went silent, though the tears did not cease. She wiped her eyes and looked at him in confusion.
"W-Who did you lose?" She asked hesitantly.
He gave her a rueful smile."Takasugi, Harada, Sakamoto. Seems those who fight beside me are doomed no matter what."
Her eyes widened."H-Harada-san?" Shock was soon replaced with anger, and her voice was so shaky with that anger that he removed his hand from her shoulder."You knew Harada-san was dead when we last saw each other?!"
Shiranui leaned back slightly. For someone whose sword skills were minimal, and someone who'd been hysterically crying a moment ago, she sounded and appeared rather frightening right now. The shaking restarted, this time from a completely different emotion.
She leaned forward so their faces were inches apart and he could clearly see the fury in her puffy, red eyes and tearstained cheeks."You knew." She wasn't asking anymore, but stating a fact. And even if that were a question, his silence was answer enough.
She narrowed her eyes."Why didn't you tell me? I deserved to know." She clenched her fists."He was my friend. All of them were my friends, and you knew this whole time that he was dead and kept it from me."
Shiranui met her eye. His expression hardened."You knew the odds of him dying were high. What difference does it make that I didn't tell you?"
She blinked, and her eyes narrowed further."You just included him in a list of people who've fought beside you. That means you were there when he died." He mentally cursed himself for not anticipating that response. She was right; he had given her the proof she needed to draw that conclusion. He leaned further back. She automatically leaned forward.
"Why?" She asked, cold as ice. Noticing his desire to move away, she grabbed his shirt."Answer me." He was silent. She pulled him closer."Answer me!"
For some reason, annoyance suddenly took control of him."Why do you care? You chose Sakamoto over him and your other buddies. Heck, you even left behind those two Furies so they could take care of Kodo for you, so what-"
A sharp sound echoed amongst the winds at the same time that Shiranui felt a stinging pain on his cheek. Chizuru's hand was shaking after having slapped him.
"How dare you?" She whispered, anger on par with sorrow now. She scowled so ferociously at him that he honestly wondered if looks really could kill."How dare you?!" She pounced on him, pinning him to the ground and beating his chest with her fists. The pain was minimal and he could easily push her off, but he had no desire to.
"You think I wanted to leave Sanan-san and Heisuke-kun behind?" The fact that she was crying again did nothing to lessen the fierceness of her words."You think the memory of their exhausted, wounded yet determined selves doesn't haunt me?! They did so much for me in the years I'd spent with them. I was there when they decided to drink the Water of Life! I pleaded with Sanan-san not to make me kill him when he thought the serum had driven him to madness like others before him, I held Heisuke-kun in my arms after your comrade wounded him for protecting me. I clearly recall how you laughed and told them they should've taken Amagiri's offer. You and Amagiri are no better than Kazama. You call humans horrible, you consider Furies to be worthless fakes, but I can tell you for a fact that Sanan-san, Heisuke-kun, and Ryoma each had more honor and decency in their hearts than all of you combined!"
"Then why'd you come here?" He demanded."If I'm so terrible, why the hell did you choose to come to me of all people?"
She froze then calmly responded,"Why did you offer to let me stay here?" She moved off him and he sat up. She crossed her arms, watching him impatiently. If he wanted an answer, he'd have to give her one first.
"Don't say because we're both Demons," she said."I want the truth." Her expression softened and she exhaled deeply."Please." Tiredness replaced anger and sorrow as she begged him to give her an honest explanation.
He rubbed his temples, sharing her weariness. She sat there, hugging her knees whilst waiting for him to speak. He settled into a slightly similar sitting position before breaking the silence.
"Honestly? I've always felt kinda sorry for you, kid." He gazed at the sky as he spoke, noticing how taken aback she was by his confession. His lips briefly formed a smirk."Oh, don't get me wrong. Your buddies in the Shinsengumi, especially Harada, were fun to play with. Kazama wanted to steal you away, so in his mind he had the perfect excuse to bother them so often. Amagiri and I were along for the ride. In my case it was for my own amusement too. Amagiri was basically there to babysit Kazama."
If she was surprised by this revelation, she hid it well. From his experience, she never hid her reactions well, so he assumed she'd already gathered this much.
