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Change The Era

Chapter Text

 

The third year already. For the third time they all walked through Nakanocho under the cherry blossoms with their Matsuri Kimonos, all the people watching them from the street and the teahouses. Like always Taiga could spot Tegoshi and Massu at the side. They still managed their new shop together. Tegoshi doing the Kimono orders and Massu handling the instrument orders and in their free time they were handling each other.

Two more familiar faces showed up, but it was still a weird feeling to see Taisuke on the sideline, but they were all happy for him and Hiromitsu. There wasn’t even any reason for them to come, but for the second year already Hiromitsu made sure that they wouldn’t miss their Matsuri.

This year Taiga had to spend anyone even more attention than before and he spotted Domoto in one of the teahouses easily. Kamenashi and Tatsuya were sitting close to him at the same veranda over the already falling cherry blossoms, also Takizawa was present for the second year already.

After the chaos of the first parade they had held two years ago it had been without any incidences last year. Kentaro leading the Matsuri with the first ranked female Oiran, but this year everything was different.

The Matsuri had become too big, too many new houses and members now walking alongside them, so they had split the female and male houses. The female Oirans had opened the Matsuri and now it was their turn to follow.

Juri and Reo were at the Shamisen, Ryota holding the Wagasa for the highest paid Oiran this year and unfortunately that person was Taiga! He didn’t like the attention and he hadn’t even tried to get the spot, but a few months ago he had realized that Kentaro and the others had set him up. Kentaro was in his last year and instead of taking the pride of being the highest ranked Oiran three years in a row he seemed to have set the goal to put someone else in his spot before leaving. But even with all the set-up he was still the second one in ranking and walked right behind Taiga with Shota holding his Wagasa.

“Don’t get lazy,” Kentaro whispered as he kept giving some people on the street a few seductive smiles. After all if they wouldn’t get at least one customer in the evening they would need to pay Kamenashi for the lost money. It was a tradition that on this special day the customers had to pay three times of the amount, but would also get a special service from them, but if they failed in getting anyone they would need to pay for themselves.

“Don’t tell me what to do, you and the others are at fault that I am in this place,” Taiga hissed back, but tried to keep his expression as neutral as possible as he tried to find some familiar and maybe also new faces.

“I’d say you are doing great,” Ryota whispered on which Taiga ‘accidently’ lifted his way too heavy and high Geta to the side and almost stepped on the latter’s feet. “Hey, that was a compliment.”

“He just understands critic,” Shota said on which Kentaro nodded in approvement before he focused back on the people and Taiga spotted the person of the older one’s interest immediately.

“You don’t have to worry at least, Fuma will pay ten times the amount if necessary,” Taiga teased as he spotted the latter in the crowd.

“There are enough people wanting you as well,” Shota replied. “Especially because you are first in ranking for the first time this year.”

Each time he got reminded of it he wanted to roll his eyes, but then he spotted a few more familiar faces along the street. But trying to get Fu’s or even Hikaru’s attention was out of question, they had their eyes glued to other members already. Myuto’s and Hagi’s house was in the parade since the year before as well and Myuto had actually made it third in the ranking and was walking close to them.

They were close to reaching the gates where the parade part would end and the customers on the street would actually get a chance to talk to them for a bit and then Kamenashi would leave the teahouse and get back to their house to organize everything for the evening.

The fact that Domoto had come this year while he had missed the parade the year before made Taiga hope that even if he couldn’t get any new customers he could definitely count on Domoto for the night.

When they had reached the gate Taiga saw a few policemen gathered in front of it. They had doubled the number of officers over the past years to make sure no one would cause any trouble.

Kentaro and Taiga turned around at the end, facing all the members of the parade now and they slowly bowed, announcing the end. Everyone gave them a huge applause before Reia and Ren were walking up to them. They put their normal Geta in front of them as they were now allowed to get out of their high ones to walk normally while talking to the customers on the street.

Kentaro was used to the change and easily slipped out of his shoes, but still took Ren’s hand to stabilize himself.

Reia was still putting the Geta down when Taiga thought it was already okay to try and get out of one of his high Geta, but his balance in them was still pretty unstable and he slipped before he could put one foot down. Afraid of hurting Reia if he was actually falling to the front he tried to somehow break his fall to the side even if it would mean that he’d end up on the dirty ground with everyone laughing at him.

Before he could prepare for a round of laughter though someone caught him by the hips from behind and helped him stand safely on the ground and get out of the second Geta as well.

“Are you okay?”

With a smile Taiga turned to the policeman and nodded. “Thank you Aran, you spared me a pretty embarrassing moment.”

“Trust me even if you landed flat on your face people would still love you,” Aran teased.

“You know that they set me up, right? I would never have gotten first place if Kentaro wouldn’t have messed up on purpose,” Taiga explained with a side glance towards the latter on which Kentaro stretched out his tongue.

“Why can’t you for once be proud of yourself?” Aran asked with a scolding expression.

“He can’t, all he understands is scolding,” Reia explained while finally helping Taiga in his normal Geta, but got hit on the back of his head from Taiga on his comment.

Next to them Shota laughed, pointing out that he had said the same thing moments ago.

Taiga pouted on their comments, but in the end he had to crack a small after all. It was so nice to have everyone around, joking and having fun. They had been through so much that it was something they all deserved and Taiga hoped it could last forever.

***

Taiga’s worried of maybe not getting any customers have been unnecessary in the end, because as Kentaro had said before he was first in ranking for the first time so in the end he had so many customers that Kamenashi had to refuse some of them and ask them to come back on another day, which made Taiga extremely happy, because while the customer staying the night was Domoto, he had to deal with a handful of others before that time and Domoto wasn’t easy to handle in the first place.

The next day they all got off so Taiga was happy when he could take it slow for the day.

“Here you are,” Juri said with a wide smile as he spotted Taiga on the veranda at the back of the house, next to the small river flowing behind it.

“Oh sorry, I didn’t know you were looking for me,” Taiga said as he closed the book in his hand and sat up from the pillow he had used to find a comfortable position on the wooden veranda. The weather was nice, still not too warm and the last cherry blossoms were falling from the trees.

“I just came back from running some errands, but I thought you were preparing already.”

Juri sat down next to the other on when Taiga let out a sigh. “Right, it’s that day of the week again.”

When Taiga dropped back on the pillow, hiding his face on it Juri let out a laughter and grabbed the book Taiga had put between them. “You really don’t like the training, don’t you?”

“It’s not like this is something that has to do with our work here. I don’t mind any Ikebana or Shamisen lessons, but I still can’t believe that they took over this stupid routine even after Hiromitsu and Taisuke left.”

“You don’t even need Shamisen lessons anymore, you are the best in almost every art we learn,” Juri said as he flipped through the handwritten book.  

“Then why do I have to do something I'm so bad at?” Taiga asked pouting on which Juri closed the book again and snuggled closer to the other one with a teasing expression. “Because like that I don’t have to worry that much anymore each time you bring new trouble?”

Taiga pouted even more on that and lifted his hand in front of Juri’s forehead, ready to snap his fingers against it, but Juri just leaned closer, daring him.

The challenge was accepted by the other one as he moved his hand down towards the other one’s cheek and his look turned from pouting to luring. It was a game of who could resist longer and until now there was not a single time Taiga lost. With a light touch he let his pointer finger move towards Juri’s jawline and just slightly up behind his ears on which Juri shivered slightly. It would not take longer than maybe five seconds. On the fourth one Juri had already moved way too close. Three, two…

“Here you are!”

And of course it also just took a split second to ruin the moment and Juri growled while Taiga patted his head before turning towards Reo who came running towards them along the veranda. Before he could even ask what he wanted something was thrown into his direction and at the last moment he caught the wooden sword.

“We are going to be late. Why haven’t you changed yet?” Reo scolded the other one. He was already wearing the Hakama Taiga was also supposed to wear before they would leave. When Juri chuckled, Taiga hit him immediately on the head. “Next time we train together I will make you regret your teasing behavior.”

“Looking forward to it,” Juri said before he took the book and got up. “I am going to put this back for you. Hokuto would get angry if he knew you left one of his precious books lying around all the time.”

“Then he should stop writing so much, I can’t keep up with the amount he is sending,” Taiga complained as he walked towards the house with the other two boys.

“But you keep writing him back letters about how you liked the books, right? I bet that makes him want to write even more,” Reo said with a smile. “And it’s really nice that we have some kind of update from him and Kochi like this. But now let's hurry!"

***

The first hit was a miss, the second one barely a block and when Taiga thought there was a third one coming his opponent suddenly tackled him with his shoulder. The force resulted with Taiga landing on the grass on the river bank.

"Another win for Fuma!" Reo chirped happily while Fuma stood proudly in front of Taiga, pointing the tip of the wooden sword at his face. By now you died 27 times!"

"Thanks for the reminder," Taiga let out sarcastically as he stood up.

"Fuma didn't even die once yet, you need to level things up!"

"Shut it Reo or I'll remind you of the time when you ran away from Hiromitsu. Screaming and begging!"

Reo immediately zipped it at that comment, but now that Taisuke wasn't in Yoshiwara anymore their sword training had been passed on. After all the happenings with the Yamashita clan and later Ryosuke and Noeru, Hiromitsu had offered some self-defense training for the boys. But the sword fighting part was what Taiga struggled most with.

"So now it's your time to die," Fuma said pointing the sword at Reo.

With a smile Reo stood up from the grass and walked up to him. "If you can get me."

Reo wasn't the strongest but definitely the fastest of the boys.

"Then maybe you should leave him to me?"

Reo looked over Fuma's shoulder and formed a cross with his arms as he saw Aran approaching them.

"No, thank you."

Aran chuckled on his reaction, because in matters of speed no one was a match for him.

"You came to watch them suffer?" Fuma asked amused as they usually didn't give lessons together.

Looking at them Taiga came up with an idea and stopped next to Reo. "As this is a rare opportunity how about you two show us how it's supposed to be done?"

The two looked at each other a bit unsure until Reo clapped his hands in excitement.

"Oh my god yes! Best idea ever!"

He grabbed Taiga by the wrist and pulled him to a safe distance and sat down.

"Please feel free to go on," he said, waiting for them to start.

"He won't accept a no, will he?" Aran asked on which Fuma picked up another wooden sword and held it out to Aran. "Definitely not."

With a sigh Aran took his two swords out of his hakama and put them to the ground before taking the wooden sword.

It felt way too light compared to his swords, yet he flashed a smile remembering the times when he had to train with them in the police school every day. He gave Taiga a side glance, but the boy didn't notice.

That Aran was able to train with them and called them his friends was all thanks to Taiga after all.

"I promise to be nice," Fuma said with a challenging smile as he played around with the wooden sword before getting into position.

"So kind of you," Aran teased back. Instead of going into any stance though he held the sword at the side of his hakama as if it was a real one still in its sheath.

“Shall we bet?” Reo whispered as the other two froze in their positions for a moment.

“Aran,” Taiga said without any hesitation.

“You think so? I know he is a police officer, but Fuma is way stronger than him,” Reo said trying to ponder who was the better candidate to bet on. Before he could actually voice out a name both boys flinched when without any kind of warning it was actually Aran who moved first and dashed forward. Reo intuitively grabbed Taiga by the arm, but all they could do was watch anyway.

Fuma had reacted fast, his sword right on the side of his head, blocking Aran’s attack which could have been the first and also immediately the last attack.

“Impressive,” Fuma admitted.

“Unconcentrated,” Aran replied, his eyes narrowing as he moved quick, ducking away from Fuma’s block and a possible counter attack. Fuma cursed and stumbled as Aran used a foot sweep to bring him out of balance. Luckily he didn’t fall and was fast enough to actually balance in time to block another attack from Aran.

In matters of technique and speed he was definitely inferior, but there was something he was way better in than Aran.

With a big movement Fuma raised his sword and as expected Aran tried to find a way to use Fuma’s opening, but this time he got taken by full surprise as Fuma jumped to the front and slammed his elbow into Aran’s stomach. He used his full weight and slammed the other one into the ground, resulting in Aran losing the grip on his sword.

“Surprised?” Fuma let out satisfied as he mounted Aran, pinning him down with his weight and putting his own sword next to him.

“About how stupid you are for letting go of your own sword?” Aran shot back with a calm smile.

“I won,” Taiga let out, on which Reo gave him a confused look, but almost missed the end of the fight through that.

Aran twisted out of Fuma’s grip with a swift movement and even though he weighted a lot less than the other one he knew how to use his body weight to bring the other one out of balance. Fuma had also missed how close they had ended up at the river and when Aran shoved Fuma head first over him it was time for a cold bath in the river.

“Damn, we should have actually talked about a stake,” Taiga said laughing as he got up, walking closer to Aran while Reo still needed a moment to realize that this fight had ended way sooner and smoother than he had thought.

“You want a hand?” Aran asked as he stretched out his hand towards Fuma who was breaking through the surface again with a pissed expression.

“Can I cut it off and keep it?”

Taiga grabbed Aran’s wrist on that statement and pulled the latter behind him. “No way, Aran’s hands are too precious for that.”

Fuma just snorted on that before he stepped out of the way too cold river and stopped in front of Taiga. “Right, I bet if his hands are as talented with you as with his sword then they are definitely too precious to get lost.”

Taiga gave the latter a challenging smile on that. “Maybe you can find out? If Aran lets you join us of course.”

“Never!”

Both of his customers had actually replied at the same time on which it was Reo who burst out laughing first.

***

“You are not listening, are you?”

No reply, which just showed that he was indeed not listening. With a sigh Taiga leant to the side and snapped his fingers in front of Juri’s face on which the latter flinched and averted his daydreaming look out of the window and looked at him instead.

“You do this a lot lately, are you okay?”

“Doing what?”

“Spacing out like this,” Taiga said. “Do you maybe need a longer time off? We can ask Kamenashi about it.”

“No, it’s all good. No need to talk to him.”

That reply came way too fast, but all Taiga did was raising an eyebrow before he dropped on his side and looked out to the busy street. The lights were on in most houses at this hour. Loud voices were heard all over the place, laughter and yelling mixed together.

“A good day to get customers,” Taiga let out with a calm expression. Again no reply and Taiga rolled his eyes, looking up at Juri who was back at staring into the dark night sky.

“Aren’t you getting tired of it?” Juri asked out of a sudden.

“Tired of what?”

“This,” Juri said, spreading his hands and just randomly looking at, well, everything?

“You mean this job?” Taiga asked a bit careful, because it was rare to see Juri get irritated that easily.

“This job, all those customers, the house, just really everything!” Now he wasn’t even just getting irritated, but angry and Taiga sat up straight again, turning his attention away from the window and directly to Juri.

“Did anything happen? It’s really rare to see you this stressed out,” Taiga asked carefully and as there was just an annoyed groan as a reply he tried to reach out for Juri’s hand, but to his surprise the latter pulled away.

“I told you it’s nothing,” Juri hissed on which Taiga felt a sting, because they barely ever fought and now Juri was suddenly getting all heated up over something Taiga didn’t even know about.

“Okay, sorry. I didn’t want to nag.”

“Whatever, I am taking a break,” Juri announced without even looking at Taiga before he stood up and left the windowsill.

Taiga was left behind in a kind of shock, but then he flinched when two hands landed on his shoulders and Shota set on his left, Ryota on his right.

“Was that your first marital quarrel?” Shota joked and usually Taiga would laugh it off now, but he was still too confused about what had just happened.

“Don’t take it too serious. Even our precious Juri can have a bad day or two, right?” Ryota said and clapped him on the shoulder. Slowly Taiga nodded, because they were right. Juri had to deal with so many mood swings from his side and now he was worrying because Juri had a bad week? It wasn’t fair, maybe he really just needed a bit time off or even just be left alone? Thinking like that hurt a bit, but he also liked having some time alone so maybe Juri also needed that from time to time.

“You won’t cry if we leave you alone, will you?” Shota teased again, but this time he gasped when Taiga hit him with his elbow right into the stomach.

“Rest assure that it will need more to make me cry, especially knowing that you would laugh at me for it.”

“Sounds like a challenge,” Ryota said with a smug expression before the two boys got up and Taiga rolled his eyes on their teasing smiles as they also vanished from the windowsill to take a break.

While they had been preparing the Matsuri it was natural for them to be a bit tense around each other, but now that the days got warmer and the house was back to a normal routine it felt weird to not continue like usual.

“Getting tired of this?” Taiga repeated Juri’s words as he looked back outside. A sudden wind gust made some sand from the street flew through the bars and Taiga closed his eyes for a moment. Carefully he tried to get the sand off his face before opening his eyes again. Some lights were getting put out already, the first houses closing and Taiga should maybe also leave the windowsill for now as he didn’t have any reservations for the night, but was also not in the mood for any new customers.

Before he got up his look fell on something lying in the middle of the street. Even though it was already dark outside he could see the object clearly. It was shimmering a bit in the light of their house. Was it a bracelet?

Before Taiga could get a closer look at it though a small girl picked it up and clenched it against her chest. She had obviously lost it and was happy to find it and Taiga smiled to himself, being happy for the girl. What he hadn’t expected was the girl turning around, looking directly at him. She was smiling at him, before she ran down the street.

Chapter Text

A touch on his shoulder, a kiss following and the shiver came natural, but still it felt different. Aran was good in making Taiga desperate and it was also a mutual talent, but as much as Taiga loved his time with Aran when he visited it was different this time.

Unfortunately he didn’t get to decide when to get a customer and when to be in what kind of mood, but as it was Aran who was with him and no new customer he could have already seen Aran’s next reaction coming.

With a sigh Aran pushed Taiga to the back on which the boy had to put one hand to the futon to not lose balance. With an apologizing look Taiga peered up, but Aran wasn’t even spending him any attention. Instead he had turned away from him and reached out for the tea on the table in the corner.

“I guess this is more of a talk night then?”

“No of course not, I am sorry. I will snap out of it, I promise,” Taiga said and tried to stop being this emotional, because Aran had nothing to do with his private problems.

“Yeah, well you know I doubt there will be any activity tonight with you being like, well this…”

First Taiga wanted to apologize for his absent minded mood, but then he realized that this wasn’t exactly what he meant. His look fell to Taiga’s open Kimono and Taiga pulled it close in embarrassment.

“Am I not enough for you anymore?” Aran asked teasing, but even though Taiga knew it was a joke he felt more than uncomfortable about the situation. It was the very first time for him that there was not a single sign of excitement.

“I am really sorry,” Taiga repeated.

“I know, but that won’t change anything about the situation so here you go,” Aran said and handed Taiga one of the cups.

“Aran you are the customer here and don’t worry I will give you back your money later as well, because like this there is well as you say nothing going to work tonight.”

This time Aran laughed on Taiga’s apology and shook his head before drinking a bit of the hot tea.

“Taiga, let me ask you. Who am I to you?”

It was a pretty direct question and completely out of context for Taiga so he blinked at the other one in confusion.

“Just reply, whatever comes to your mind is okay.”

Taiga needed a moment longer to think about that and he bit his lip as he wasn’t sure if he would find the right words. “You are my friend, I think. Which might sound weird, because you are of course a regular customer as well and if that is not what you wanted to hear I am sorry.”

“If you apologize one more time tonight I will bring back the old rules of the house just to be able to pay more and punch you once!”

Taiga immediately hid the cup of tea behind his hand, because the last he needed now was Aran emptying it over his head.

***

After the third groan Ryota took one of the rice bags from Taiga and gave him an annoyed look. “Why did you come with us if you can’t even carry two of them?”

“They are damn heavy and I am not as strong as you two!” Taiga pouted.

“At least make sure to carry one back home please,” Shota said while walking in front with Ryota.

Taiga rolled his eyes at his teasing, but he had asked himself if they wanted him to help out, because he had a day off and met them randomly on the street.

“Why are you alone by the way?” Ryota asked after a while.

“No special reason. I just wanted to go for a walk.”

Taiga didn’t miss how they exchanged a weird look, but didn’t comment on what he had said. Before Taiga could ask what this was about they saw a crowd of people gathering in front of one of the boards which had written important announcements or other news on it.

“Let’s check it out?” Shota asked and headed towards the crowd. A lot of people were shaking their heads, some seemed even shocked, but Taiga didn’t like crowds so he decided to stay behind and wait. The others could tell him what they had read on the board later.

He put the rice down for a moment, knowing it would take them a few minutes to make it to the front of the crowd.

When he turned back towards the direction they had come from he spotted something lying on the street. When he moved closer to it he realized that it was a bracelet. He wanted to pick it up, but it got snatched away from the ground before he could reach it.

Taiga blinked in confusion as a small girl smiled at him, hiding the bracelet behind her back.

“You keep losing this bracelet, aren’t you?” Taiga asked with a smile, because he remembered seeing her in front of the house before.

Not losing her smile she nodded and showed him the bracelet again. It was shimmering in a green color.

“It’s a magical bracelet,” the girl said.

“Really? What can it do?” Taiga asked amused and crouched down, listening to her story. “It is the mirror of your soul and can only be created through love. It can only be created in pairs. Two bracelets, one holding a part of the soul of the person holding on to the other one. Like that they always find back together!”

That wasn’t what Taiga had expected to hear, because it sounded way too mature for a story such a cute little girl could have come up with.

“Mh, is that so? Sounds interesting. Where did you get it from?”

The girl pointed straight ahead, but following her look Taiga couldn’t see more than the rooftops of Yoshiwara.

“There is a small island at the coast. There is a bridge, but you can’t find it alone. Go together and you will be able to reach the shrine hidden in the caves. Make a wish and if both your wishes are the same, showing the connection of your hearts you will be rewarded with two bracelets.”

Taiga nodded, trying not to form a smile, because the girl seemed so fascinated about the magical fairytale she had been told.

Suddenly the girl took Taiga’s hand and gave him a big smile. “You should ask him to go with you! Sometimes things are not as they seem, so give him a chance to open up to you!”

Now the confusion was at its peak and Taiga got up and turned back towards the direction the girl had pointed to. “A part of our souls, mh?”

“Why are you spacing out?”

Taiga jolted when Shota snapped his fingers in front of his face.

“And don’t randomly drop this, because if it gets stolen, we will be in trouble!” Ryota said, handing the rice back to Taiga.

“Sorry, I was talking to…” Taiga explained and turned around, pointing at...an empty spot.

“Talking to who?” Shota asked.

Taiga looked towards the small alleys next to the main street, but there was no one there. No movement around them at all. “I- well, forget it. Let’s go.”

***

“The shogunate is hiring soldiers?” Juri asked and Taiga nodded as he got in his night Yukata.

“Seems like it. That’s what was written on the notice board today.”

Juri let out a sigh as he sat down on the futon and shook his head. “Another civil war is definitely not what we need.”

“But the shogunate is so strong, don’t you think it would be easy for them to stop any kind of rebellion?” Taiga asked as he joined Juri on the futon and pulled the sheet over their legs.

“Hopefully yes, because I am tired of all the chaos.”

Why didn’t it sound like he meant all the chaos all over the country, but also the chaos in Yoshiwara? Taiga couldn’t stop worrying, because since a few days ago Juri’s mood didn’t seem to get better at all.

“So you went out to help Ryota and Shota even though it was your day off?” Juri changed the topic as he lay down and rested his head on his palm, turning to the side to have a better look at Taiga.

“I was actually just taking a walk and ran into them.”

“Lucky for them though,” Juri said with a brief smile, so brief and faint that it almost seemed sad.

“Did you have any trouble with customers today?” Taiga asked, hoping he could find the reason behind Juri’s bad mood, but the latter shook his head.

“No, I had off today…”

Silence fell between them for good a few seconds in which Taiga’s expression changed a felt dozen times. How had he forgotten? How in the world?

“Juri, I am so sorry! I- I totally forgot.”

“It’s okay, don’t worry. We are living and working together, so we need time for ourselves as well, right?” Juri tried to form another smile and just drop the topic, but Taiga felt like he had dropped not just a stone, but a sharp sword in his stomach. Yes Juri was right, but usually they were talking about such matters, letting each other know their plans and here Taiga had just ran off randomly in the morning.

Juri finally lay down completely and pulled the sheet up, turning to the other side and Taiga kept staring at his back in a loss of words. 

***

While Taiga had trouble concentrating on work at first it was the other way around now. This was his escape place so that he wouldn’t overthink and there was no better customer than Fuma who could help out with distracting him.

“Ow, I know this is your habit, but could you make sure I keep my lips?” Kentaro hissed and pushed Taiga a bit back on his shoulders. The latter didn’t feel sorry though and just gave him a lopsided smile.

“Your own fault if you leave the work to me!” Taiga replied before he concentrated back on Fuma who enjoyed the way those two were always quarreling when being with him. Which didn’t mean he wouldn’t get angry if not getting taken care of, what Taiga was actually doing while getting distracted by Kentaro.

“Your stamina is definitely getting better,” Fuma praised him, but still stabilized his hips a bit, because the position they were stuck in wasn’t the most comfortable for Taiga.

“Does that mean I am allowed to take care of Kentaro later?” Taiga asked challenging and put his arms around Fuma’s shoulders while trying not to hit Kentaro, because he was sitting behind him.

“Mh, let me think about it when I am done with you?” Fuma whispered against his lips and thrusted up on which Taiga let out a deep moan into the kiss.

This was exactly the distraction Taiga needed and those two were good in keeping him busy for quite a long time. Which didn’t protect him from Kentaro’s scanning look after Fuma had finally had been satisfied, for the moment!

“So, what are you running away from?” Kentaro asked and while he was still sitting on top of Fuma and stroke a strand of hair from the latter’s forehead it was obvious that he was addressing the question towards Taiga. Fuma didn’t even interfere in the conversation as he was still coming down from his last climax.

“Who says I am running away from something?” Taiga asked as he rolled on his stomach, watching how Kentaro kept teasing Fuma’s nipples while they actually tried to have a conversation.

“Well I heard that you and Juri totally ignored each other on your last day off. I also heard that Juri is acting a bit strange? So whatever is up with you I would say it has to do with Juri?”

“If you know the answer already why did you ask in the first place?” Taiga asked, not even surprised that he figured it out already.

“Well, problems need a solution, right?” Kentaro said and wanted to lift his hand from Fuma’s chest on which the latter grabbed his wrist and cracked one eye open.

“Talking and touching, ok! Talking and not touching, not okay!”

Even Taiga couldn’t hide a chuckle on hearing that and Kentaro leant to the front to give Fuma a short kiss before he let his hands wander all over the latter’s face and neck.

Having Fuma satisfied with the attention he turned his head to Taiga again. “Did you ask him what is wrong?”

“Not yet,” Taiga said. Instead of falling in a bad mood though he sat up and took Fuma’s arm in his hands, moving just the tip of his fingers over his skin on which he saw how the latter got goosebumps. “I thought maybe he is just exhausted. Maybe I am also at fault, I'm not sure.”

“And exactly because you are not sure, you should talk!” Kentaro said in a strict voice on which Taiga bit his lip. He was better in sitting things out instead of facing them directly.

“Maybe you can try and change the atmosphere between you two? You don’t have to ask him straight forward what is wrong, but at least try something to change things?”

And again Kentaro was right and then Taiga remembered something which made him stop his movements on which Fuma complained about the lack of attention, but Kentaro was now kissing his way from his chest up to his lips which meant as much as the conversation was over.

There was indeed something they could do to give them a bit of a different atmosphere if what he had been told was true?

***

“You want to go where?”

Juri’s confused expression signaled Taiga that he had indeed sounded ridiculous, but wasn’t it worth a try?

“I thought maybe it would be a good idea to get out for a bit, you know? Just as a day trip as we have both off together,” Taiga said and Juri crossed his arms with a thoughtful expression.

They had just gotten up and it might not have been the perfect timing to greet him with a weird question about going on an adventure trip to find some hidden shrine.

When Juri got up and moved over to the cupboard Taiga was sure he would just get ready and leave, because yes how ridiculous was it to even ask something like this?

When something was thrown on his legs though he looked up and unfolded the clothes.

“This is…?”

“You prefer going in a Yukata? I just thought it might be a bit easier to move in this?”

Taiga unfolded the Hakama and then stared back at Juri with wide eyes after he had comprehended what the other one had said. “Does that mean you want to go?”

“Sure, why not? Sounds like fun, doesn’t it?” Juri said with a bright smile as he already started changing into his Hakama. “Let’s just make sure to tell the others about the direction we are heading to. You know, just in case.”

That was a request which Taiga would definitely agree to and with a wide smile he also finally got ready.

A few minutes later they had put a small bag with water, food and other supplies together and had told the others where they were heading, but obviously not the reason, because it just sounded ridiculous. But a day trip to the beach was something no one would get suspicious over and Reo even got jealous.

“How did you get to know about such a place?” Juri asked as they headed out of Yoshiwara for the first time in quite a while.

“Someone told me I looked like in need of such a place,” Taiga replied on which Juri tilted his head.

“In need of creepy hidden shrines? Does that person know how easily scared you are?”

Taiga couldn’t hide a huge laughter on that before he shoved Juri a bit to the side. “Says the right one! Each time you walk around at night and accidentally run into someone I can hear you squeal through the whole house.”

Juri couldn’t deny that and he wouldn’t even try, nodding with a kind of embarrassed expression. “Well, then we are the perfect duo to go to such a place, right?”

“If any ghosts show up we might scare the heck out of them with our screams,” Taiga said on which they both burst out laughing.

It took them good an hour of walking to leave the busy part of Edo behind them and soon there were only a few farm houses between them and the ocean.

“Ehm, so how do we know the exact location?” Juri asked as they got closer to the beach.

“An island, connected through a bridge,” Taiga repeated the words of the girl.

“Okay…” Juri said and looked around until he gasped and stretched out his hand. “Could it be that?”

They were still a bit away from the beach and some small hills were making it hard to actually see far, but there was indeed a part to their left which seemed like an island. They both hurried up the next hill and then looked fascinated at the island which had a pretty high mountain as its center.

“Does it have a bridge though?” Taiga asked as he couldn’t see more than water between the mainland and the island.

“Maybe it’s pretty small? We should head over there. From here we wouldn’t be able to tell for sure,” Juri said as they were definitely a good twenty minute walk along the beach away from the island.

When Juri wanted to hurry straight towards it Taiga suddenly stopped him and grabbed his hand.

“What is it?” Juri asked confused, but Taiga just gave him a shy expression.

“Nothing special, just...you know it’s been a while since we had some time for ourselves, so I think we don’t really have to hurry that much?”

Now Juri also formed a smile. No teasing one at all, a warm and honest one. One of those smiles Taiga hadn’t seen recently. Juri hurried to entwine their fingers as he stepped next to Taiga.

“Then I think it’s time for a romantic walk at the beach?” Juri asked and moved his hand to the front as if inviting Taiga to take the first step through a door and Taiga hit him against the shoulder, but squeezed his hand at the same time.

“It will be soon getting really hot. The summer seems to come early this year,” Juri said as they kept strolling alongside the beach.

“Worst time of the year,” Taiga said laughing. “I hate it when everyone comes in the house already sweating. I wish we could offer them a bath first.”

Juri had to laugh on that thought as well, but Taiga didn’t miss the slightly gloomy expression he showed each time recently when the topic switched to their work. But today it wasn’t about work and Taiga didn’t want to ruin the light atmosphere.

“Did you hear about the way Aran made Fuma fall into the river at our last lesson?” Taiga hurried to change the topic and luckily it worked as Juri immediately nodded with an amused expression.

“Did you know that I was the victim of his bad mood at the next training together with Shota and Ryota?” Juri asked teasing and pinched Taiga’s arm on which the latter released his hand and tried to run away from him.

“Wait you coward!” Juri yelled and easily caught up to him. With a squeal they both found themselves on the ground, water coming in from the waves already touching their legs, but they didn’t care.

Juri crawled on top of Taiga who was still laughing. When the younger one touched his face he stopped though and looked up.

“I’m sorry I didn’t spend you enough attention recently.”

It surprised Taiga that he was thinking that way, because it was his mood he was more concerned about. With a light touch Taiga squeezed the latter’s hand on his cheek and Juri leant in for a passionate kiss.

Taiga threw his arms around the younger one’s neck and he would have liked to just keep doing this for the rest of the day instead of looking for that temple, but the water seemed to want to remind him why they came here. With the next wave the water hit Taiga up to his back and with a gasp he had to break the kiss and Juri hurried to pull him up from the sand.

“Well, I guess now we can be happy that it is warm enough for our clothes to dry quickly,” Juri said with a smile and helped cleaning Taiga’s clothes from the sand.

This time they tried their best to get closer to the island without any distraction, which wasn’t easy now that they didn’t want to take their hands off each other.

“I don’t really see any bridge. Maybe this isn’t it?” Juri asked as they finally got closer.

There was really nothing above the water which could be called a bridge, but somehow Taiga had the feeling that this was exactly what the girl described.

“Well even if we don’t find anything it was a nice trip I’d say?” Juri said with a smile and Taiga nodded, but was still looking over to the island and then he saw something.

“Juri, do you see that on top of the mountain?”

Juri squeezed his eyes and tried to find what Taiga meant and then he gasped. “It’s a shrine gate, isn’t it?” Juri asked as he spotted the faint red gate on top of the mountain. “So maybe the bridge got washed away by the water or they used a boat?”

Possible indeed, but suddenly Taiga realized something about the water. The waves weren’t breaking the same as at the rest of the beach and he dared to make a few steps into the water.

“Ehm, what are you doing?” Juri asked worried and hurried immediately after him. The water was going up to their knees immediately, but Taiga kept walking and soon Juri realized what Taiga had found out.

“Is this a sandbank?”

“Seems like it. And if we are lucky it goes the whole way to the island.”

Juri stepped next to Taiga on hearing that and stretched out his arm. “Time to find out?”

Taiga smiled and took the latter’s hand. Even if the sandbank wouldn’t bring them the whole way to the island they would just get wet again, so it was definitely worth a try!

Luck was on their side as the path really lead them straight to the island and it seemed easy to access as well, a path clearly leading up the mountain towards the gate they had already spotted from the mainland.

“Do you think anyone lives here?” Juri asked, rubbing his arms as if he was feeling cold, which was unlikely in this war weather even with their legs being wet.

“If there is a shrine then maybe? Or at least someone comes from time to time to check up on it?” After all the child had said she got the bracelet from this place so there must have been someone here to hand it to her, right?

“Then let’s go, because this hike will take us some time and we need to make sure we can make it back before sundown.”

The path up the mountain was long, but easy to walk on as there were steps and no muddy forest ground. What they hadn’t expected though were a lot more steps on the top of the mountain right after the gate. There was a path down the mountain deep in the forest, but it was obviously the right path as there was no other way to go.

After Juri had complained for the third time about all the steps even though they were walking down, the ocean finally came into their sight again.

“So what, no shrine? That was it?” Juri complained on which Taiga clapped him soothingly on the shoulder.

“Look, it seems like the path continues around the cliffs. I was told the shrine is located in a cave so this might be close to it?”

“I really wonder who had the idea of building this out here,” Juri said and shivered before they decided to keep going.

A cave really came into their sight after the next corner and they decided to head in immediately as they were running out of time.

It looked indeed like a shrine right at the entrance with another red gate and different statues, honoring the gods, lined up at the sides.

“So there must be people around, because there are candles lit,” Juri said as they kept moving along the cave towards a bigger place with a small praying place in the middle.

“What is in there?” Juri asked as he tried to see the sacred ornaments inside the shrine. Usually it was some kind of golden statue or even a sword, but here it seemed different.

“Bracelets?” Taiga said as they walked closer to the shrine. “They look beautiful.”

They could see them clearly inside the wooden box and they looked as beautiful as the one the little girl had, just in pink and blue instead of the green one she had.

“So are we praying and leaving?”

“Are you that much in a hurry?” Taiga asked a bit teasing on the way Juri kept scanning the cave.

“I just, I don’t know, I don’t feel too good about this place.”

“Mh, since when do you have any spiritual powers?” Taiga teased him, but of course he didn’t want to make him feel uncomfortable so they stood in front of the shrine for their prayers.

Even after putting his hands together and closing his eyes Taiga wasn’t even sure what he was praying for? Health for Juri and the rest of the boys? A safe year for the house? A calm future in general? But then he calmed down and realized that maybe he didn’t need to form such a direct wish, maybe just the wish of life going on in its best way was enough?

A sudden sound made him open his eyes again and Juri had also suddenly looked up. They tried to locate what it was and where it came from, when Juri pointed towards a small way behind the shrine. “I saw a shadow.”

“Maybe there is a monk around at the moment and he checked up on the shrine as he heard us?” Taiga said, but then they both froze when they heard the chuckle of a child from far back in the cave.

“Okay, I definitely want to go home now,” Juri said, but Taiga walked towards the small hallway in the back. “Taiga please, don’t do this to me!”

“Don’t worry, I think I know who is here,” Taiga said with a calm smile and Juri headed after him and quickly caught up to him, clenching his hands into the back of his clothes.

“Look, there are drawings,” Taiga said and pointed at some drawings, which were hanging on the walls.

“What are they? Is this a story?” Juri asked as the drawings seem to have the same people in it.

“I wonder what exactly they are telling,” Taiga asked a bit confused about what was drawn, because there were obviously demons on it as well so maybe it was about the afterlife.

“Look, doesn’t this look like the bracelets we saw before?” Juri asked and pointed at one of the drawings.

Taiga took a closer look and there were a mother and child receiving two bracelets, a green and a yellow one from a shrine. Taiga looked back at the drawings before that and he realized that demons had taken away the husband of that person and were following her and her daughter around.

They moved on to the next drawings, the demons now keeping their distance, but then the girl got lost and they came closer again, but then the bracelet seemed to chase them away and her mother seemed to have been lead to her by her bracelet.

“They come in pairs,” Taiga whispered and suddenly he also shivered, but it wasn’t at all cold in the cave.

Again they heard a girl’s voice and this time they both flinched, but the tunnel they were in seemed to end so Taiga decided to take a look at the bright lid room at the end before they would definitely head back.

“There is no one in here,” Juri said scanning the room and pulling restless at Taiga’s sleeve.

In the middle of the room two stone burial cases were placed and they dared to step closer.

“As long as both hearts long for each other, their souls will be united and always be able to find home,” Juri read the text engraved in the stone. “What’s this about?”

Taiga saw the small shrine behind the cases and then he froze, staring with wide eyes at the drawing and the two objects on it.

“What is it?” Juri asked, not as disturbed by what he was seeing. It was a drawing of a mother and a daughter and two bracelets in green and yellow were placed in front of it. “Oh I get it, those are the two people from the story, right? It’s a bit tragic how the girl died so young, but they really found back together.”

“This can’t be,” Taiga murmured on which Juri gave him a questioning look.

While the drawings on the walls weren’t that detailed and didn’t show the faces clearly, this one drawing did and in a pretty realistic way. Now Taiga couldn’t stop shivering and Juri took him by the arm with a concerned expression.

“Taiga, don’t scare me. What is going on?”

Taiga pointed at the drawing with a shaking hand. “That girl, I met her. She was the one who told me about this place.”

Now Juri’s try to stay calm was good for nothing and he looked forth and back between the drawing and Taiga.