"Harada talked about you." Her eyes widened at this, confirming his previous thought. He returned his gaze to the sky."He really cared about you. He was furious at Kodo for hurting you. If he had the chance, I don't doubt he would've killed the old bastard himself." She shifted at the insult to the man she'd known as her father for most of her life.
He swallowed."Harada...he reminded me of Takasugi. The way he worried about you was pretty similar to how Takasugi worried about Sakamoto. Before they died, I promised them that I'd, you know, make sure Sakamoto and you wouldn't do anything too stupid or reckless."
She blushed from indignation and embarrassment, huffing as she crossed her arms."I can't speak for your friend, but I can say that while Harada-san wasn't as impulsive as Heisuke-kun and Nagukura-san, he had his moments."
"Oh, I'm sure he did. He was pretty crazy on the battlefield. And coming from me, that's saying something." He leaned backwards until his back touched the ground. He rested his head on his arms. When he looked at her, his expression was rueful."Humans are so weak. Doesn't take much to kill them. Harada was dead from a bullet wound, Takasugi got tuberculosis, and Sakamoto and the other Furies' bodies were too weak to handle the power of a Demon, so their lifespans gave out. I don't know how you maintained the desire to stay with them when they die on you all the time."
Chizuru bit her lip and shut her eyes. He thought she would cry again, yet she did no such thing. Instead, she moved closer to him."You were friends with Takasugi and Ryoma, even after Ryoma became a Fury. And you worked with Harada-san. You respected them, you...cared about them." She smiled sadly."That's how I felt about Ryoma and my friends. Losing them hurts, yet I don't for a second regret that I met them. History likely won't remember them the way they truly were, and Demons aren't supposed to intervene in human history, though I know I won't be able to change anything if I do try to intervene, so my grief for them...that's the best way for me, for someone, to remember the truth."
Shiranui looked at her, really looked at her. That meek, hesitant girl who'd politely asked him to leave when they first met years ago, who'd looked so confused and afraid whenever Kazama tried to kidnap her, who'd come up with the worst excuse ever for knowing his name when they encountered each other while she was disguised as a geisha, still existed. The losses and betrayals she'd endured had not broken her. Was this what caused so many to care about her? Was this why Harada and Sakamoto and undoubtedly some of the other men she'd known had fallen for her?
She rubbed her arm."You answered my question. It's only fair that I answer yours." She sighed, forcing herself not to break eye contact with him as she spoke."I know that Matsumoto-sensei and Osen-chan wouldn't have hesitated to let me stay with them; they both tried multiple times to encourage me to do just that. I trust them both, but I couldn't bring myself to accept either of their offers. I...I need change. I fully intend to stay in touch with them, but living with them...it reminds me too much of the past."
His eyebrow rose."Didn't you just say you wanted to remember despite the pain?"
"And I meant that," she said, nodding."But I don't want to remember it every second of my existence. I need change to help...balance it out, I guess." She shrugged, sighing again and thumbing her forehead."I'm not making sense, am I?"
He relaxed."No, I get it. Looking at the same thing all the time, it's a bit too much. But don't I remind you of the past too?"
She lowered her gaze."We've known each other for a few years now, but not really. I...I never knew anything about you other than that you were allied with Kazama and friends with Sakamoto, the latter of which certainly surprised me." She met his gaze."You're a mystery, Shiranui-san, and I think that's what I need right now."
Coming from someone else that might've sounded flirtatious. Chizuru was different. She needed some change, something new in her life, not just to aid in coping with her grief; she truly wanted to get to know him, and he wasn't sure how to feel about his lack of opposition to the idea.
Shiranui nodded, and Chizuru nodded back.
They settled into a comfortable silence, lost in their thoughts about the future.
He didn't know what to call her.
"Guest" implied that her stay was temporary. To call her anything else implied her stay was permanent. Neither of them knew what to expect of her residency in his village, so they simply spent their time as the days came and passed. Before they knew it, one month had passed.
She wrote once or twice to Sen and Matsumoto to inform them of her well-being. Sen sent him a message asking him to keep a close eye on Chizuru as well as threatening to make him regret being born if any harm came to the young woman while she was under his care.