“Wait, what? That can’t be. The dates on the case date back over a few hundred years. Maybe she just looked similar? Maybe a descendant?”

“It was her!” Taiga said and shook his head. “Juri, I am more than sure. Not only that, but also the green bracelet. She had it with her. I- I don’t understand...how…?”

They both kept staring at the bracelets in a loss of words until they heard the chuckle of the child as if she was standing right behind them and they both started screaming, turning around and running without even looking back.

“Let’s never do this again,” Juri said in between heavy breathes as they had finally stopped running at the stairs back up the mountain.

“Trust me, nothing will ever make me come back to this island!” Taiga admitted while still keeping looking around, because the nice little girl had just turned into his worst nightmare.

“So I think it’s definitely time to head back,” Juri said and took Taiga’s hand, hurrying back up the mountain.

Their trip had definitely taken a weird turn, but it wasn’t like they were in a bad mood, just a bit shaken through the weird happenings and somehow Taiga felt like all this could have been even positive for them. Looking down at Juri’s hand and feeling the tight and protective grip around his hand was bringing a smile on his lips.

Chapter Text

The weird happenings of their trip had remained a secret for the time being and they had headed to bed quite fast as their way back had taken long enough for the moon to guide their way back.

But no matter how weird and kind of creepy it had been, their mood hadn’t dropped through it. Actually Taiga felt a lot closer to Juri than before and the latter also finally seemed a bit more relaxed than over the past days.

When the morning hours arrived Taiga felt Juri’s arm over his body and he squeezed the latter’s hand which had been holding on to his over the whole night. Juri groaned on the move and put his forehead against Taiga’s back.

“Do we already have to get up?” He asked in a tired voice after they hadn’t got enough sleep.

“I fear Kamenashi would get suspicious if we both call in ill,” Taiga said before he turned a bit on his back on which Juri lifted his head. Taiga had just time for a brief smile before Juri gave him a good morning kiss.

“Can I get such a wakeup call every morning?” Taiga asked teasing.

“Sure, you just…” Juri started, but then he stopped. Stopped moving, stopped speaking and Taiga felt a sudden unpleasant shiver. They were back home, nothing should be wrong.

“What is it?” He asked in an already worried voice, but all he actually had to do was follow Juri’s look.

Slowly he turned his head towards his own hand. Juri still took a hold on it, but what Taiga realized the next second had him gasp.

With wide eyes he looked back at Juri and then they were both looking back at their hands or more at their wrists and the next second they both screamed and jumped up.

“Take it off!” Taiga yelled, stretching his arm out towards Juri who was looking at his own arm as if he wished it would separate from his body. “Take it off yourself. I don’t want to touch it!”

“It’s already touching you! They are on our wrists. HOW?”

“I DON’T KNOW!”

Before they could even calm down their room door was violently ripped open and Taiga squealed out of surprise and fell to his knees.

“What the hell is going on here?”

“Ren, don’t you ever dare to do that again!” Juri yelled over at him.

“Me? You two just screamed as if someone tried to murder you. Be happy that the other boys from your floor are at work already,” Ren scolded them.

Soon they heard fast steps out in the corridor and Ren looked back to the hallway. “It’s okay Reia, they are fine!”

“Not after I'm done with them,” Reia hissed and dashed into their room and put his hands to his hips. “Are you two out of your mind?”

The scolding attitude made Ren smile and for now he slid the door close to make sure they wouldn’t get even more people coming to check up on them.

“So what the hell is going on?” Reia asked, pointing at both of them.

Taiga remained on the floor while looking up at Juri with a questioning look. Would they even believe them? Most likely not and it would sound ridiculous as well, but coming up with a lie right now wasn’t the best timing either.

“Fine we tell you, but you have to do us a favor first,” Juri said and walked up to Ren. “Take this off.”

Ren raised an eyebrow at Juri and looked down at his wrist. “Why can’t you take off your own bracelet?”

“Whatever. Take it off!”

“Fine,” Ren said and wanted to reach out for it, but before he could touch it Reia interfered. “Wait! Where did you get that?”

“Ehm, well…” Juri stammered and looked over to Taiga. On that look Reia went over to Taiga and crouched down next to him, taking his arm to be able to look at his wrist.

“Oh my god, you two made it to the hidden shrine?”

“To what?” Ren asked.

“You know of it?” Taiga asked and shook Reia by the shoulders on which the latter had to grab his arms to make him stop.

“It’s a legend, but the bracelets look exactly as described in it so I figured it’s from the hidden shrine.”

“They are,” Juri explained and sat down next to Taiga and Reia, followed by Ren. “But we didn’t take them. We left without anything and in the morning, well…”

“That explains at least your screams,” Ren said and he looked forth and back between their bracelets.

“But that you got them is something amazing, you don’t have to be afraid of them,” Reia said, sounding kind of jealous.

“It wasn’t that awesome at the shrine yesterday,” Juri said with a shiver, remembering all the weird happenings.

“Let me guess you saw a little girl who is actually a ghost?”

“How did you know?” Taiga asked a bit perplex.

“I told you it’s a legend! It’s quite famous. A lot of customers also talk about it. How did you end up meeting her without even knowing the story behind it?”

“Maybe that’s the secret?” Ren asked. “That she just shows up to those who don’t actually look for her?”

“Why would anyone look for her?” Juri asked.

“Okay wait, let me explain everything first or we will go in circles,” Reia started and the other three got a bit more comfortable on the tatami mats, ready for story time even though they had to hurry or they would get scolded for not showing up for work.

“Okay let’s go with a summary. The legend says that there was once a family whose daughter had been ill since birth and demons were following her around trying to eat her soul as she was purer than any other human soul. When her time on earth should have had ended her father stopped the demons through giving his own life. She earned another year of life through his sacrifice, but her soul also lost a bit of its brightness through the sadness she carried in her heart over her father’s death. The demons were attracted even easier now and they succeeded to separate her from her mother. Different from her father though her mother didn’t want to sacrifice herself knowing how sad her daughter would be so she prayed to the gods and they gave her two bracelets. One for her and one for her daughter. With the bracelets they exchanged a part of their souls through which the girl’s soul was the brightest on earth again and now stronger than ever before. She was able to make the demons go away and find her way back to her mother as those bracelets would always find the remaining part of the soul, as long as the soul holder was still searching for the other person. The lifeline of the girl came to an end a few months later, but the gods welcomed her and told her mother that she didn’t have to worry and that their bracelets would also connect them in the afterlife and so her mother was able to keep smiling as she never felt alone and years later she was finally reunited with her child. Since then they look down on the world and look for people who need their help. The girl will come up to them and let them know about the bracelets. She is the only one who can tell you the location of the shrine. Even if you just head out to the beach to look for it you’ll never be able to find it. They both will listen to your prayers and then decide if you are in need of their help or not.”

Silence fell between them after hearing the details of the legend, because they had of course not looked at all the drawings or had even understood the whole story through it.

“Wow, that’s creepy,” Ren finally voiced out on which Juri hit him and held his arm out.

“That’s why I told you to take it off.”

“Forget it, I am not going to touch that thing,” Ren said and shoved the Juri’s arm away.

“Don’t take them off,” Reia warned them immediately. “The fact that you got them means that a part of your souls has been placed inside of them already!”

“Now you freak me out!” Taiga said, but finally took a closer look at the pink bracelet on his own wrist. He remembered the way the bracelet of the girl was shimmering and his was looking exactly the same way. Juri’s blue one also didn’t look like a normal pearl bracelet. As weird as it sounded it looked as if they were moving. As if they were actually alive and it made Taiga shiver.

“So what, we are not allowed to ever take them off again? Will they haunt us then or something?” Juri asked even more worried than before.

“You can take them off as long as you don’t do it to get rid of them. You have to remind yourself how precious those bracelets were for the family in the legend and how much of a gift they are. You two can forever find each other now, but no one knows what will happen if you actually break the bond. If the part of the soul trapped in the bracelet is not taken care of then the demons could try to approach you.”

“Which I definitely don’t want,” Taiga said and finally stood up. “Thank you Reia, at least now we know what the legend is about. Not that I am sure I understand what is going on, because this is all just too supernatural to actually just say it’s okay.”

“I bet we are still asleep,” Juri said, but hissed when Ren pinched him the next second.

“Well doesn’t seem like a dream, right?”

Juri hit him against the shoulder before he shoved the two boys towards the door. “Great, if it’s not a dream then that means we have to get ready for work now. So get out!”

“Make sure you take good care of those bracelets. They are there to help you and not to hurt you,” Reia told Taiga again on which the latter nodded with a brief smile.

“Thank you Reia, we will try.”

When they were finally alone again silence fell between them until Taiga finally dared to actually touch his bracelet. It didn’t feel special, not cold or warm, just normal, but the colour was still making it look as if something was moving inside of it and as much as he wanted to believe that the bracelets were there to help them in whatever way that would be, there was also this uneasy feeling, because what if they really didn’t take care of them enough and things would go wrong?

***

“Oh, since when are you going for accessories?” Tegoshi teased as he handed Taiga the ordered Kimonos and saw the new bracelet on his wrist.

“Well, this accessory wasn’t actually my choice.”

“Mh, so it was a present?” Massu asked as he put a new string on one of the Shamisen Taiga had brought with him.

“You could say so,” Taiga said, now finally being able to laugh about the topic. A whole week had passed without any weird or bad happenings. They had also finally dared to just take the bracelets off when taking a bath or being with a customer and nothing had changed so they were already treating their shrine visit as a weird dream instead of reality.

“Then definitely take good care of it!” Tegoshi said and took Taiga’s hand to get a closer look at the bracelet. “Seems like your little accessory has a pretty special aura.”

“And also mood swings,” Taiga joked.

As so often when Tegoshi dared to touch Taiga he wasn’t easily letting go of him and he pulled his hand up a bit to give him a small kiss of the back of his hand. “Make sure not to take a wink of fate lightly.”

How were they all guessing the right thing about this bracelet without Taiga even telling them? Reia had known, even Kamenashi had given them a weird look as he had seen the bracelets and now Tegoshi was also hinting weird things.

“And if fate doesn’t like you after all then just kick it in the ass,” Massu interfered with a teasing smile on which Tegoshi retreated and turned towards him with a pouting expression. He got a peck on the lips from his lover on that reaction and a comment about how cute he was when playing angry, before he gave the Shamisen back to Taiga.

“I wonder if taking your advice would actually bring me into even more trouble,” Taiga replied with a teasing smile before he thanked both and left the house.

It was already night time at Yoshiwara. The streets were as busy as at no other time of the day and Taiga had to hurry back, because he had to go back to work tonight as well.

He had chosen one of his usual shortcuts to avoid the crowded main street, but as so often he was a magnet for trouble and he soon realized that some people were standing in the alley in front of him. They had turned towards him when he had turned around the corner.

Taiga turned around immediately without even looking closer, because he was sure that they were either thieves, opium dealers or some other kind of troublemakers.

Luck wasn’t with him on this day either as a hand landed on his shoulder after a few steps already.

“Where do you think you are going?” A young man asked him and Taiga turned around trying to put the most neutral expression he could form at the moment.

There were around four people in total. All of them young men in Hakama, but they didn’t actually seem like Samurai or any other higher rank.

“I am on an errand. I am sorry if I disturbed anything.”

Taiga bowed and tried to turn around, but this time the man grabbed him by the collar and Taiga couldn’t from letting out an annoyed sound, because why was it always him? And why did things usually turn out bad when he left from Tegoshi’s shop?

“What’s that reaction for? Do you have a death wish?” The other one threatened him, on which Taiga got even more annoyed, because what had he even done in the first place?

“Okay, screw this,” Taiga let out as he ran out of patience. The other one raised an eyebrow at his reply, but Taiga had enough of always playing the polite one just to end up in trouble anyways, because no one had ever left him alone if he apologized.

Without waiting for any reaction of the other one Taiga had taken the man’s hand and twisted it to make him let go of his Yukata. The man seemed surprised and wanted to immediately attack Taiga even though it had been just a small move. Before he could actually do anything though Taiga had kicked him against the knee, making him fall down with a hiss.

“Wait!” Taiga yelled at the other three as they already started shouting and rushing closer. On his demanding tone though they all stopped in confusion and Taiga stepped back a bit and took the Kimono and Shamisen, putting it on a small storage box behind a house. They were after him and not what he was carrying, so it was definitely a better choice to leave those things here and pick them up later.

“Okay, ready?” Taiga asked and got into one of the defense stances they had learned at the training with Hiromitsu and the others.

“Such a confidence for such a pretty boy,” the man from before said as he was easily up again. After all Taiga hadn’t aimed to hurt him, just to make him let go.

“Then show us what you’ve got!” One of the three in the back shouted in excitement and Taiga formed a lopsided smile. They were taking him lightly, joking in the back and when he didn’t move the person in front turned back to his friends, making fun out of him.

The moment he turned back though all of them fell silent, looking at an empty spot.

“COME BACK HERE YOU COWARD!” The man yelled after Taiga who had just waited for a good timing to make a run. Had they really thought he would try and fight four guys at the same time? His best skill was running away after all so he made the best use out of it.

All he had to do was make it back to the main street. Maybe finding some people who knew him and everything would be okay again. He would then get back to the house and ask some of the others to go back with him and get the Shamisen and Kimono to make sure he wouldn’t run into them alone once more.

The back streets where good to make quick turns, but unfortunately also a good place to get lost and before he could even spot the main street he got tackled to the ground as one of the man had caught up to him from another side alley.

“Even bad at running, aren’t you?”

The other one reached out for Taiga and pulled him up on his Yukata, but the days when Taiga got scared that easily were long gone. Not wasting any time Taiga went into the offensive and used the same move as before and aimed for the latter’s knee. The moment the other one hissed and bent a bit to the front Taiga raised his knee and hit him right under the chin, making him stumble to the back.

“THERE HE IS!”

Of course it didn’t take long for the others to catch up so Taiga turned and ran again. Soon he finally saw a bigger street coming into his sight and he had already dashed out when he was violently pulled back by the back of his Yukata.

This time two of the men had caught up to him and Taiga had to take the first hit. The punch he received would have made him fall to the back, but he got pulled to the front on his Yukata. He somehow got his arms in front of him as the other one tried to kick him in the stomach, but the force still made him collide with the wall. Before he could try to run again the second one grabbed him by the arm and twisted it to the back and he received another punch in the stomach from the other person.

“So much to your confidence,” the man mocked him and lunged out for a punch directly to his face, but then he yelped as something collided with his shoulder. He hissed and stepped back while Taiga also looked at the person who had suddenly showed up.

“Two against one isn’t fair, you know?”

“Reo?” Taiga said in confusion, but there was not much time to relax as the person in front of him was already going for Reo, but the latter had brought a wooden stick. Not exactly a sword, but better than nothing and he attacked before the other one could get too close.

“Annoying brat,” the man holding on to Taiga hissed and suddenly shoved Taiga to the ground and went for Reo instead.

“Taiga, get up!” Reo shouted and when he did as he was told another wooden stick was thrown over the men at Taiga and he caught it with a thankful smile. When they both wanted to attack the men between them though Taiga heard people approaching behind him and now the other two had caught up as well.

“With how many people did you pick a fight?” Reo shouted over to him on which Taiga threw him a death glare.

Taiga was trapped between them, but Reo could actually run if he wanted to and he gave Taiga an intense look on which the latter nodded. The next moment Reo jumped to the front, attacking the two people in front of him while Taiga took a run up at the two who had approached from the back.

Everyone except Taiga seemed confused as Reo turned and ran away in the middle of their attack.

“What a nice friend you have there,” one of them teased, but their plan had went well because the other two were chasing after Reo through which Taiga finally had an escape route as well.

Taiga made a move as if he was trying to land a hit on them and both of them backed a bit away on which Taiga turned and dashed away around the next corner.

For a few minutes the chase continued until Taiga couldn’t see or hear them anymore and he finally stepped out on a bigger street next to the river. He still had to get the Kimono and Shamisen back, but for now he tried to stuck with as many people around him as possible. With a hiss he touched his cheek, knowing that he’d definitely get questioned about the bruise later.

When a hand landed on his shoulder he squealed and was about to lift the stick in his hand, but then a hand on his wrist stopped him. “It’s just me!”

On Reo’s voice Taiga calmed down again and moved his arm back down. The latter didn’t seem hurt so he had obviously succeeded in running out his opponents as well.

“Why the hell do you always end up in trouble when you go out alone?” Reo teased him, but also took a worried look at his bruise.

“Trust me I am asking the same thing for the past years,” Taiga said and pointed at the small alley. “I had to leave my Shamisen and Kimono from Tegoshi’s shop behind. Do you think we should pick them up now or come back later with some Senpais?”

“We outrun them once and we are two now so I’d say let’s hurry and get them now so that it doesn’t get stolen?”

He had a good point there, after all Taiga didn’t want to deal with Kamenashi’s anger in case the Kimono was suddenly gone. Without wasting much time they hurried to the alley Taiga had left everything before.

“Great, done. Let’s hurry back,” Reo said as he grabbed the Shamisen and gave the Kimono to Taiga. They turned to leave and then Taiga couldn’t from remembering Massu’s words, because right now he really wanted to kick fate in the ass!

Two of the men from before were blocking their way and Reo waved his hand behind his back, signaling Taiga to back off, but Taiga tapped him on the shoulder and pointed behind him on which Reo rolled his eyes. “Seriously now?”

The remaining two men had blocked their escape route and now they were indeed in big trouble. But luckily they still had the wooden sticks and they would just need to somehow get one alley free to escape.

Reo put the Shamisen over his back hoping it wouldn’t break at their fight, because leaving the stuff behind would lead to the same chaos once more. Taiga also put the Kimono cover over his shoulder and back to get both hands free.

“Stubborn aren’t you?” Reo said annoyed. “Good that we are the same. Don’t think you can easily win.”

They had had indeed trouble with them before so Taiga wondered what had made them come back, but the unfortunately got their reply immediately as the men pulled out short swords from their clothes.

“I hate your bad luck,” Reo said over his shoulder as they were standing back to back now.

“Who says it’s only mine? They didn’t have had swords before you came!”

“Now it’s my fault or what?” Reo replied, but focused on his opponents again when they made a step to the front.

“You know what, yes I think it is!” Taiga yelled and turned towards Reo who also turned away once more from his opponents on hearing that.

“You are unbelievable! Here I come to help you and then you act this ridiculous!”

“I didn’t need your help in the first place,” Taiga hissed and shoved Reo towards the men who both looked at each other in confusion.

“Oh right because you are so amazing that you never need to get rescued!” Reo shouted and pushed Taiga back this time. Taiga though had enough and he lunged out with the stick, Reo dodging it easily and laughed. “Look you are not even a match for me!”

This time Taiga roared and attacked Reo with full force and the latter had to retreat so much that the two men behind him were actually jumping out of the way. Taiga kept attacking again until he saw the nod he was waiting for and then he stopped immediately, turning around to the completely dumbfounded looking four men. Now that they had made space for them they were all standing behind them and had opened an escape route.

“I love you and your ideas!” Reo said and clapped Taiga on the shoulder before he looked up at the men and bowed. “Thanks for making way!”

When the others realized what they meant Taiga and Reo were already dashing away from them.

“And here I thought you did that on purpose?” Taiga admitted as they kept running back towards the street at the river. So in the end they had luckily both had the same idea without even realizing.

“What the hell did they even want?” Reo asked as they finally were back in between a crowd of people, this time finally with all the stuff they had to bring back to the house.

“Don’t ask me, I didn’t even do anything. They were just standing in one of the alleys and when I saw them I had the feeling I could be in trouble so I turned around, but of course the stopped me and well the result you saw.”

Reo sighed on that and shook his head. “Recently there are a lot of such short tempered people! I fear it’s because the Shogunate recruits new soldiers and they all want to make money, but get annoyed when they didn’t get chosen?”

“Maybe we can ask Domoto about it? We have the Shogunate meeting next week after all?” Taiga suggested on which Reo formed a thoughtful expression.

“Maybe we actually could. Also Aran should know about it, because bringing swords into Yoshiwara isn’t even allowed if you are not a Samurai or from the police!”

“Well, hopefully this means my bad luck is satisfied for a few months, because I don’t need any more chaos, especially not next week at the meeting!”

Reo laughed on hearing that, because the meeting with Domoto was always a good place for a lot of chaos, especially with them and Myuto always participating.

“Oh right, here your Shamisen,” Reo remembered and took it off his back and handed it to the older one. Taiga wanted to take a hold on it, but then it got suddenly slashed out of both their hands. Things happened way too fast to react and Taiga didn’t even fully understand what was going on. The Shamisen was lying between them on the ground, slashed in half by a sword and Reo had suddenly shoved Taiga to the side on which the latter lost balance and landed on his knees right in front of the river. When he looked back up he saw one of their attackers from before. Maybe the others had given up, but he seemed extremely pissed at them.

Reo was facing the other one, but he wasn’t moving and that was when Taiga’s look fell on something on Reo’s back. Something that shouldn’t be there and finally he caught up with the situation.

“REO!”

Taiga jumped up exactly the same moment the man pulled back and withdrew the blade which had pierced through Reo’s body. People around them were already screaming and running away from the scene and the man kicked Reo away towards Taiga.

Taiga missed him by inches and couldn’t catch him, but Reo had also tried to reach out for him. He had aimed for his wrist, but only got a grip on Taiga’s bracelet, accidently ripping it off his wrist before falling into the river.

Taiga was still holding on to the wooden stick from before and he swirled around, lifting it right in time before also being hit by the short sword. Unfortunately it was a pretty unfair one on one fight and he wouldn’t stand a chance for long. He dared to look over his shoulder to the river on which he gasped. Reo was facing facedown and was slowly taken away by the stream on which Taiga started to panic.

His distraction cost him a lot though and the next moment he screamed out when the sword was slashed over his arm, leaving a long cut.

“I DON’T HAVE TIME FOR YOU NOW!” Taiga yelled at the man and tried his best to ignore the pain in his arm and attack him with the wooden stick. All he needed was a moment to get space between them and luckily he succeeded and he jumped to the front, jumping directly at the sword and twisting it out of the man’s hand. Luck seemed to have finally come back to him as he was able to hit the man with the hilt of the sword against the head immediately so that he fell unconsciously to the ground.

Not losing any time Taiga threw everything to the ground and jumped into the river. It wasn’t easy to reach him as his Yukata was making it hard to swim over to him. There were a few people around, looking and pointing at them, but Taiga never expected much from people he didn’t know, so he wouldn’t even bother asking for their help. When he finally reached Reo he hurried to pull him up, but the latter was unconscious.

“Oh god, Reo. Please don’t do this to me…”

Time was a critical factor now, but it took a felt eternity to even get Reo towards the side of the river and getting him out with a hurt arm was a completely different problem.

“Don’t you dare die on my like this, I warn you,” Taiga let out in a shaking voice before he crawled up the small riverbank first and tried to pull Reo out. He whined on the way the cut on his arm hurt each time he tried to pull, but there was no way he could give up.

“COME ON,” Taiga yelled at himself. “This can’t be happening. Please…”

He was ready to get a breakdown and he felt how he was tearing up, but he couldn’t give up now. There was no way fate could laugh at him this badly.

When he feared that he didn’t have enough strength left to actually keep a hold on Reo there was a hand grabbing his and squeezing it tightly. With wide eyes Taiga looked to the front. Another hand was on Reo’s Yukata and then there were two more pairs of hands reaching out for him. He didn’t miss the glimmering bracelet on one of the wrists and with his tears flowing over he looked over his shoulder.

“Juri…” he whispered in a mix of endless gratitude and a huge amount of confusion. Next to Juri were Fuma and Kentaro, helping to drag Reo out of the river. Behind them Taiga heard even more people shouting and soon he saw Ryota and Shota dashing towards them, followed by Aran and his policemen. “How?” Taiga whispered in a weak voice, but he suddenly felt too numb to even help and Juri took a tight grip on him before he could actually fall over back into the river.

“Let me explain later, for now let us take care of everything, okay?” Juri asked with a worried expression and all Taiga could do was nodding before Aran dashed down towards them. Taiga had somehow managed to give a quick explanation of what had happened on which Aran’s men vanished into the alleys, hoping they could find the remaining attackers.

“Reo...how is he?” Taiga asked and wanted to follow the others up the riverbank, but Aran put his hand on his shoulder, stopping him.

“He is alive, don’t worry. But we need to bring you both to Nakamaru right away. Juri, can I leave him in your care?”

“Of course,” Juri said and Aran hurried after his men.

Taiga grabbed Juri’s hand as he realized that his condition was getting worse as well and he felt like collapsing. When he looked down at Juri’s hand he gasped on which Juri looked at him in alarm.

“What is it?”

“My bracelet…” Taiga let out as he saw Juri’s blue one. “Reo accidently took it off as he fell. I need to find it!”

“Wait! You can’t just get in there in your condition,” Juri scolded Taiga as he was trying to actually get back into the river.

“Reo has your bracelet,” Ryota was shouting down at them on which Taiga looked even more confused. Juri helped Taiga up and they hurried to Reo’s side. They had put him down on the street for now to see how bad his wound was before they would bring him to Nakamaru.

Even though he was unconscious he was tightly holding on the pink bracelet. Juri wanted to reach out for his hand, but Taiga stopped him.

“Let him keep it for now. It just- feels as if he needs it more, right now.”

Juri squeezed him a bit on hearing that and gave him a small kiss on the hair. “Okay. Then let’s hurry to get you two treated so that we can stop worrying!”

Chapter Text

It had been a while since any of them had to stay at Nakamaru’s clinic and this time Taiga couldn’t care less for his own injuries. He had begged Nakamaru to take a look at Reo first and of course the doctor had realized the emergency so he threw some bandages at the boys to somehow stop the bleeding on Taiga’s arm for now. The wound was deep enough to make him lose a dangerous amount of blood and it would definitely need some stitches later.

“How did you know that we were in trouble?” Taiga finally asked as Juri was done bandaging his arm while Fuma and Kentaro were with Nakamaru and Ryota and Shota had headed back to the house to let Kamenashi know about the situation.

Juri carefully closed the bandage around his arm before he fell silent with a troubled expression. “I am not quite sure if you’d believe me if I told you.”

“Try me, because at the moment I would most likely believe anything.”

Juri lifted his arm and pointed at his bracelet. “I felt something weird. It wasn’t like I was in pain, not physically, but I just knew that something was wrong. First it was just an uneasy feeling and I tried to concentrate on work, but then there was a sudden change. It felt like I was being pulled apart inside and I yelled at the boys who were free to follow me. You can imagine how confused they were, but they realized the panic I was in so they followed me and Ryota and Shota even said they were going to get Aran just in case things were serious and now I am really lucky they thought about such an outcome.”

Taiga kept staring back at the other one with an open mouth, because what he had just explained didn’t seem like reality. It was more a part of one of Hokuto’s stories in his books.

“See, I told you this is ridiculous,” Juri said and put his hands over his face, looking quite stressed out and exhausted.

“After the way we got those bracelets I think this is even the most logical explanation we could have,” Taiga admitted. “The moment you felt the pull might have been when Reo grabbed my bracelet.”

Soon there was a knock on the door ripping them out of their thoughts and Taiga told them to come in. Nakamaru and Kentaro walked in on which Taiga got ready to bombard them with questions, but Nakamaru raised his hand. “First let me see your wound. Reo is fine, so don’t worry. Fuma is staying with him for now.”

“How can he be fine? I saw that sword piercing through him!” Taiga said a bit snappy, because it would definitely take more time to stitch such a wound and also make sure that he hadn’t get fatal intern injuries.

Nakamaru sat down next to Taiga and took the temporary bandages off and Kentaro gave him the materials he needed to clean and stitch the wound.

“Will he die and you just don’t want to let us know?” Taiga asked directly this time. Instead of replying, Nakamaru put the pad with the antibiotic with way too much pressure on Taiga’s arm on which the latter hissed and wanted to pull away.

“Did I ever lie to you about the condition of your friends? Didn’t I tell you directly before when I wasn’t sure if Kentaro would survive?”

On that reminder Kentaro’s look darkened a bit and Taiga bit his lip, because he was right. But he was worrying too much for Reo to just take a ‘he is fine’ as an answer.

“As soon as I am done with your wound you can go and see him, okay? Then I will explain more, but for now please concentrate on your own wellbeing.”

The boys all waited in silence until Nakamaru was done and told them to follow him to Reo’s room.

“No change?” Nakamaru asked and Fuma shook his head.

“He didn’t wake up, but he also doesn’t seem in pain.”

Taiga crouched down next to Reo and put his hand on the boy’s forehead. He didn’t seem to burn up or to be restless and then his look fell on his stomach area where he had been badly injured.

“You didn’t stitch it?” Taiga asked in confusion as he saw that all he did was putting a white clean sheet over the wound and under his back.

“He didn’t need any stitches, look for yourself,” Nakamaru said and Taiga moved to take the sheet away. There was indeed a wound, but that was all. It didn’t seem like the deep, life-threatening wound Taiga had seen earlier, neither did it seem as if the sword had gone through even though there was still a wound on Reo’s back as well.

“I don’t understand. How is this possible?”

For the first time they saw Nakamaru shrugging his shoulders with a lost expression. “To be honest I have no clue. The wound seems more of a stab wound from both directions which had never reached through his body. There was also no big blood loss and I would actually say he could be completely fine in two to three weeks even though such a wound would usually take up to three months healing time.”

“But how?” Juri asked perplex on which he got another lost expression.

Taiga moved to take the latter’s hand when he realized that Reo was still tightly holding on to the bracelet. When Taiga looked up at Juri he could see that the latter was thinking the same.

“Oh right he was holding on to that the whole time. You want to take it back?” Kentaro asked, but Taiga shook his head.

“Leave it with him until he wakes up, then I will take it back,” Taiga said and squeezed the latter’s hand once more.

“I will find you even without it on after all,” Juri said with a smile on which Taiga hit him slightly against the shoulder.

“You better do if I ever get lost, you know?”

Legend or not, miracle or not, for now he was more than grateful that their friend would be okay!

***

“Dude, you are a magnet for all the evil in the world,” Myuto let out in a scolding tone on which Hikaru hit him against the back of the head.

“As if this is his fault, better go and get annoyed at those idiots who did this!”

“Aran luckily got all of them as it seems,” Taiga let out in a low voice on which Myuto realized that he had indeed let his anger out on the wrong person.

Taiga had been allowed to leave Nakamaru’s clinic after two days, but had to make sure to not hurt his arm so Juri had tagged along as much as possible, but today Kamenashi had told him to work, because no matter how worried they all were if no one worked then there would be no money coming in.

Juri wanted to refuse or tell someone else to go with Taiga if he wanted to head out, but at that time Taiga had gotten a bit angry, because they had this topic before and he wouldn’t let people babysit him just because of any bad happenings. Not to forget that those people were behind bars.

In the morning he had decided to go to Takizawa’s house and let Myuto know that Reo wouldn’t be able to come with them to the Shogunate meeting and of course Myuto was annoyed by the whole situation.

“Do you think I can go with you to talk to Reo?” Myuto let out this time finally a bit calmer and it made Taiga smile that he asked and he nodded.

“Yes I think that should be okay. I was about to visit him on the way back anyway, so you can tag along.”

“Great, then let me come with you, because I was about to leave anyway,” Hikaru said.

“Do you think you can pull this off without Reo?” Myuto teased him on the way.

“Who was the number one in this year’s ranking again?” Taiga teased back on which Myuto pouted and Hikaru laughed.

“Guess you have to hurry if you want to take the first spot,” Hikaru said and clapped Myuto on the shoulder. “You have just one year left to be able to take that spot!”

“And here Kentaro gave his spot up on the last year,” Myuto said, but seemed determined to try and take the challenge on.

When they had finally arrived at Nakamaru’s house they hurried to see Reo as they were told that he had finally woken up.

“Hey there trouble maker,” Myuto greeted his friend on which Reo flashed him a smile, bright as always, but the pain was visible as well.

“How are you feeling?” Taiga asked as he hurried to sit next to Reo with the others.

“Good I think. The wound still hurts, but it’s not like I am in a pretty bad shape.”

“Which is amazing, because you got a sword stabbed through your body!” Myuto said in a weird praising tone, on which Reo laughed.

“Shall I brag about that from now on?”

They were all in such a good mood and yet Taiga’s expression remained gloomy. Reo noticed of course and took Taiga’s hand. “Here don’t forget this.”

He put Taiga’s bracelet in his palm, but Taiga shook his head. “You should keep it for now!”

“Trust me if it was really the bracelet which helped me then it did an amazing work already. Now take it back so it can help you!”

“What’s up with the fancy bracelet?” Hikaru asked in confusion.

“Juri and Taiga got one each from a ghost from a hidden shrine on a legendary island,” Reo explained as if it was the most common thing to say and Myuto and Hikaru exchanged a questioning look.

“Right...Okay,” Myuto said, definitely not believing them, but that story could wait for another time. “So you idiot leave us two alone with Domoto and the rest of those Shogunate snobs, I will make you pay for that later!”

“Who knows maybe it’s to your advantage? Maybe Domoto has some nice presents and you will get mine as well like this?”

“No present in the world is worth your health!” Taiga interfered on which Reo flashed him a smile.

“Always so serious and poetic! I promise you to get better as soon as I can, but you two have to promise me to be careful, okay?”

“As always,” Taiga said and as much as it somehow hurt him he had to prepare over the next days for the meeting so he wouldn’t be able to meet Reo again before it was over, especially because he had to rest as much as possible as well so that his arm could heal enough to not cause him any pain at the meeting.

“Let me know all the chaotic stories afterwards!”

“You will be the first to get to hear it all,” Taiga promised.

***

The day of the Shogunate meeting came sooner than Taiga wanted and he indeed didn’t feel ready at all this time. He had gotten off the whole week to be able to heal, but it was also quite boring through that, because Juri and the others didn’t get off so he spent most of the time reading Hokuto’s new book he had sent him a few weeks ago.

This time he had written a new type of story, not as realistic as usual, but more of the supernatural type. He had just read a few pages so far, but the mention of demons and gods reminded him of their situation with the bracelets and he definitely wanted to make finishing the book his priority as soon as things had calmed down. A wind gust made him take a stronger hold on the book. Recently it was not just extremely dry, but also pretty windy and he had to watch out not to lose any of his books to the river if he kept reading on the windowsill.

A knock on the door made him close the book and put it on the table. “Come in.”

He had waited for Reia to come and he got up with a sigh. The boy had brought the Kimono Domoto had presented him so it was time to get ready.

“Everything okay in the front of the house?” Taiga asked while Reia put everything on the tatami ground to get ready to help Taiga get ready.

“Yes, the noon hours just ended and we don’t have too many reservations for the evening, so I think it will be pretty calm.”

“At least one calm place to come back to tomorrow,” Taiga joked, but Reia looked a bit uncomfortable as always when it was about the Shogunate meeting.

“Don’t worry it will be fine,” Taiga said as Reia got the Kimono up when he had gotten out of his Yukata.

“You said that last year as well and you came back with bruises. The year before even Domoto got angry at the way a few of the new Shogunate members treated you and the others.”

“And still we came back, right? As long as we always come back I will always say that it’s okay!”

“You should set your priorities right,” Reia scolded him, but bit his lip when Taiga gave him a scolding look. After all Reia was his friend yes, but also an assistant and this was indeed not his place to interfere. “Sorry.”

“I know you are worried,” Taiga said and ruffled through Reia’s hair after the boy had closed the Obi for him. “But as long as you all wait here for me to return I really don’t worry that much!”

"Will your arm be okay?"

"As long as all the customers are careful, yes. And you know how protective Domoto is when it comes to the way other people are treating me."

Reia had to smile on hearing that and then he hurried over to the window to close it before the wind could actually make a mess out of the books on Taiga’s table.

“Oh no,” he let out on which Taiga walked up to him and looked towards the same direction.

“Another fire?” Taiga asked and Reia nodded. “This summer there were a lot. I really hope they can control this one as well. They barely got the one on the western side under control yesterday. At least it’s far away from Yoshiwara,” Reia said and closed the window.

“And even farer from today’s meeting,” Taiga realized and they finally headed downstairs. Aran would pick him up after getting Myuto from his house. This year the meeting would start a bit earlier so they headed over at noon time already and would come back the next day. Since the last year Domoto let them sleep in some of the empty rooms for a few hours after the meeting had ended so they didn’t have to hurry back right in the morning.

Reia and Taiga had just made it downstairs when the door from the front of the house was violently ripped open and they both stopped.

“Juri, wait! What were you thinking?”

Juri had dashed through the door, followed by Kentaro who now stopped him and turned him around. They hadn’t even realized that the other two were at the stairs, watching them.

“What I was thinking? What do you think? Is it such a weird offer?”

“No it’s not, but if he says no then you can’t just freak out like this,” Kentaro scolded.

“Why not? It’s not fair!”

“Juri come on, I know your intentions are good, but even when I said I’d talk to him with you, I told you there were low chances that he would agree!”

“Yeah right, because all he sees is money and high ranking people will bring more of that!”

Juri tried again to turn away from him, but Kentaro grabbed him by the arm, his expression getting more and more pissed.

“Juri, you know exactly that this is not the reason he said no!”

“Whatever, I don’t care anymore! I will find another way!”

“Like what? Don’t make this too complicated. If you break any rules then-”

“Then what, you will stop me?” Juri hissed and ripped his arm out of the other one’s grip. “You can have your life back next year with Fuma, so don’t play the caring senpai now!”

That statement had hit right at the wrong place and never before had Taiga seen Kentaro’s look darken so much and the next moment Juri had to live with the consequences of his rudeness as Kentaro slapped him and took him by the collar, slamming him with his back against the next wall.

Reia gasped and made a step to the front, but Taiga stretched out his arm, stopping him.

“If you really mean what you just said then go ahead and do something stupid! Just remember that the result will affect both of you!” Kentaro stepped back and grabbed Juri’s wrist, showing Juri his own bracelet. “If you don’t care then maybe you shouldn’t have gotten this in the first place!”

What no one had seen coming was Juri’s rage boiling up again and he shoved Kentaro away. Without any hesitation he took the bracelet off his wrist and threw it on the ground between them on which Kentaro looked at him with wide eyes. Taiga had frozen to the spot, unable to even understand what was going on.

“It’s not like we wanted those bracelets in the first place and if they did anything good then Kamenashi’s answer would have been a yes! I don’t need this thing anymore if it just brings bad luck!”

He stormed away from Kentaro before the latter could even reply anything, but when he headed for the stairs he stopped as he finally realized Taiga’s and Reia’s presents.

First he looked shocked, then angry again and when Taiga made a step to the front, wanting to somehow calm the other one down he just turned away and hurried up the stairs.

Kentaro sighed as he picked up the bracelet from the ground and walked up to them. “I am so sorry you had to hear all this right before you have to leave.”

“What was this about?” Reia asked as Taiga didn’t seem able to even address the topic. His eyes were glued to the bracelet and he moved his hand to his own bracelet, which suddenly felt so much heavier. The moment Juri had thrown it to the ground he had felt a pretty bad sting, but now he just felt empty. As if the connection they had established had been cut off and it made him feel anxious for the first time since they had gotten the bracelets.