Chizuru had settled in well by now. She had grown so accustomed to preparing food, cleaning, and other basic tasks for herself as well as others that she refused to let the servants do anything for her. Not that they complained; less work for them, and Shiranui had no intention of telling her how to live her life. Besides, she probably did a better job than the servants.
She continued cutting her hair and wearing western dresses. Nothing too flashy, but still enough to show off and enhance her natural beauty. Though she'd gotten used to dressing as a man and knew it was more comfortable and convenient for traveling, she had missed being a girl.
Sighing, Shiranui ran a hand down his face. By now, most Demons were aware of Chizuru's survival and whereabouts. Sen could only keep it a secret for so long.
The Nagumo Clan would not be a problem, at least. After Kaoru's death, they had become disorganized, with quite a few of them attempting to use Kodo for their own ends. Kodo unleashed his Furies on them, making sure to leave no survivors. Considering what they had put Kaoru through for not being female, it was for the better.
What did concern him was Kazama. Had Sakamoto lived, he and Chizuru would have ran off to fulfill their dreams together, far away from Kazama, and she would have been safe. Kazama's obsession with making her his wife had not faded. Amagiri managed to restrain him while Shiranui was occupied with his own affairs, including aiding the couple. Now, with the war over, and Demons returning into hiding, nothing was stopping or distracting Kazama from going after what he wanted.
He didn't discuss this with Chizuru. No doubt Sen and Kimigiku already did, and even if they hadn't, she wasn't stupid. She knew Kazama well enough at this point.
He found Chizuru watching the sunset in the same spot as her first day here. Everyday she did this when the sun rose and set. And he had taken to joining her.
They didn't talk much. They didn't need to talk. These comfortable silences were enough for both of them.
Chizuru smiled at him as he took a seat next to her. He gave her a nod. From the corner of his eye he admired her blue western gown. Most of his clan, himself included, had long since begun dressing in western attire, so her clothing fit in perfectly. In addition to the gown, yesterday she started wearing hairpins, not the western kind, which was a surprise considering her shorter hair length. She possessed two hairpins, and wore a different one each day. Personally, he liked it better when her hair was down. Regardless, this new look suited her.
He quickly returned his full attention to the sunset when she turned to him, having sensed someone watching her. She frowned, but shrugged it off, albeit reluctantly.
Other than that one detail, the day ended like the previous ones had.
"Teach me how to use this."
Immediately after uttering that sentence in a quiet, polite, and determined tone, she held out the pistol. Sakamoto's pistol. Shiranui's eyes widened then swiftly narrowed before he settled his facial features into a serious expression. Chizuru's countenance held every emotion her voice had as she gazed back at him, making it clear she wouldn't take no for an answer.
He took the gun from her and took out his own pistol. As he examined the two firearms, a smirk crossed his lips. Takasugi had given him and Sakamoto their respective guns. Sakamoto used his so often that Shiranui (and no doubt other people) wondered if he completely forgot how to use a sword. Not that this was a bad thing. Guns were superior to swords.
The seriousness returned to his face as he refocused on the present.
Chizuru stood up straight and held her head high. Shiranui looked her up and down in contemplation of her request.
She wasn't a fighter in the physical sense. Mentally, she was tougher than most people, including herself, gave her credit for. Verbally, she wasn't afraid to talk back, likely the result of having to deal with Sakamoto for so long. She could use her blade in a simple sparring match, and maybe if adrenaline or other possible factors sufficiently affected her, she could be useful in a sword fight.
Yet the age of sword and spears was over. New weapons were replacing them. Her desire to adapt wasn't unreasonable. Still, he wondered if there was more to it. The gun she wished to learn to shoot belonged to Sakamoto, after all.
He walked to a table where he placed Sakamoto's pistol."You think you can handle killing someone?" He asked, running his fingers over his own gun.
Chizuru took one step back, and when he glanced over his shoulder, he saw her eyes were the size of saucers and her hand was over her mouth.