“Let me explain this tomorrow, okay? Taiga you have to go now and concentrate on the meeting. If I told you everything now-”

“It’s okay,” Taiga interrupted him. “Juri acted like this over the last weeks already. I saw such an explosion coming. I will talk to him tomorrow.”

He tried to make his words sound confident, but the other two could see how troubled he actually was. Unfortunately his Senpai was right and he had to concentrate on the meeting.

“I will give this back to Juri in case he calms down,” Kentaro said and held up the bracelet.

“Yes please do so,” Taiga said thankfully before he hurried to the front of the house before he could actually try and head back upstairs to talk to Juri.

Just this one time the latter had to wait for him a bit. One day more wouldn’t change the situation, right? He wouldn’t do anything stupid just because of rage. Juri was too mature for that. Still Taiga kept a tight hold on his wrist even though the bracelet wasn’t able to shake this empty and numb feeling off.

Chapter Text

“Taiga would you mind coming over here for a moment,” Domoto asked and Taiga bowed to the two people he had kept busy for quite a while. Unfortunately not the type of people he liked and Myuto was also looking over to them pretty annoyed most of the time. They made Taiga drink quite a lot and didn’t even care that other people were watching while they kept touching him. If they wanted their private time with him later that was totally okay, but for the meeting itself they were usually asked to hold back at least a bit.

“I thought you might want a break,” Domoto said as he offered Taiga to sit next to him on the typical podium seat a bit away from all the others.

“I’m coming here to entertain everyone so I guess I shouldn’t complain,” Taiga said humble on which Domoto chuckled.

“And I made you go through so much over the last years that this offer doesn’t actually seem to come without a twist, right?”

Well he wasn’t wrong, because their first meeting and Domoto’s first visit at the house had been extremely unpleasant, not to forget the first Shogunate meeting with Yamashita and Domoto’s ‘present’.

“Your twists are way more welcome than their ignorant attitude,” Taiga replied honest and a bit too directly maybe, but Domoto just laughed even more.

Taiga knew how to entertain him after all and he also made sure to sit a bit closer and play with the sleeve of his hakama on which Domoto gave him a closer look.

“How is Reo?”

Of course the question would come sooner or later and Taiga smiled up at the latter. “He is getting better really quickly. We will inform you as soon as he is back at work, maybe we can have you come over then? You didn’t visit much recently.”

“Things are chaotic in the Shogunate at the moment,” Domoto said with a dangerous look and emptied the cup of sake in front of him on which Taiga hurried to fill it up again.

“So the gathering of soldiers is really necessary? Are we getting a civil war or something?”

Domoto drank again before he made a head movement towards the two people who were with Taiga before.

“People like them are the troublemakers. They are with the Shogunate, but their clans are new and while a lot of those small clans have not much influence they use the name of the Shogunate to gain new territory and rule over areas they shouldn’t touch. If it wasn’t for reckless people like them there wouldn’t be uproar among the people.”

That was a pretty honest and detailed reply and Taiga could just nod, because he had no clue about politics and wars. All he could hope for was that it wouldn’t affect them here in Edo.

The time at the meeting passed pretty fast that evening, but with a lot of new people and Reo missing they had a lot of people to entertain. While they had some female Oirans with them as well it was the first time they actually made a game out of it to have a skill battle with them.

They were all quite fascinated by Taiga’s Shamisen skill and Myuto had actually learned fan dance, the only good thing which they remembered from their time with Ryosuke and it gave Myuto a loud round of applause.

Soon the first people demanded their private time with them and of course the two people from before had their eyes on Taiga the whole time and even though Domoto was annoyed by them he couldn’t actually do anything about it when they requested a room with Taiga.

It wasn’t his first round either and the early morning hours had already arrived making him hope that this would be his last round for the day before he could actually rest a few hours before heading back to Yoshiwara.

When he guided the two men out of the meeting room and down the corridor they could hear the wind hitting the house pretty strong, so the weather had become even worse. At the end of the corridor he saw Aran approaching them with fast steps. When he spotted Taiga he looked kind of troubled, but then his look turned softer, almost apologizing and he bowed towards the Shogunate members and hurried to the meeting room without even looking at Taiga.

He wondered if anything had happened, because after what Domoto had just told him, the possibility was definitely there.

Before he stepped into the prepared room he saw how Domoto guided Myuto out of the room and told him something on which the boy vanished towards the kitchen, which meant that they had maybe ran out of sake. But his expression had also tensed now, so maybe Aran’s visit was indeed more serious than he wished. But for now he had to do his work. Politics had nothing to do with him after all.

***

Towards the end of the night most people had left Domoto’s house or also taken the offer to rest in one of the many empty rooms and leave the next day.

Taiga had been sure that Domoto would ask for him and Myuto in the end, because he usually did that and spend the rest of the night with them until they left the next day. This time though he had sent Myuto and him to one of the empty rooms by themselves and told them to take a long rest.

They had both speculated about what could have made him feel that restless, because it wasn’t at all like Domoto to get shaken by small matters. In the end they thought that whatever Aran had told him must have ruined his mood and they decided to actually take the opportunity to rest early.

When Taiga finally woke up again he felt like it was definitely already afternoon the next day. So he hurried to sit up, but didn’t want to wake Myuto before making sure that it was indeed already okay to leave. He got up and went out to the corridor and the light falling in from the windows showed that it was indeed already midday.

“Can something like this even happen?”

He turned around and saw two of Domoto’s maids clean one of the rooms. They hadn’t noticed him and kept throwing some futons out in the corridor.

“Right? I know it’s been dry all those days and the wind also definitely sped the fire up, but we can’t even be sure if this residence will be okay.”

Another fire? The one he had seen the day before had been small and on the other side of Edo so it couldn’t be the same, could it? For now he wanted to find Domoto so he decided to walk up to their room to ask if they had seen him.

“But it spread over several kilometers over just one night and with the wind that strong yesterday it’s no miracle that it hit Yoshiwara with full force. I feel so sorry for them being taken by such surprise in the middle of the night.”

Taiga stopped dead on his tracks in the doorframe on hearing that and the two girls turned around to him and bowed slightly as they saw him.

“What did you just say?” Taiga eventually brought out.

“There was a fire which spread over several kilometers,” one of them repeated.

“You said it reached Yoshiwara?”

“It has spread even further as it seems. Yoshiwara has been almost completely destroyed since the early morning hours.”

No this couldn’t be…

Nothing of what they had just said made sense. He was still asleep, trapped in a nightmare. He was sure of it!

Unable to even process what he had been told he hurried back the corridor and dashed back into the room.

“Myuto, get up! MYUTO!”

The boy in question almost jumped up on Taiga’s loud voice. “What? What’s happening?”

“Yoshiwara...it burned down…” Taiga repeated as if it was just a message he had to pass on and Myuto took a felt eternity to even wake up enough to understand. When he did he jumped up immediately. “WHAT? How, I mean, when?”

“I don’t know! The maids just talked about it, I don’t know…”

Stressed out Taiga grabbed his wrist and then looked with wide eyes at his bracelet. First he thought everything must be fine, because Juri had told him that he had felt when Taiga and Reo had been in trouble, but Juri had taken the bracelet of, even worse he had thrown it more or less away. Was this all their fault? Was there even any connection left between them?

“We have to hurry back!” Myuto said and threw Taiga’s Yukata at him. They always brought a normal Yukata for the day after and they hurried to get dressed and find Domoto.

They found him in the meeting room and the latter greeted them casually as if he hadn’t heard about the fire which was definitely not the case.

“Domoto-dono, we are sorry that we have to leave so abruptly, but there had been a fire in Yoshiwara and we need to head back,” Taiga apologized to the latter and tried to be as polite as possible.

To their surprise Domoto didn’t seem in any kind surprised by their reaction it even seemed as if he felt kind of guilty, but Taiga couldn’t bother with his reaction for now. When they headed to the door though someone stepped in their way.

“Aran,” Taiga said shocked, because the latter wasn’t looking too good. He was smelling of smoke and his hands and face were strained in black.

“What happened?” Myuto asked in panic as well.

“You were at the fire!” Taiga concluded and took Aran by the arms. “Did you go to Yoshiwara? Is everyone okay?”

Instead of replying, Aran looked to the ground on which Taiga felt the worst sting ever. Not even a sting, more like thousands of thin needles piercing his whole body.

“Boys, I think it would be safer for you to stay here until the fire is under control,” Domoto said. Aran looked up at them and tried to get a grip and nodded.

“I also think you should stay here. Things are a mess out there. The wind makes the fire spread towards another direction so you are save here.”

Taiga didn’t miss the side glance towards Domoto and then he was able to connect the dots. From one moment to the other his shock has been completely replaced by anger.

“You knew! You came to tell Domoto about the fire last night!” Taiga concluded on which Myuto’s look also darkened and moved from Aran to Domoto.

“I wanted to make sure that you are safe before heading over so I asked Domoto to make sure that you will stay here,” Aran replied honestly.

“You are unbelievable!” Taiga hissed and wanted to walk passed Aran who grabbed him by the arm.

“Taiga, you can’t go there!”

“OF COURSE I CAN, AND I WILL,” Taiga finally lost it and shook the latter’s arm off. “How dare you keep something like this a secret? We need to help the others. See how bad the damage is! If we had known earlier then-”

“Then you would have died as well,” Aran cut him harshly.

Myuto gasped on his words, but Taiga’s rage had made him unable to process his words until he finally did and took Aran by the shoulders.

“What do you mean?”

Aran looked to the ground again on which Taiga shook him and the latter finally looked up again. “The wind got stronger too fast and changed directions without any warning. It was in the middle of the night and we didn’t have enough time to evacuate everyone.”

“No, this can’t be happening…”

There had been several fires before. They had survived them all even with their house burning down.

“You said the fire is still spreading?” Myuto asked as he got a grip first.

“Unfortunately yes. It rolled over Yoshiwara and spreads eastwards. Yoshiwara is still covered in flames, it’s too dangerous to even enter the district. We couldn’t even make it to most of the streets to search for survivors yet...”

All this talking wouldn’t bring them any further. The missing details Aran wasn’t willing to share made Taiga fear for the worst. Without wasting any more time he finally dashed away from the others, ignoring their shouting.

Myuto was following him and so was Aran of course and as angry as he was that Domoto had behaved that calm while he knew in what danger his friends and also Reo were, he couldn’t blame him too much. If what Aran said was true they wouldn't have been able to stop the fire anyway. But that didn’t mean they didn’t want to help their friends.

Even the first step outside made Taiga gasped already. The sky was black. Kilometers over kilometers he could see black smoke covering the sky. How could this have happened in just one day and night?

“Don’t space out!” Myuto yelled as he kept running and Taiga hurried to follow him.

They soon reached an area completely empty of people. Everyone had been evacuated and the last people there tried to rescue as much of their belongings as possible before the wind would maybe change again.

A few minutes later they heard people yelling. People who tried to bring water to the burning districts were running towards the same direction as them. Police officers were trying to get people away from the dangerous parts of the city, but they kept moving even as the smoke made it hard for them to breath.

And then they finally made it close enough to see the first burning buildings. Others were already completely burned down, leaving nothing but black ashes on the ground.

Now it got hard to find the right way as they had to dodge dangerous streets and couldn’t identify the usual buildings on the way as they had vanished.

The next turn brought them in such a dangerous area that Aran shouted at them to slow down, but Taiga’s heart was hammering too hard to slow down. He needed to see with his own eyes, needed to see that everyone was fine!

Running with all his might he hadn’t noticed that Myuto had stopped dead on his tracks and he collided with him, almost stumbling.

“Why did you-”

Taiga didn’t need to keep talking as he looked up and saw the entrance gate to Yoshiwara or more what was left of it…

The gate was still on fire, its read color dripping to the ground like blood. Behind it was a wall of fire visible. Nakanocho was burning! Their most beautiful street was gone! The Sakura trees had been turned to ashes, the tea houses were slowly crumbling and the sound of the flames licking the wood of all the remaining buildings was horrifying to their ears.

Yet Taiga couldn’t stop and he finally made a step forward on which Aran tried to hold him back, but Taiga ripped his arm out of his grip immediately and ran into the flames.

“Idiots, come back here,” Aran shouted after them, but there was no way they would.

The first shock hit them when they passed by Tegoshi’s shop and all they found was a black spot, already destroyed by the fire.

“This can’t be happening,” Taiga whispered, but he couldn’t stop now. He needed to check on their house, needed to know what had happened on their side.

“Taiga, I need to check on my house,” Myuto yelled at him when Taiga crossed over the river.

“Be careful,” Taiga shouted over to him, because he wouldn’t even try to stop him even though the part Myuto was running off to had been completely destroyed. Some people were around, most of them from the police, others with heavy burns, survivors of the fire!

Behind the river things turned bad, really bad!

A building collapsed right next to him without a warning and Aran had caught up to him right in time to pull him away.

“FOR GOD’S SAKE TAIGA, WAIT!” Aran shouted at him and kept such a tight hold on his arm this time that he couldn’t easily escape.

“I NEED TO FIND THEM,” Taiga shouted back, but was surprised when Aran shoved him to the front, urging him to keep going.

“And I am not here to stop you, but to make sure you don’t kill yourself being that reckless!”

If the situation wasn’t so dangerous he would have liked to turn and hug Aran, because he could always count on him, but for now they had to concentrate.

Taiga tried to see if he could spot Nakamaru’s house, but it was a few streets away and the flames and collapsed buildings made it impossible to see it. All he could hope for was that not just Tegoshi and Massu, but also Reo and the members of the house had made it out in time.

“Taiga, stop!” Aran shouted and pulled him back before he could actually run right into a pile of burning bars which had collapsed over the street, blocking their way.

“This way!” Taiga said, knowing his way around Yoshiwara well enough to be able to find another way to their house.

After they had to make a few more turns because of blocked streets and collapsed buildings Taiga felt like he had lost orientation after all.

“Damn it, where are we?” He hissed getting desperate, but when he wanted to keep dashing through all the remains Aran suddenly pulled on his sleeve. “What is it, we have to hurry!”

“Taiga,” Aran said in the most sorrowful way Taiga had ever heard him speak in.

“What…?” Taiga asked again, but suddenly all his energy was gone. Like an empty shell he stared back at Aran. He was too afraid to follow his look even though he had already understood what Aran wanted to say, what he was looking at.

“We are already here…” Aran said before he looked up at Taiga with such a sad expression that it broke Taiga into pieces before he even dared to look.

Ashes. All that was left of his life in Yoshiwara. His eyes filled with tears the moment he dared to turn and look at the place their house had stood before. They had lost their first house as well, but this time it was different. This was destruction in its most horrible way.

“But, where is everyone…” Taiga whispered and dared to step closer. Their entrance door was lying right in front of him, still burning. He could spot a part of the stairs to the second floor, also parts of their private quarters which had crushed down from the second floor and were now burning on top of the ashes. What made a shiver ran through his whole body was that he spotted some Kimonos, also other things from the house which they would usually try to get out if there was time.

“Taiga…” Aran said and grabbed him by the Yukata as he wanted to step on the remains, but one look from Taiga made him fall silent and release him. He couldn’t ask of him to stay back, not this time. Taiga needed to know.

He couldn’t even say why, but his legs carried him through the ashes as if his body knew where to go. A few burning beams made it hard for him to keep going and even though everything was a mess he knew he was standing inside their living quarters in the back of the house.

Then he finally felt something. He grabbed his wrist immediately as his bracelet felt heavier out of a sudden. On shaking legs he kept moving until he saw what he didn’t want to see in the ashes. How did it not get burned?

Taiga crouched down and picked the blue bracelet up with shaking hands. It felt cold while it had been in the flames for so long. The sting Taiga felt after touching it made him tear up. Reality was slowly catching up with him, but he didn't want it to be true. It just couldn’t be.

“Taiga!”

A familiar voice! Taiga swirled around and tried to spot the person who had called out to him. He finally found him next to Aran, but unfortunately his worries weren’t taken away by the two figures he spotted.

Looking over at him in sheer panic were Taisuke and Hiromitsu. As grateful as he was that they had come to help or look for the others it wasn’t stopping the racing of his heart.

He kept a tight hold on Juri’s bracelet and started walking back towards the others on unsteady feet.

Why were his steps faster this time? Was he actually trying to run away? When he tried to get over a few wooden bars in his way his leg got caught on it and he fell to the front. He fell flat on the ground, hurting his hands while trying to stop his fall and the bracelet landed a bit away from him, half under a destroyed paper wall from one of the guest rooms.

“Taiga, wait we will come and get you,” Hiromitsu shouted out to him, too worried for him to let him come back on his own in his fragile state.

Taiga sat up though and crawled over to get the bracelet. He lifted the half burned paper wall to get it, but then the wood in his hand crumbled, revealing what was under it.

Taiga froze just before he touched the bracelet. Right next to it he saw it. A hand, black and burned. In sheer terror he looked up, finding two bodies under the paper wall.

It took maybe a second, maybe half a minute, but when realization finally hit him he screamed out, falling to the back and crawling away. Just at that moment the other three had finally made it over to him.

“Oh my god,” Taisuke let out as he spotted them as well. Hiromitsu hurried to Taiga instead and Aran rushed over to the bodies. It was impossible to tell who it was, but now Taiga was faced with the worst of the worst.

“This can’t be happening…” Taiga whimpered, tears filling his eyes again and he jumped up, suddenly his panic defeating the fear.

“Taiga, calm down,” Hiromitsu tried his luck, but Taiga shoved him to the side to get the bracelet. His tears burned in his eyes when he dared to look at the bodies again, but they wouldn’t flow over. Was he unable to feel sad? What was that numb feeling?

“Juri…” he whispered and suddenly turned away from the others and started to grab everything that could hide another body under it.

“Taiga, please stop it,” Hiromitsu tried his luck, but when he reached out for the latter Taiga slashed his arm away, giving him a death glare before he turned to keep searching.

“We have to get him out of here,” Aran said and the others agreed. "His arm is also still hurt from a recent incident. He needs to stop moving it!"

Taiga ignored them and kept looking, scratching and burning his hands and legs on the remains around, but he just couldn’t stop searching. What did he hope to find? How did he know that it wasn’t actually Juri he had found already? Maybe it was Reia, Kentaro or Kamenashi? Why did he need to see the painful truth?

“It’s enough, let’s get out of here for now, it’s dangerous!” Taisuke tried his luck, but this time Taiga slashed wild around him when he felt his hand on his arm.

“LEAVE ME ALONE! I NEED TO FIND THEM! I NEED TO FIND JURI!”

Once more Taiga tried to get away from them, but it was no use. Hiromitsu and Taisuke pulled him back no matter how much he screamed and slashed around.

“Taiga, listen-”

“NO I DON’T WANT TO LISTEN,” Taiga yelled on which Hiromitsu turned him around, but instead of getting angry he pulled the latter in a tight hug. “I can’t leave...I need to know...I need- I need to find them…”

Finally Taiga’s tears were flowing over and he clenched his hands in the older one’s clothes as he started screaming. Reality hit him right at the weakest moment, had destroyed all his hopes and now there was nothing left but sorrow and emptiness.

“I am so sorry,” Hiromitsu said, stroking over the boy’s hair waiting for him to calm down.

Taiga felt how his body got heavy and his sight got even blurrier. Hope was lost, his life as he knew it was over and he didn’t know what would await him from now on, maybe he didn’t even want to know.

When he felt his legs suddenly giving up on him the bracelet slipped out of his hand and he fell into Hiromitsu’s arms, the latter sinking to the ground with him.

“They are all gone…” Taiga whimpered with his eyes closed. “Juri…”

Chapter Text

“First time for you in Yoshiwara?”

Taiga just nodded nervously on which the boy let out a chuckle and moved a bit closer on which Taiga tensed.

“Okay for starters, just because this is Yoshiwara, you don't have to fear that everyone here just thinks about sex, not all of the time at least.”

That didn't help Taiga to calm down, because he had seen the boys’ looks and they weren't even customers.

“You don't really want to be here, do you?”

Taiga didn't even dare to shake his head, afraid of receiving a punishment for it.

“By the way my name is Kentaro, would you mind telling me yours?”

“Taiga…”

The pain was making it hard to breath, yet he wouldn’t wake up. Happy memories slowly turning into nightmares…

“ Wuhu~ we get the newbie,” Reo let out enthusiastic before he exchanged a high five with Juri.

Taiga carefully got away between them and got out of the bath. When Kentaro handed him the towel the two boys started struggling in the bath and Reo pushed Juri’s head underwater before the latter pulled his leg away so that he also landed with his head underwater. Taiga looked at them for a brief moment before a chuckle made him turn around again.

“What?”

Kentaro gave him a bright smile in reply on which Taiga’s look turned to confused. “Did I see a brief smile on your face just now?”

A smile he would never form again. Encounters he wished had never happened, because the pain was just too much to bear…

“You love me, that is a good enough reason to interfere with everything considering my life.”

“Yes I love you and I'd do everything to help you, but I need you to allow me to interfere.”

Juri leant a bit to the front as he waited for his reply and of course Taiga knew what he needed to hear.

“I love you too.”

Yes he loved him. A love which had brought them so much pain in the end. A love that had cost so much. He didn’t want to keep dreaming. He didn’t need all those memories, all those reminders of a life he’d never be able to go back to.

“Leave me alone! Please, don’t make me remember!”

As if someone had heard his desperate begging his dreams turned black, a welcomed darkness surrounding him. How much he wished he could forever stay at this empty place. No pain, no tears, not remembering...remembering what?

A restless feeling took over after the darkness seemed to have swallowed him for good and made every single emotion disappear and turned it into numbness.

With a scream Taiga woke up, sitting straight up on the futon. A futon he didn’t know, in a room he had never been in.

No one was with him, but the door was wide open and he saw people hurrying up and down the corridor. Women in Yukata carrying bandages and bowls of clean water.

Completely confused about what was going on Taiga looked at his own Yukata which was a clean grey one, but his hands were stained black and a bowl of water next to his futon showed that they had tried to clean him, but didn’t succeed or didn’t have enough time.

When he stretched his arms a bit he hissed and pulled his sleeve up. His arm was bandaged the whole way up and the pain was definitely from a cut.

Then Taiga noticed the blue bracelet lying next to his pillow and he picked it up, fascinated by the way the stones seemed to move as if they were alive, connecting to a living heart. Then he looked at the pink bracelet at his wrist, which seemed to do the same movement, but it felt like even though they were somehow connected the blue bracelet wasn’t his to keep.

Carefully he got up and took a look outside the room, finding several more rooms with wounded people in them. A lot of them seemed to have been burned in a fire. None of the faces he saw seemed familiar neither did this place and the numb feeling inside of him suddenly seemed to want to break into pain and Taiga held his chest.

This wasn’t his place to be. He didn’t want to be in pain. He went back to the futon, but except for the bracelets there was nothing there, no belongings. He lifted the blue bracelet up and his inside seemed to start burning, but it didn’t hurt. It was indeed irritating and this bracelet wasn’t meant to be with him so he put it down on the pillow before he looked at his own bracelet.

Yes this one belonged to him. It soothed him and gave him the numb and empty feeling he preferred. Whatever it was it made him feel at ease, so he decided to leave all the unknown places and people behind.

Stepping out on the street everything was still unfamiliar. People were rushing passed him and he heard them shouting about a fire and when he turned around he could see the black smoke over the city.

Another sting, another feeling he didn’t need. This place wasn’t good for him! He needed a place to feel calm and at ease. There was nothing here for him anyway. Nameless districts, faceless people and a lot of pain.

Taiga looked ahead. A street leading westwards lay ahead and suddenly he smiled. He didn’t even know why, but he could feel how he got pushed towards that direction yet he felt a tear rolling down his cheek. An unknown tear, an unknown emotion.

There was no meaning in sharing a tear for something he didn’t remember! Whatever had happened before made him feel pain and so he had to leave it behind to rescue himself and find a place for his own.

***

Time had become irrelevant while the surroundings kept changing and the light raised and fell. By now he should be tired, but all he felt was numbness.

Taiga…

With a hiss Taiga grabbed his wrist and stumbled backwards the exact moment some Samurai on horses dashed through the streets.

“Get out of the way boy!” One of them shouted, but they didn’t stop. And soon the small street fell silent again.

With a confused expression he looked around. Where was he? The town he had reached seemed small, not many people were on the street and it was already getting dark or was it almost morning?

Then he remembered his name being called, it was his name, wasn’t it? But no one was around him and then he realized that he was still grabbing his wrist. It hadn’t actually been pain, but something about the bracelet had made him wake up from his numbness. Maybe he should leave it behind as well? But just that thought made him realize that he couldn’t. It was his only belonging.

After finally calming down a bit he looked around and walked up to a small Ryokan on the street. An old lady greeted him at the door.

“Excuse me, can you tell me which town this is?” He asked politely.

“This town’s name is Ageo.” 

“Ageo,” Taiga repeated, trying to remember if he had heard it before and then he gasped. “Am I on the Nakasendo?”

The old lady chuckled and nodded. “How can you not know that you’re on the Nakasendo?”

Yes how could he not know? But this meant he had walked out of Edo long ago. His legs would definitely start hurting soon, but for now he had nowhere else to go anyway.

“Thank you,” he said and wanted to leave again on which the old lady grabbed him by the sleeve.

“Where are you going this late at night? It’s not safe outside. There are a few rooms available. Why don’t you stay?”

“Thank you so much for the offer, but I don’t have any money to pay for it,” Taiga apologized on which the lady shook her head.

“Then how about you wake up early and prepare the breakfast for the other customers with me, then your work will be the payment.”

“That is really nice of you, but I can’t accept that.”

“Of course you can and now finally come in and close the door!”

She obviously didn’t accept a no so Taiga sighed and slid the door close.

***

The next morning Taiga had helped the old lady with making breakfast for the other guests as he had promised, but of course she had also offered him some breakfast for free and at this point Taiga couldn’t even refuse anymore, because that he was hungry was more than obvious.

“So where is a fine young boy like you heading to in the middle of summer?”

Taiga choked on his rice on hearing that and the lady laughed, handing him a cup of tea. It wasn’t the question itself which had made him feel weird, but the ‘fine’ part, because even without knowing his own past there was definitely nothing ‘fine’ about him.

“I am not sure to be honest,” Taiga replied.

“Well young people like traveling the country after all, right?” The lady said with a smile and grabbed his empty rice bowl to fill it up again on which Taiga thanked her with an apologizing expression. When he took the bowl back the lady looked at his wrist.

“Oh? Such a beautiful bracelet,” She said, taking a close look and Taiga smiled, stretching out his arm so she could touch it. “Where did you get it from?”

“I don’t know actually,” Taiga said, this time feeling a bit stupid about having to reply to everything with a don’t know…

The lady though squeezed his hand with another smile. “Wherever you got it from I would say it’s something precious, right? Take good care of it!”

He would, because somehow he also felt like it was something he should take good care of!

Taiga thanked the old lady once more for everything she had done for him and he made sure to help out in the kitchen with cleaning the dishes until all the other guests had left.

When he wanted to excuse himself the lady handed him a small bag though and Taiga shook his head. “I can’t accept this.”

“Of course you can! It’s rude to not accept a present,” the lady said, giving him a knowing look and Taiga sighed, nodding.

“Thank you so much. I am so sorry for not being able to pay for staying.”

“You paid with helping me out so stop feeling guilty! The world shouldn’t be all about money, right?”

She was so right about that and Taiga thanked her again before heading outside.

“And be careful on your way! Recently there are a lot of soldiers and samurai on their way Southwest!”

Taiga promised to be careful and kept walking on the Nakasendo without actually knowing where he wanted to go, but wasn’t the lady right? He was young and could just travel around, especially because he didn’t know at all what else he was supposed to do.

On his way he met a lot of merchants, royals on horses and also Samurai heading southwest as the lady had said. He recognized the symbol of the Shogunate on some of their clothes, so he hadn’t forgotten everything.

A sign at the side of the road had ‘Karuizawa’ written on it, which was obviously the next really big city he could reach. But in front of him high mountains were making his hopes of being able to reach it pretty low.

Deciding it was time for a break after he had walked for hours he sat at the side of the road and opened the small bag the lady had given him. With a gasp he realized that she hadn’t just packed some food for him, but also had put some Koban*₁ in it as well. With two Koban he could easily find a Ryokan to stay for a whole week, get food and maybe also invest in different clothes, because his Geta weren’t the best to walk such a distance and he would prefer a Hakama so much over his Yukata.

He couldn’t thank her anymore, but he would forever be grateful, especially because she didn’t even know him and presented him with so much money that was way too kind. For now Taiga put the Koban back into the bag, making sure they would be safe, while he took out one of the rice balls the lady had made for him.

For a bit longer Taiga decided to rest as he was sure he needed to stop at a small town again to find a place to stay for one night anyway. Before he had realized it he had fallen asleep, but on the sound of a carriage approaching he woke up.

The person approaching seemed to be a merchant or a farmer. A steer was pulling the small carriage with some grains on it.

It had already become late afternoon, the sunlight already vanishing slowly behind the mountains, so Taiga had to hurry if he wanted to make it to the next town before it got dark.

“Hey boy, where are you heading to?” The man on the carriage asked him.

“The next town,” Taiga replied with a light bow.

“Then you better jump on, because I doubt you will reach Takasaki before it’s already nightfall if you walk.”

Taiga hesitated a bit, because he couldn’t accept another offer like this, could he? But now he had some money to pay the man for his kindness even though he had the feeling he would refuse the money.

“Don’t stand there, come on. My steer won’t bite you,” the man laughed on which Taiga showed a slightly embarrassed smile before he took his offer and climbed on the carriage.

***

Another day, another night. More nice people and finally he arrived at Karuizawa! He took the chance to finally buy a Hakama. He decided for a grey Hakama and a dark blue top, even though he was pretty close to buying a brighter color from the shop. But somehow he didn’t want too much attention while traveling so he went with darker colors.

His money would still be enough for at least two more stays at a Ryokan, but he should actually try and maybe make some money before traveling somewhere else.

The question was what place to choose? Did he even have any work experience?

For now he decided to head down the main street and look at the shops they had. Most of them were small restaurants or Ryokans.

A few shops later he heard loud voices and he soon saw a pretty big shop with a lot of benches outside next to the street.

"Please wait a moment the next table will be free soon." A woman apologized to one of the waiting customers.

When Taiga stopped in front of it he read the sign over the shop saying 'Kirosoba'.

"Welcome, do you need a seat? A few people just left so we have space."

Taiga looked over to the young lady who smiled back at him gently. She was maybe around his age, dressed in a blue Yukata, the sleeves put back to make her work easier and she had also put her hair back with a headband. He bowed slightly, but then shook his head.

"I'm actually looking for a place to work at for a few days before I keep traveling."

Hearing that she gasped and her smile grew even wider before she suddenly grabbed Taiga by the sleeve.

"Come with me!"

Not really seeing a reason to refuse Taiga followed her into the shop. It was pretty big and crowded inside as well, just one other staff serving the guests inside.

"Chef, here is someone who wants a job!"

The lady had shouted it towards the serving area, but there was no one in sight.

"Wait here for a moment," the woman said with a pretty excited expression before she went back to work.

Taiga shifted a bit uncomfortable in front of the counter and after another moment someone finally came around the corner.

"Tai-chan, get the order!" The man shouted at the other person inside the shop and the boy dashed over to the counter and took the soba. On a closer look Taiga realized that the other boy had dark silver hair, which was a color he hadn’t seen on someone so far.

"So you want to work?"

Taiga automatically straightened his back a bit this time when he turned back to the man who was obviously the owner. He was maybe in his 50s, but he still seemed pretty energic and also kind of scary.

Taiga nodded slowly on which the man stepped around the corner right in front of Taiga with a scanning look.

"Did you ever work in a soba restaurant?"

"I don't think so," Taiga replied on which the man raised an eyebrow at him. Right, his answers were more than weird so he needed to either make himself clearer or… "No I haven't worked in a restaurant before. I only did farm work."

Or lie… because telling people that he lost his memory might have bad outcomes. For now lying would definitely be the better option.

"What's your name?"

"Taiga."

The chef formed a weird smile on hearing that, but nodded eventually.

"Well Taiga then I'll give you a chance as we don't have enough people anyway and recently the Nakasendo is busy!"

Taiga bowed with a thankful smile towards the owner.

"It's busy right now so wait until the evening and then our staff will explain everything to you. By the way do you have a place to stay?”

“Not until now,” Taiga replied.

“You can stay upstairs with the other two if you want. It’s not like a fancy Ryokan, but there are enough futons for all of you if you want to consider it.”

Once more Taiga bowed and thanked the man for the offer. He was definitely going to take the chance to stay at the same place where he was working it seemed convenient and of course cheaper than a Ryokan.

For the time being Taiga didn’t want to be in the way so over the busy hours he walked around the town for a while. Things seemed to be busy in Karuizawa and a lot of people traveled to all direction over the Nakasendo around here. The amount of Samurai and soldiers crossing his way made Taiga wonder if something was going on? No one was talking about a war or uproar, so maybe things were fine and he was just worrying over nothing?

“Boy you forgot your change,” an old lady was heard from a Ryokan where a boy around Taiga’s age had just walked out the door.

The boy had short hair, but still a tiny ponytail in the back, tied with a white rope from which a few white pearls and weathers were hanging. His Hakama was in light grey with a white Haori and he didn’t look at all like a person who would usually travel by foot. Even the Katana he was carrying seemed special. It was in a white and silver sheath and different to the Samurai he didn’t carry a Shoto with him.

“Oh thank you, but please keep the change. It’s for your hospitality! You don’t charge enough for such a beautiful Ryokan in the first place.”

The lady thanked the young man on which he smiled and bowed. Even his movements were way too delicate for a warrior, but he carried a sword so he was definitely a fighter in one way or the other.

The boy started walking away from the Ryokan, directly towards Taiga’s direction and when he realized how much he was staring at the boy he looked away in embarrassment before the boy could notice.

When he passed by him he realized that the boy was just a bit taller than him even though his slim figure made him look even taller.

He dared to look over his shoulder after he had passed by and the boy kept walking down the main street of the town with slow steps, as if he wasn’t in a hurry at all and just enjoyed looking at every shop and restaurant.

“Oh damn it,” Taiga said as he realized that he had forgotten about the time and he had to hurry back to the restaurant.

“Oh there you are,” the woman from before shouted over to him as she was putting the chairs and tables back into the restaurant after they had already closed.

“Tai-chan, he is back!”

A few seconds later the staff from inside the restaurant showed up in the doorframe and he scanned Taiga with an intense look. “So you never worked in a restaurant before, right?”

Taiga just nodded and took a closer look at the boy as well. They both seemed around the same age and height, also not much difference in their appearance except for the silver hair, but something about the boy told Taiga that working in a soba restaurant wasn’t what he was usually doing.

He could already tell on the boy’s posture and the way he looked at him that he was good in analyzing people.

“What did you do until now?”

“Farming,” Taiga lied again.

“Where?”

“Edo,” Taiga lied once more.

“Mh,” Tai-chan let out before he sighed and grabbed a towel, throwing it at Taiga who caught it. “Fine, if you don’t want to tell us the truth you don’t have to. It’s just an easy job to get money to keep traveling. Same for you, right?”

The boy was indeed not the usual restaurant staff, but that also meant Taiga didn’t even need to bother with more lies, because there was no way the other one would buy them.

“By the way I am Aki,” the woman said with a bright smile. “My mother lives in a small village close to here and I work here to help her out with the money.”

“Nice to meet you,” Taiga said and bowed. “I am Taiga.”

On his self-introduction Aki and Tai-chan exchanged a confused look on which the girl started laughing and Tai-chan rolled his eyes.

“For god’s sake, why did the chef think this was a good idea?”

“But you are Tai-chan and he is Taiga so that’s easy, isn’t it?” Aki said with a teasing smile.

“Wait,” Taiga finally said in realization pointing at the other one. “Your name is Taiga too, isn’t it?”

“Akiyama Taiga, yes. But call me Tai-chan, because everyone does and like this no one will be confused when someone calls for either of us.”

Taiga slowly nodded. Well this was definitely something they all needed to get used to, but as much as he knew he didn’t have a nickname so it should work out.

“Don’t just stay around there, help Aki clean the tables.”

It wasn’t like Tai-chan had a massive strict tone, but something told Taiga that he didn’t actually liked it to ask for the same thing twice so he nodded and helped them with the cleaning part, hoping that at least for a few days or weeks he could stay here without causing trouble.

 

+++

*₁Koban - Japanese gold coin in Edo period

Chapter Text

“What, did I do something wrong?” Taiga asked when Aki kept looking at him with a teasing smile after his first workday was almost over and he brought some dishes back to the counter.

“No, actually I am pretty impressed, because you seem like someone who is good with customers, but you are only good with rice, right?”

First Taiga wanted to ask what that meant, but then he remembered his own lie about having done farm work so he let out a hesitant chuckle and nodded.

“Awesome, if you are so good with them then bring them their food, because I am not in the mood for fights,” Tai-chan said as he brought two bowls of soba to the counter and pointed at a table with two grumpy looking men. “They were so annoyed already when I asked them their order that I am definitely not going to bring them their food.”

“Then let Aki go?” Taiga said neutral on which the girl pouted. “What? You are a girl they won’t do anything to you, right?”

“Well, to be honest they could actually start groping her, because as much as they try to pick a fight with men they also seem like the type to be rude to girls,” Tai-chan said.

“Great so you want me to get punched instead of you?”

“Yes, exactly,” he replied without any hesitation and handed Taiga the bowls.

With a sigh Taiga turned and walked over to their table, because it was his first workday and there was no way he would pick a fight with the others.

He tried to put a neutral expression on when he put the bowls down at the table with the two men. They were talking when he stopped next to the table, but Taiga didn’t even try to listen to the topic. They were maybe in their early thirties, dressed in hakama, both two swords on the side of it, so they were most likely samurai or more likely….pretending to be, because they didn’t seem educated or from any high rank. So mercenary was maybe the better description.

“Please enjoy your meal,” Taiga said, bowed slightly and wanted to turn on the spot, but of course it wouldn’t go that smooth, would it?

One of them grabbed him by the sleeve of his work Yukata he had gotten from the Chef and turned him back around.

“What’s with the cold attitude?” The man said, but took his bowl and started eating without even looking at Taiga.

“My apologies if I seemed rude,” Taiga replied with a calm attitude. Why wasn’t he getting nervous? Tai-chan had warned him that they could pick a fight and yet he wasn’t feeling scared? Maybe he had been in situations like this before, but whatever it was, thanks to that experience he was totally fine with their rude behavior.

“Mh, your food is also not as good as everyone in town praises it,” the second man said and put the bowl down after actually already finishing half of the soba.

“I am sorry if the taste of our soba is not satisfying for you,” Taiga replied on which the man rolled his eyes and gave Taiga an annoyed look.

“So what are you going to do about it?”

“I can get the chef for you in case you want to speak to him or I can also give you your money back if you prefer that?”