She shook her head."I-I don't want to kill anyone! I just want to learn to defend myself-"
Shiranui turned around."Yeah, I get that." He holstered his weapon, leaned against the table, and crossed his arms."And like it or not, self-defense isn't always as simple as wounding or knocking someone out. Even if you don't shoot to kill, or you think that's what you're doing, not every shot is fatal right away. You can shoot someone and kill them instantly or they'll get worse and die over time with or without medical care. This isn't the same as using a sword, and even that has similar complications. Even if you don't kill someone, you could make them wish they were dead by ruining their life. Isn't that what happened to one of your Shinsengumi pals, and made him decide to become a Fury? Are you willing to subject someone to that fate?"
Chizuru had wrapped her arms around her trembling body as the reality of his words hit her. She fell to her knees."I-I..." She slumped her shoulders.
"I'm not saying no, Chizuru." He picked up Sakamoto's pistol and approached the young woman, holding it out to her."Using a weapon for any reason isn't easy. At first, the learning part seems hard. Takes some time to really learn to use this thing, but once you get the hang of it, it isn't so hard. At least not as hard as using it in a real situation. It gets easier over time, but someone like you, it changes you. This is normal for me, it was normal for Sakamoto, it was normal for the Shinsengumi, do you really want it to become normal for you?"
Her head drooped. Kneeling down, he grasped her wrist and placed the pistol into her hand, their hands grazing as he did so.
Chizuru examined the gun as if she'd never seen it before.
Someone else might have embraced her, someone else might have offered comforting words, someone else might have done both. Shiranui was not that someone.
So he left her there, ignoring the flicker of hope within him that she would rethink her request.
"Where is my wife?"
Kazama's voice was cold as ice. Shiranui kept his hand over his gun, ready to draw it if need be.
Two days had passed since Chizuru asked him to teach her how to use Sakamoto's pistol, two days since they last saw or spoke to each other. She had stopped watching the sunrises and sunsets, spending most of her time in her room. She was heeding his advice to truly think about what she wanted in regards to that gun. He wouldn't intrude on her privacy, knowing that she needed it now more than ever.
He wasn't surprised that his concerns regarding Kazama were proven true. He had been expecting this, though certainly not looking forward to it.
Amagiri stood not far behind Kazama, looking as exasperated as his normally stoical countenance allowed him to. One eye watched Kazama while the other eye locked with Shiranui and pleaded that he give up the girl lest Kazama cause unnecessary damage.
Kazama narrowed his eyes."Give her to me."
Shiranui smirked, his response clear as any verbal one.
"This does not need to end in violence, Shiranui," Amagiri said.
"Sorry, no can do." He shrugged."Or won't do, I should say."
Amagiri spoke up before Kazama could respond."Please. It is against the Demon's Code for us to fight one another-"
"Mind telling that to him?" Shiranui gestured to the blonde."He's the one who waltzed in here, looking pretty eager to draw his sword. I'm just defending my clan from a potential threat."
"I have no interest in your clan," Kazama seethed through gritted teeth."I merely came for my wife."
"I am not your wife." All eyes widened in recognition of the voice.
Shiranui was torn between being annoyed and impressed with Chizuru for revealing herself to Kazama. Yes, he already knew she was there, but to actually step out to confront him, to talk back to him...that was as brave as it was foolish.
She came to a stop in front of Shiranui as he turned to her. He did not lower his guard in case their uninvited visitors tried something, watching them from the corner of his eye.
Her hands were clasped behind her back and she was biting her lips and struggling to stand up straight.
He opened his mouth, shutting it when she straightened her posture and brought her hands out from behind her back. She was holding out Sakamoto's pistol to him.
Her smile was genuine."Will this make your inevitable victory a bit quicker?"
Shiranui stared at her, then at the gun, then back at her. Her smile did not falter, and she further extended the hand holding the firearm. He reached for it, stopping to meet her gaze, and at her nod, he nodded back and accepted the gun. He turned to his "guests", who had been so fascinated and surprised (and irate in Kazama's case) by the interaction that they did not think to take advantage of the situation. Granted, they probably knew Shiranui wouldn't let himself become completely distracted from them.