Maybe it was his calm attitude, but the two men seemed to get super irritated by his behavior and even though he hadn’t been rude at all one of them slammed his hand on the table so that a lot of other customers turned towards them.

Aki and Tai-chan were busy at other tables, but they also gave him a worried look, not that Taiga was worried as weird as it sounded.

“You are pretty annoying, you know that?”

Taiga only smiled, but before he could reply with his typical apology the man pointed at him warningly. “One more stupid apology and I will cut you in half.”

He had his hand warningly on his sword yet Taiga still didn’t feel threatened.

“I unfortunately have to let you know that it’s not allowed to use weapons in our restaurant,” Taiga let out as calm as before and that was the final straw it needed to make one of them snap.

Luckily the table was outside the shop and at the side of the street so Taiga only had to make a few steps to the back to be out of reach and away from other customers. A woman screamed behind them as the man jumped up and drew his sword without a warning. A few other customers also stood up and went on distance.

“You little smartass, I am going to teach you some manners!”

“Weird, because the only thing I showed you until now is how manners work, you on the other hand don’t seem to have any,” Taiga finally dared to say something more offensive. Actually the first thing someone could actually feel offended about, but those two seemed to be in the mood of wanting to pick a fight in the first place so Taiga’s calm attitude triggered them even more. Luckily the second man seemed to enjoy it more to watch instead of attacking Taiga as well.

Looking over the shoulder of the man in front of him Taiga could see how Tai-chan dashed up the stairs to their living quarters, but then he had to focus back as the man lunged out with the sword.

Not even knowing how his body moved on its own. He was able to dodge all the attacks, even though it took some effort, but he indeed seemed used to sword fighting in one way or the other. Unfortunately he had triggered the second man with his dodging skills and he stood up as well, drawing his sword too. Now he finally felt alarmed, the situation growing too dangerous to take it lightly and he wished for a sword, but unfortunately he had none, so he had to improvise.

It didn’t take long until he was way too close to get hit by one of their attacks and he thought about running, but where to? The town was full of people and he didn’t want to make anyone a target for their rage.

His small moment of hesitation almost costed him a fatal attack when he barely turned in time to only get cut a bit on the shoulder by one of them and stumbled to the back. The second man took that small moment of carelessness and attacked right after him. It was the stupidest move Taiga could come up with, but as he wasn’t able to get out of the way fast enough he put his arms in front of him to block the sword, but luckily the sound of another sword stopping it before reaching his arms was heard before he would to experience the pain of a lost arm.

“What a ruckus on such a nice day,” the person who had appeared next to Taiga said making the latter gasped, because he remembered the boy. With the same calm smile as he had seen on him yesterday when he had walked around the main street the boy faced the two men in front of him.

He stepped in front of Taiga and forced the men to step back. The sword he had drawn was as special as the white sheath it had been in. There was a green shimmer on it and as crazy as it sounded it felt like something was alive inside of it. But it wasn’t just Taiga who felt something weird about the sword as the two men also exchanged a worried look and took a few more steps back.

“Are you okay?” The boy asked, but didn’t turn around to Taiga, keeping his eyes firmly on the two men. Taiga nodded, but realized that the boy couldn’t see that of course.

“Yes I am, thanks to you.”

“Oh aren’t you sweet, so polite,” the boy said with a lopsided smile before he rose his sword warningly towards the men.

Taiga saw how Tai-chan finally appeared back in the restaurant to his surprise he was also holding a sword, but he stopped immediately on the sight of the boy in front of Taiga.

“I came to have a nice meal so if you don’t mind I’d like to have it in silence. So please feel free to sit back down, finish your meal and leave, but if you cannot do that then please leave immediately so that all the other people can also enjoy their calm meal.”

While they had seemed offended by Taiga before it was different with him. Even though he was obviously mocking them they didn’t try to attack him. There was something hidden behind the boy’s calm smile and it was dangerous that was for sure. The men finally put their swords back and hurried away from the restaurant, cursing in low voices, but made sure to be out of sight fast.

“Please everyone go back to your meal, it would be a shame to let such a good soba go to waste,” the boy addressed the other customers and while they all still seemed a bit shaken they bowed thankfully towards him and actually sat back down.

“Taiga, are you okay?” Aki asked as she finally dared to hurry over to him as the other boy put his sword back as well.

“Just a small cut, nothing serious,” Taiga assured her, but she looked worried nevertheless.

“Here this will help,” the boy said and handed a small glass vessel to her. “It’s a good medicine to help the wound heal and make sure it won’t get infected. Heat up some water and put it in, then use it to clean his wound after that.”

“Thank you so much, I will immediately do that,” Aki said and told Taiga to wait a moment. She hurried back inside and said something to Tai-chan, most likely that he had to take care of the customers for a moment and a bit reluctant he put the sword behind the counter and headed over to some new customers instead of walking up to Taiga.

“Have a seat while she is preparing it for you,” the boy said, but Taiga shook his head.

“It’s okay, I need to go back to work. But thank you so much, you really came at the perfect timing.”

“Well your life seemed to have been still pretty safe, but losing an arm would have been definitely worse than losing an eye maybe?”

Taiga’s look turned a bit gloomy on that, not because he felt ashamed, but because he didn’t even remember how and why he had this scar over his eye.

“Sorry if I started a topic you don’t want to talk about.”

“No, don’t worry, it’s okay. Do you want anything to eat by the way? You said you wanted a meal, so I don’t want to disturb you any longer.”

Taiga wanted to prepare a table for the boy, but he look him with a light grip on the elbow, on which Taiga looked up at him in confusion. “You are really good with customers I can see that, but how about you learn how to be the same way to yourself?”

Why did it sound so familiar? Why did that statement actually made his heart ache a bit? Whatever reason it was it made him space out enough to give the other one the chance to finally make him sit down and he took the chair opposite of the table to join him. “The other boy seems to have the shop under control right now, so please just wait for the girl to come back and clean your cut?”

A bit embarrassed about the attention he got from the stranger he finally nodded and gave up on going back to work for now, not that the cut was something serious in the first place.

“I am sorry if my question is rude, but-”

“It’s Ryohei.”

“What?”

“You wanted to ask for my name, right?”

And here the boy wasn’t just a good fighter, but also pretty smart. Taiga felt like a child compared to him.

“Abe Ryohei and your name is Taiga, right?”

“Yes,” he replied a bit hesitant on which Ryohei gave him another calm smile and looked around the main street.

“This area seemed so quiet over the last few days, I wonder if trouble is looking for you or if you are just unlucky?”

“Both maybe?” Taiga said with a small smile.

“Then better be careful from now on and make sure you surround yourself with a lot of good people,” Ryohei said and gave Tai-chan a side glance on saying that and Taiga also looked over to the boy. “Good friends can show up from nowhere and disappear as fast, but once you’ve proven that you can trust each other they will always have your back.”

It was such a deep statement while Taiga had been barely in this town for two days and didn’t know Tai-chan or Ryohei at all. But he was indeed right that was for sure. Who he could call a friend over his travel wasn’t clear yet, but he hoped he could find people he can trust!

“Sorry for the wait,” Aki said as she approached them and put a bowl with hot water on the table. “Show me your arm.”

Taiga put his hand on the table and rolled up his sleeve on which Aki started treating his wound, but it wasn’t bad at all.

“Oh,” Ryohei let out as he looked at Taiga’s wrist and the other one followed his look. “That’s a pretty rare bracelet. Lucky that it didn’t break at your fight.”

“Yes, I really treasure it a lot,” Taiga replied without even knowing the meaning of his own words.

“May I?” Ryohei asked and Taiga nodded, lifting his arm a bit so that Ryohei was able to touch it.

The moment he touched it there was something inside of Taiga reacting. He wasn’t jolting or showing any other visible reaction, but something inside of him had just jumped and maybe his eyes plaid tricks on him, but he could swear he just saw how the bracelet changed colors for just a brief second.

“Wow, this is really interesting and it carries some really strong emotions,” Ryohei said as he pulled his hand back with a brighter smile. “You really need to take good care of it! If you lose it you might lose yourself.”

Strong words and here Taiga totally believed in them, not that he knew how Ryohei could understand what he was feeling about the bracelet, but maybe he was as weirdly spiritual about it as he was? Maybe the same way as his sword seemed to be somehow alive it was the same with Taiga’s bracelet?

Whatever the connection between them was it brought a smile on Taiga’s face and he had the feeling that he had found his first friend on his journey.

***

“So farming, right?”

“What?” Taiga asked confused when Tai-chan asked the moment they were actually getting ready to go to sleep.

Aki had the room next to them and had made sure that Taiga’s arm was bandaged properly even though Taiga had told her that the cut was so small that it would be fine in a few days already, but of course she wouldn’t stop worrying.

Tai-chan on the other hand hadn’t talked at all to him for the rest of the day even after Ryohei had left after his meal.

Taiga felt a bit sad when the latter had told him that it was his last day in town and he had to leave, but the same as Taiga he hoped to maybe see him again, because people’s paths cross at least two times in a lifetime. At least that was what Ryohei had told him.

“You still want to keep the lie about your farm work up?” Tai-chan asked more directly this time.

“It’s not a lie,” Taiga said before he sat down on his futon while Tai-chan was already under his own blanket, resting his head on his hand.

“Then let me ask you, what did you do after your farm work?”

“Nothing,” Taiga replied, because that was all he remembered, nothing! But he wasn’t in the mood to justify himself even though he knew it would be easier if he said the truth, but it also somehow scared him and made him feel vulnerable if he did.

“Fine, then I guess you are on a journey to do nothing as well?”

Taiga couldn’t even say that this was wrong, because yes he indeed wasn’t on this journey for any purpose. “Damn, you seem to have a super boring life or so interesting that you cannot share it with me.”

The sudden pouting expression on Tai-chan’s face made Taiga relax a bit finally. The boy didn’t seem too angry even though he knew right from the start that Taiga was lying to him.

“Maybe one day there will be some secrets you discover and then I have to get rid of you?” Taiga teased him, on which the other one rolled his eyes and finally lay down on his back.

“Good luck trying, I saw today that you are quite skilled, with words as with your movements, but even if I gave you a sword I doubt you stand a chance against me.”

“You want to bet?” Taiga didn’t even know where he took the confidence from, but he somehow liked the idea of a challenge. Maybe because it could help him figure out how skilled he was exactly without actually bringing himself into danger.

“Mh, let me sleep about it and tomorrow I will decide if I am in the mood to kick your ass or not.”

It sounded so offending yet so promising and Taiga laughed before he also finally got ready to sleep. “Looking forward to it!”

***

An unknown place, people holding on to him and still he followed willingly. Or didn’t he? It was more of a numbness he could feel, but also some fear about the place he couldn’t recall.

A look around had him jolt as weird creatures were all around him. Hands trying to grab him and voices trying to make him come closer. Closer to the bars of red cages with demon like creatures in them. They tried so desperately to grab him yet he wasn’t as scared as he should be.

Then screams, someone holding on to him, dragging him into an unknown house while fire emerged from every corner.

“Oh, a newbie?”

He looked up at the person who had dragged him along, but then he was suddenly alone, no one there who had spoken those words…

More flames forced him to run along a long corridor and again the creatures were trying to grab him, coming out of the rooms on the side this time.

“Taiga, don’t look away!”

The words didn’t make sense, the voices not belonging to anyone in particular. When a beam from the house collapsed right in front of him he gasped and jumped back, but someone pushed him to the front. But instead of getting burned he was dragged into a room without any flames, hands suddenly on his clothes, ripping them apart and while he wanted to struggle he couldn’t move. He wanted to turn around and see the person attacking him, yet he was too numb to do so.

“Hurt you look even more beautiful!”

This time Taiga screamed out, ripping himself out of the demon’s grip, but when he turned around he was swallowed by flames and darkness.

With a gasp he woke up from his nightmare, luckily able to suppress the scream he had let out in his dream. He was sweating and shaking, his breathing pace erratic and it was hard to calm down as he didn’t understand what had just happened. Without actually knowing why he intuitively lifted his arm and protectively put his hand over the pink bracelet on his wrist.

No matter if it was his imagination or not, but that movement seemed to make him calm down after a while.

Tai-chan had luckily not woken up, but Taiga didn’t dare to go back to sleep, too afraid to actually scream out for real if he was ending up in such a nightmare once more.

***

“Are you stupid? He is hurt!” Aki yelled at Tai-chan as he threw a wooden sword towards the boy after work and offered him the challenge he had requested for.

“Aki, it’s fine. The cut is really nothing bad. I promise I will stop if it starts hurting, okay?”

Taiga was good enough with words to calm Aki down, but she refused to leave them alone just in case she had to take care of another round of bandaging.

“She really likes you, you know?” Tai-chan whispered as they stepped a bit away from her to a small open place behind the restaurant.

“She is just a nice person.”

Tai-chan laughed on that and shook his head. “Trust me she can be a beast and if it’s about me getting hurt she usually just tells me to not be a crybaby!”

“Well then don’t be one after I am done with you or she might be even more annoyed of you,” Taiga teased when he started playing with the wooden sword. It felt too easy to move with it, yet it wasn’t something so familiar that he’d say he used a real one before or fought a lot in his life so far, at least not in this way.

“I hope your arrogance has a base full of skills, because if not I will laugh big time at you later.”

There was only one way to find that out and Taiga took a tighter grip on the wooden sword before he dared to dash to the front into the first attack.

Tai-chan blocked it easily, but it wasn’t like they went all out right at the beginning. They both needed to test the waters first. It was after a few more attacks and blocks that Tai-chan started using more force and his movements got quicker.

It took only two more strikes until Taiga realized that he had to level up his attacks as well if he didn’t want to get hit pretty badly, but with the next block Tai-chan changed the angle of his attack and almost forced Taiga to let his sword drop.

“Wait!” Taiga shouted when Tai-chan lifted his sword again, but stopped on the way Taiga suddenly stretched his arm out.

“What?” Tai-chan asked lowering is sword while Taiga put his own sword down for a moment before he took the bracelet off his wrist and turned towards Aki.

“Aki, catch!”

The girl almost missed the flying object, but caught it at the last moment on which Taiga gave her a smile. “Would you take care of it until I am done?”

Aki smiled and kept the bracelet protectively in her hands.

Tai-chan’s last attack had almost ripped it from his wrist and he couldn’t risk getting it ripped apart.

“Sorry for the wait,” Taiga said as he picked his sword up again.

“Are you ready to fight serious now?” Tai-chan challenged him on which both exchanged a lopsided smile.

“If you can handle it, any time!”

This time they both didn’t hold back, but while Taiga thought for a brief moment that he stood a chance he was soon thrown back into reality with the same force Tai-chan used to disarm him and kick him to the ground. His sword landed right next to him so he got it up in time before Tai-chan could actually call it his win, but the block was barely safe and he needed to kick the other one against his leg to get some space to make it back on his feet.

He tried to stay concentrated, but he had realized it already. His confidence wasn’t enough to win against a skilled fighter like Tai-chan, so whatever experience he had with fighting it wasn’t enough to save him from skilled fighters.

Tai-chan had of course realized his sudden hesitation, but he wouldn’t let him back out of this challenge. With the next attack he seemed to have become even faster and Taiga kept running away more and more, blocking and dodging were the only things he could manage.

There was also the problem of stamina and the other boy seemed to have plenty of it left. Too proud to give up Taiga tried to counter once more, but his sword just hit the air and Tai-chan turned next to him and hit the sword against the back of his knee, making him fall to the front. When he wanted to get back up he could feel the sword at the back of his neck.

“You know that in a real fight you would have died dozens of times already,” Tai-chan let out.

Without waiting for a reply he backed off and walked over to Aki who jumped up and looked worried over to Taiga who kept sitting on the ground with a depressed expression. Was he disappointed in himself? Had he hoped that fighting was a way stronger skill he possessed?

“What are you doing?”

On Tai-chan’s question he looked up in confusion, but the other one still kept a hold on his own sword and stretched a bit while obviously waiting for Taiga to get up. But why? The fight was over!

“Aki, would you mind bringing us some water and maybe also towels? This might take some time,” Tai-chan said, making Aki look a bit concerned from one to the other, but nodded in the end and hurried inside the restaurant.

“What will take time? Aren’t we done?” Taiga asked confused.

“Oh you think just because you lost to me this is over? Are you the type to give up easily?”

He wasn’t even sure if he was, but something inside of him told him he wasn’t, so he shook his head.

“Great, then get up. Round two. Let me see how fast you can learn.”

Taiga showed a smile on hearing that as he realized what Tai-chan actually offered. Training with him hadn’t been part of the bet of course, but he was more than happy that the other one was spending his time on actually helping him out with his fighting skills.

“Don’t get yourself too exhausted though. If you have enough let me know. Otherwise the Chef will scold us tomorrow at work if we are not concentrated and one day of training won’t be enough anyway.”

“Then go easy on me, Sensei,” Taiga teased the other one resulting in Tai-chan rolling his eyes, but then he showed a teasing smile as Taiga went back into a defense stance.

Stopping at this town and deciding for this restaurant to work at had become way more interesting than Taiga could have hoped for.

Chapter Text

“You are leaving?”

Aki asked shocked and sad at the same time, because Tai-chan hadn’t even given them a prior notice. But Taiga noticed the letter he was putting in his bag before he took it and his sword.

“I am so sorry it’s so sudden, but the same as Taiga I was also just on the way to somewhere else, so you knew the day would come.”

“I know, but so sudden?”

Tai-chan ruffled through the girl’s hair with a sad smile, but then he made a head movement towards Taiga. “Now you have him all to yourself, isn’t that something to look forward to?”

Aki hit the boy against the chest on which both boys started laughing.

“How long are you planning on staying? You’ve been here for good two weeks now,” Tai-chan asked as they walked to the front of the restaurant after Tai-chan had said farewell to the Chef as well and thanked him for everything.

“Not sure yet, but I might also leave soon.”

Aki didn’t look too thrilled about hearing that, but then she tried hard to show them a smile. “That can’t be helped! You are both on your own journey and as happy as I am to have some really nice workers at the restaurant for once in a while I also want to cheer you on for whatever you are up to,” Aki said with a smile on which Tai-chan gave her a thankful look before he walked up to her and handed her some of his money.

“What is that for?”

“You said you are working here to support your family in the next small town, right? Their farming might be enough for a normal living, but how about you get yourself something nice for once in a while?”

The girl seemed reluctant to accept the money, but Taiga put his hand on her shoulder with a brief smile. “You should definitely listen to him or he won’t be able to go on his journey without worrying for you!”

Already close to tears Aki finally nodded on hearing that. “Thank you so much, Tai-chan and please take care!”

“Always, I promise,” the other one said before he held his hand out towards Taiga who looked a bit confused for a second before he smiled and stepped to the front, grabbing the latter’s hand.

“And you make sure to keep becoming stronger.”

“Definitely,” Taiga said gratefully and while the past two weeks had been pretty amazing for him he knew that there were more people to meet and more challenges to accept. “Stay safe.”

***

The third night alone in the room and yet Taiga felt like it had been already a week or longer. He was able to manage the work together with Aki without problems, but it just felt so weird to suddenly be alone at the place behind the restaurant and train all by himself.

Maybe it was soon time for him to keep traveling as well after all Aki had also said she was used to people coming and going and she wouldn’t mind.

With an absent minded look Taiga lifted his arm and stretched out his hand, spreading his fingers as if he could actually see more than the silhouette of it in the dark room. And to his surprise he actually could! The bracelet was shimmering even without any light touching it. The pink color seeming to mix with a darker color, then it went back to the usual pink. He was definitely tired enough for his eyes to play tricks on him, but he didn’t mind as looking at the bracelet always seemed to somehow calm him down.