Shiranui smirked as he moved to shield Chizuru from Kazama's sight."Like I said, just defending my village from a potential threat." Kazama opened his mouth, but Shiranui was long done listening to his rubbish."And in case that isn't enough for you to understand, I swear on my honor as a Demon, on my honor as leader of the Shiranui Clan, to protect Yukimura Chizuru from anyone whose poses a threat to her. Ever since she set foot in my village, no, ever since I offered to let her stay here months ago, she has been part of this clan. So if you want to take her, go ahead and try, but it won't be easy, and if anyone's breaking the Demon's Code here, it's you. You came to my village and tried to kidnap someone under my protection. You're not dealing with the Shinsegumi anymore, Kazama, and you know what? Even if you had kidnapped her when you had the chance instead of playing around with them for your amusement, you wouldn't have been able to keep her. Sen would destroy you and your clan to keep this girl safe. Amagiri has probably considered killing her if it meant sparing her from the hell you would have put her through, I won't hesitate to blow your brains out, Kodo and Kaoru could have stolen her from right under your nose, and heck, even the humans and fakes could have found a way to save her, especially Harada and Sakamoto."
"You...you..." Kazama growled through gritted teeth. His nostrils flared, his eyes were wide and wild, and a vein was visible on his forehead. He stepped forward, his grip on his sword tightening. Shiranui and Chizuru took two steps back, the former's grip on his own weapons tightening. He had meant what he said, he would fight Kazama if it could not be avoided, but it would not be easy. Amagiri would either stand to the side or intervene. He wasn't the only warrior in his clan and though he knew they were strong and brave, not to mention harder opponents to defeat than the humans and Furies, Kazama was dangerous, espeically when it came to getting what he wanted.
"That is enough." The calm, silky smooth, familiar voice caused all four of them to jump. Amagiri turned around to be greeted with a kunai pointed at his throat. Kimigiku's face was expressionless, a sharp contrast to the cold smile Sen directed at Kazama whilst pointing her blade at his chest.
"My lady and I would also prefer that this not end in violence," Kimigiki said to Amagiri, though she glanced at Kazama as well. She moved closer to her male counterpart."Ergo, it would be best if you did not force our hand as you have forced Shiranui's."
"Indeed." Sen's smile grew."I too consider Chizuru part of my clan and will protect her as I would the people of Yase."
"Osen-chan..." Chizuru whispered. The princess's smile gained warmth as she glanced at her friend before reverting to its previous state once her attention was back on Kazama.
"Kazama." Amagiri divided his gaze between the female Demon pointing her kunai at him and his fellow male as he spoke, his voice mostly calm except for the slightest hint of discomfort."Is this truly worth it?"
Shiranui snorted."Funny how you were singing that tune to me a minute ago."
Chizuru moved closer to him, nearly touching his back now. Her hands came to rest on his shoulder blades, and he noticed a slight tremble in them. Were he not wielding two pistols, he may have considered reaching to touch her.
Sen's stance eased a bit. Her blade did not move."Kazama." Her voice regained its regality."Allow me to make one thing clear: I will not allow you to take Chizuru. However, I understand your determination to fulfill your duty as clan leader in producing an heir. Such is the duty I face along with Shiranui and Amagiri. That is why I have a proposition for you that could benefit us both. Whether or not you accept is up to you, but I repeat: I will not allow you to take Chizuru. Ergo, you can accept my preposition or I can employ other methods to stop you. Either way, you are not taking her. I will say that as many times as I must to ensure you understand. Now, will you listen to my offer?"
Kazama's eyebrows rose and his eyes narrowed. Sen didn't need to clarify anything for him. Amagiri and Shiranui looked to Kimigiku, who thinned her lips and inclined her head. Chizuru gasped and put her hand over her mouth. Shiranui put out his arm to prevent her from intervening. Sen knew what she was doing.
Sen locked eyes with Kazama."Do we have a deal?"
A silence that lasted for ten seconds yet felt like hours passed before Kazama sheathed his sword."We can discuss the details later," he said.
Sen put away her weapon, and Kimigiku copied the action.
Kazama walked past Sen and into the forest. Amagiri bowed to the other three Demons. Only Kimigiku reciprocated the bow. Sen dipped her chin. Shiranui glared at the other man. Chizuru stiffened.
"Osen-chan..." Chizuru's voice was scarely above a whisper.
Sighing, Shiranui put away his guns."Let's talk about this more inside." He gestured for the three female Demons to follow him.