With a sigh he threw the blanket up over his face and finally tried to get a bit of sleep before another busy day at the restaurant would await him.

And it was busy! Way busier than he had expected it before and also Aki seemed stressed out for once in a while with all the customers. A lot of people had arrived at Karuizawa at once and as their Chef’s soba was famous among the people a lot of the visitors came to their restaurant.

Luckily through the day passed fast and in no time they actually started cleaning up in the evening hours right before nightfall.

“Taiga, would you do me a favor?” The chef was heard as he stepped out from behind the counter and Taiga hurried over to him receiving some money.

“We ran out of some ingredients would you mind going and buy them from the lady with the vegetable shop before she closes it?”

“Yes of course,” Taiga said and hurried towards the street. “Aki, can I leave the rest to you?”

The girl waved towards him while putting the last benches back and Taiga hurried down the still crowded main street.

A lot of people knew him by now already and he greeted some people on his way, stopped at some shops and finally got to the old lady’s shop where he got the ingredients he needed.

“Make sure you get enough rest without Tai-chan being there to help you out,” the lady said while sneaking some strawberries for free into the bag with a wink at Taiga who gave her a teasing smile.

“I will. Thank you so much!”

On his way back he took his time after all the ingredients were for the next day not for right now and he wasn’t in any hurry. At one of the shops he took a closer look at the handmade accessories and toys the older couple was selling and his look fell on a small wind wheel which he took in his hand and let it spin in the small breeze going through the town.

With a smile he looked at the slow movement, but then he tightened the grip on it when a sudden headache made him hiss. It disappeared as fast as it had come, but it was enough to make Taiga’s mood drop a bit and he put the toy back before heading back.

Just a few houses away the main street was quite narrow and because there were a few ryokan around he had to squeeze through the crowd. Two men were laughing, almost stumbling over him as they hadn’t seen him while waving around them cheerfully, obviously a bit drunk. Taiga made a swift movement away from them to be sure not to bump into them.

Unfortunately he seemed to have overlooked someone in a hurry, trying to pass him and the other one had ended up running right into him almost throwing him to the ground.

“I’m so sorry, my apologies!”

The other one had helped Taiga up immediately, but he also kept running before Taiga could even voice out a thank you or anything else. All he could see was that it had been a man in a dark grey hakama with quite curly hair.

When he wanted to pick up the back he had accidently dropped he froze in his movements and looked back up, but the person had disappeared from his view.

“Damnit,” he hissed and picked up the bag, running down the main street as fast as he could without shoving people out of his way.

His bracelet was gone! And a quick look around had shown that it hadn’t been an accident. It hadn’t ripped and landed on the ground, it had been stolen! Ripped from his wrist the moment the person had ran into him.

“Wait until I get you,” Taiga mumbled to himself, trying desperately to spot the curly hair from before, but no one in front of him seemed in any way similar to that person. That meant he had to make a decision! Left or right? He decided for the right side and dashed off the main street towards the back of the houses.

Forest and mountains were the only things around the city and even though it was quite lively there was not much except for the main road. It took him only a few more turns until he had scanned all the small backstreets and had ended up right next to the forest and luck was obviously on his side as he spotted the boy walking alongside the back of the last houses, counting money he had obviously also just stolen.

“Wait right there you thief!” Taiga yelled and the person jolted and let some of the money drop before he swirled around with a shocked expression.

“Don’t scare me like that, the good money…” the boy, the same age as Taiga as he saw now, let out pouting as he picked a bit of the money up, but before he was done Taiga dashed towards him with a murderous glare and the boy squealed and started running without being able to collect everything. But the bracelet hadn’t fallen so Taiga needed to catch him.

 

“Stop running, you thief! Give me back my bracelet!” Taiga shouted while chasing after the other one who didn’t even bother trying to get back on the main street and the reason was easy: he was way faster than Taiga and even dared to look over his shoulder with a teasing expression.

“Try and get me, maybe I give you your things back then?” The boy said laughing before stretching out his tongue and suddenly making a move to the left and with a swift, almost impossible for Taiga to understand movement he was up on the roof of the next building.

“How…?” Taiga asked himself, but the boy just kept mocking him and waved him up. “Oh can’t follow me? What a shame!”

What he hadn’t seen coming though was Taiga grabbing a stone and throwing it towards his direction on which the boy squealed again and crouched down to duck away from the stone. “Hey, that’s dangerous you idiot!”

“Then come back down if you don’t want me to get you down,” Taiga yelled and kept throwing stones, but soon the boy just started running on top of the roof and jumped towards the next building. “What is he a monkey?” Taiga hissed before he had no other choice, but to follow him alongside the houses to keep up with his pace.

The main street was about to end and with it the buildings so the boy had to jump down, but he did it with a super unnecessary backflip on which Taiga almost stopped just to shake his head about the ridiculous behavior.

The boy ran off into the forest and Taiga finally dropped the bag with the ingredients behind one of the houses before following him, because he could pick it up later. If he lost it in the forest he wouldn’t be able to find it again.

“Where are you running off to, idiot? Just give me my bracelet back,” Taiga yelled, trying his luck again, but the boy ignored him or maybe he was also already too far away to hear him. Taiga’s stamina was about to give up on him especially because the boy had started heading up a steep mountains path with a lot of rocks in their way and Taiga was still in his work Yukata so he couldn’t move as easily as the other one.

“You’re pretty tough,” the boy shouted down at him from a rock ahead of him on which Taiga gave him a death glare. The boy chuckled and then vanished from his view. When he finally made it up to the rock he spotted him again, but before he could make a fatal step to the front he realized that there was nothing in between them.

“Well, game over?” The boy asked teasingly from the other side of the abyss.

It wasn’t too much of a distance so it was clear that this was a possible jump for the latter. He had proven his jumping skills earlier already, but Taiga wasn’t that confident in jumping and he was already exhausted as well and one look down showed him that even though there was a river flowing beneath them there were also plenty of rocks and a strong stream so the possibility of this being his last jump if he tried, were frightening big.

“By the way is this the precious bracelet you are looking for?”

Taiga felt furious on the way the boy showed him the pink bracelet and played around with it. “The color is stunning and I bet it’s worth a lot of money!”

“I can give you money if that is what you are after, but give me back the bracelet!”

“Oh? So this is something emotional then?” The boy asked teasing, playing around with it and then pretending to drop it into the river below on which Taiga flinched and almost lost balance.

“Woah, calm down. Don’t tell me you’d actually jump after it if I drop it? This is a good five meter free fall and a lot of sharp rocks down there!”

“I’d jump yes!” Taiga said without any kind of hesitation and for the first time he saw something else than teasing on the latter’s face, but then he shrugged his shoulders and turned around.

“Well what a shame that you have to say goodbye to it anyway.”

Taiga made a few steps to the back as the other one walked away from the river, but as much as he looked around there was no other way towards the other side.

“Buy a new one, I bet you- IDIOT!”

The boy had turned around to Taiga once more for a last teasing as he had obviously thought Taiga would give up, but he wouldn’t! The boy looked at him with wide eyes as Taiga took as much of a run up as he could get and jumped!

There was so much wrong with the situation that it felt like Taiga’s thoughts were working in slow motion. Why was he going so far for a bracelet he didn’t even know where he got it from? Why was he so stupid to jump even though he knew there was no way he could make it? And why was the thief running towards him instead of away from him?

When his thoughts started racing in real time again everything seemed to be over, for good! He felt the gravity pulling him down, the edge of the other side being replaced by a wall of rocks he would crush into and before he could even get over the pain of actually hitting the wall he held his breath as he realized that he would fall all the way down into the river now, most likely immediately hitting one of the sharp rocks on the way.

But the feeling of falling wouldn’t come and instead there was a sudden pull on his wrist, making him hiss and look up.

“What are you looking at? Do you think I can lift you up all by myself?”

Now there were even more questions, but for now Taiga was still in too much shock to actually make sense out of the situation and he grabbed the wrist of the boy who tried desperately to not let him fall.

Somehow Taiga got a foothold on some of the rocks at the wall and managed to get up to the other side with the boy helping to pull him over the edge.

“You are the most unbelievably stupid- HEY!”

The boy had stood up and scolded Taiga immediately, but before he was done Taiga had finally calmed down enough to tackle the boy down. There was just one aim for him and he snatched away the small pouch the boy had on his belt. He had seen earlier how he had put the money back in it and pulled the bracelet out of it.

He emptied it all at once and took a protective hold on his bracelet immediately before he stood up and hurried several meters away from the boy. His legs were shaking uncontrollably and his whole body was hurting, but he felt such a relief as he finally put the bracelet back on his wrist.

“Not even grateful that I rescued you, unbelievable,” the boy said before he put the stolen money back into the pouch and shook his head at Taiga. What he hadn’t seen coming was another stone flying towards his direction and this time it hit him at the side of the head and with a hiss and some low curses he crouched down, rubbing his head.

“WHAT WAS THAT FOR?”

“Why would I thank someone who steals from other people?” Taiga asked with a serious and hateful tone on which the other one obviously felt a bit taken aback. “I told you to return it! I told you several times! I even told you I’d jump after it if you threw it into the river! And still you thought this was a game. Still you thought it was okay to take something away from others, something that is precious! Money that people earned through hard work, jewelry or other belongings which carry a lot of emotions. Don’t think just because you decided to rescue me that I would forgive you or even thank you!”

It was harsh, but true and while they boy actually seemed to understand that as well Taiga could see how much he wanted to yell something back at him. The boy bit his lip, his eyes seeming to get a bit red now, but he obviously bit back his reply.

“Do as you please then,” he finally said and turned away, walking off into the forest. Taiga kept looking after him for a few more minutes after he was completely out of sight before he finally dared to take another deep breath.

Slowly he calmed down, but the shaking of his body wouldn’t stop and now he realized why. He was hurt, pretty badly hurt and his rage had made him ignore it until now. His left leg had a long cut over his thigh, the blood staining the Yukata over the full length by now and he had nothing to stop the bleeding. He had also lost his Geta at his jump so now he was barefoot in the middle of the forest. When he finally dared to move his body a bit more he also realized that his shoulder was hurt through the way the other boy had stopped his fall. The other dozens of bruises on his body and face were hurting as well, but they were the smallest of his problems for now.

Again he took a hold on the bracelet on his wrist, hoping it could give him some energy like always. Unfortunately this time it didn’t help as much as he hoped and the pain in his leg kept growing, while he started to feel dizzy.

He had to find a way back over the river, because he knew there was no other town close by and he wouldn’t be able to jump even at a smaller distance with his leg that badly hurt. When he took a hold on his hurt shoulder he gasped as he touched something he had forgotten about.

“Aki,” he whispered before he unbandaged the already healed cut on his shoulder. The girl kept bandaging it every day even though the cut was almost not visible anymore, but that overprotective habit came to Taiga’s rescue now as he could use the clean bandage on his leg! It wouldn’t be much, but better than nothing at all.

Once more he had to decide if he wanted to go right or left to see if there was any way at all to make it back over the river and once more he decided for right, because he had found the thief like that as well.

It took maybe half an hour of walking until his surroundings had turned dark and night had turned the forest black. He knew already that Aki would worry a lot for him, but that couldn’t be helped right now. It was luckily a night with a bright moon and no clouds and it was also not cold at all in the mountains at summer time so all he had to fight with was his dizziness and the pain in his leg.

Unfortunately there was nothing coming in sight which could actually be called a way back over the river and he finally gave up and sat carefully down on the ground, stretching his leg out to the front to not hurt it even more.

“Let’s hope you were worth going through all this trouble,” Taiga whispered towards the bracelet, before he gave up to his exhaustion and lay down on the ground without even trying to find any comfortable position. Sleep would force itself on him no matter where he was.

Chapter Text

A quiet river, no people around, but there were lanterns hung up next to the river bank and Taiga followed them as if he was drawn closer to the light. The darkness around him didn’t make him feel uneasy, nor did the lack of sound around him. It felt so familiar, so calm.

“Would you listen?”

It felt like he had spoken the words himself yet he didn’t move his lips and out of the darkness he could hear a reply.

“I’ll listen to everything you want to tell me. I’ll do whatever it takes to make you feel better.”

The unknown words made him feel at ease and he kept a light smile while walking alongside the river.

He suddenly wanted to form a word, call out to someone, but he just couldn’t bring out the words. And then there was a hand reaching out for his, a familiar touch on which Taiga closed his hand tightly around it, but as much as he wanted to see the other one’s face he couldn’t turn around, couldn’t voice out his name. Then his wrist seemed to start burning and he felt like screaming, but that was also not possible and in the end he had to let go of the other one to run away from the burning pain.

And once more he found himself gasping after waking up from one of his weird dreams. He was used to them by now, but he never knew if they were nightmares or actually just normal dreams. With a slight headache bothering him he sat up as he realized that his body had forced him to sleep several hours on the hard forest ground. Now there was already some light, the sun definitely soon about to rise and Taiga knew he had to keep going if he ever wanted to make it back. Aki and the Chef were definitely already looking for him, but except for the ingredient bag there was nothing they could actually find.

“Okay so let’s see how bad this will be,” Taiga said before he dared to reach out for the blood stained bandage to see if the wound had actually become worse or even infected.

What he found under the bandage and the dried blood though had him stare in disbelief at his own leg. Carefully he dared to touch the wound, but while it indeed still hurt of course it didn’t seem like the bad cut he had seen yesterday.

“Let’s hope this means something good,” Taiga whispered as he dared to get up and try if he could walk and he was indeed able to put way more weight on his leg than before and he wasn’t feeling as exhausted as he thought he would after everything that had happened just hours ago.

Not wasting more time he finally kept moving alongside the river, hoping to finally find a bridge or some place he could cross over at.

Luck was running out for him as he didn’t seem to find more than a place where he could finally walk up to the river as the walls around it finally disappeared. He used the chance to clean himself at the river and also finally get something to drink.

The stream was strong enough to actually drag a person along, but the river didn’t seem that deep around this area and the rocks were also breaking through the surface at a lot of places. Should he try and go through it? There was no way he could keep walking alongside it for longer or he would get lost in the woods for days.

“This is a very bad idea,” he told himself yet he dared the first step inside the river. After a few more steps he was already in the water until his knees and he made sure to keep a hold on a rock close to him at any time, because the stream could take him away any second and that would be definitely his doom.

The next step brought him into even deeper water and when he realized the water reached over his hips already he thought about heading back, but there were only a few meters between him and the other side so he wanted to keep going.

One more step, a tight grip on the next rock and then he was slowly getting out of the deepest part of the river. Almost! Yet there was a part without many rocks in front of him and he knew it was risky to keep going, but he just needed two big steps to reach the next rock. The first step was making him feel stable enough to try, but the moment he did the second step and totally exposed himself to the full force of the stream without any grip on another rock he couldn’t keep his body upright and he was thrown over.

He tried to keep his head overwater and his feet down to somehow find another place to put them down as he was actually able to stand up if he could somehow stop being dragged away by the stream.

Another rock came into his reach and he somehow succeeded to grab it and also put his feet down, but the force of the stream made him whine as he needed to put more weight on his hurt leg as he wanted to and being barefoot also made it hard to actually keep a steady stand on the uneven rock surface.

Nevertheless he fought himself back into a standing position and kept heading for the other side, but then he realized something horrible. A calculation he hadn’t made when entering the water. He would have been able to easily get out on the other side, but now that the stream had pulled him along there was a wall in front of him again, on both sides! If he got dragged along even more the walls would raise higher and higher trapping him in the river.

The wall in front of him was maybe barely a meter so if it wasn’t for the strong stream and the porous surface of the wall he would easily make it out.

“This is so not my day,” he scolded himself before he finally made it up to the wall, but even here he was still in the water almost until his hips and he had to keep himself stabilized against one of the rocks to not get dragged along again.

He realized soon that there was only one way to make it up. He had to climb on one of the rocks and jump, hoping he could somehow pull himself up. He had one try! If he fell down again he would most likely hurt himself pretty badly and also get dragged along even more and that would be his death sentence.

He didn’t waste time on getting scared and finally dared to climb up on the slippery surface of the rock. He took a few deep breaths before he dared to jump and he indeed reached the top of the wall, but now he was faced with grass and soil on top of it. No rocks or other hard surfaces to grab on and he started cursing as he slowly started to slide back. “No, no, no. Come on now!”

He buried his nails into the soft ground, but he knew if he couldn’t lift himself up he wouldn’t be able to hang in there for long and unfortunately he didn’t possess the ability to easily drag his own bodyweight up a ninety degree wall, especially with a hurt leg and no foothold!

He didn’t want to give up, but he also didn’t seem to find any other way up and he kept cursing until he realized that someone was approaching him. Could he be that lucky?

Ready to beg for help he looked up, but then he was sure that fate was laughing at him big time and his look turned into a death glare instead.

“Mh, and I thought you wouldn’t even make it until here,” the thief from before said as he stood in front of Taiga with his hands on his back and a mocking expression. That the boy had of course made it back on the other side easily was nothing extraordinary, but he had walked off to the opposite direction so what was he doing here?

“Want some help?”

“Fuck off,” Taiga roared and weirdly his anger actually gave him some more energy and he actually succeeded in pulling himself up enough to almost get his chest over the edge.

“Oh? A fighter I see,” the boy teased and kept his distance.

“You should get lost before I make it up there or you might get hurt!” Taiga hissed as he clawed his hands into the ground again and finally found a position to get his leg up and over the edge.

“Oh your leg looks a lot better,” the boy said surprised which actually made Taiga even more furious. Unfortunately the slippery ground made him lose his hold once more and he was about to fall back and the other one immediately dashed to the front and tried to pull him up on his wrist, but to his obvious surprise Taiga slashed his hand away.

“Are you that proud?”

“Are you that stupid? You think I will let you steal my bracelet again?”

It was weird to see how the boy’s expression turned to hurt over that statement and he retreated a bit.

Not caring for the boy at all Taiga finally somehow managed to pull himself up on the wall over the edge. Nevertheless he jumped up immediately and made some big steps away from the boy on which he got another confused look, but when the boy realized that Taiga was actually afraid of him stealing his bracelet or even daring to push him back down into the river he seemed kind of guilty.

“So the next time you steal something and someone tells you to give it back,” Taiga started and pointed at the boy who bit his lip immediately. “You just do it! Maybe consider not stealing in the first place, but I fear bad people stay bad people, so just make sure to stay away from me!”

Without waiting for a reply Taiga started walking back up the river, because he needed to find the place from before to be able to find the way back to the city. Unfortunately his miraculous nicely healed wound had become worse again through his survival river crossing and soon he started walking slower than he wanted to, his legs now shaking again, but he didn’t dare to stop. He would need the whole day back and he didn’t want to spend another night outside in the woods.

After finally reaching the area with the stones alongside the steep wall at the river again Taiga let out a relieved sigh and dared to sit down on one of the rocks for a moment. When he looked around after that he spotted a movement and looked to the path he had just come up from and he rolled his eyes.

“What the heck did you not understand when I told you to fuck off?”

The boy who had tried to hide behind a tree stepped out to the path again, but didn’t dare to walk up to Taiga. After all he had made clear that he didn’t want him around.

“I was worried so I thought I’d tag along until you are back at the city.”

“Worried?” Taiga asked before he burst out laughing, shaking his head. The boy seemed a bit down at first on his reaction, but he also definitely felt angry, but Taiga didn’t care he deserved all the mocking and hate for what he had done. “It’s too late for you to worry! Look at me. This is all your fault!”

The boy was obviously aware of that and somehow he seemed to show remorse, but Taiga was too angry to actually care for him.

“If you really feel this bad about it, how about you finally say sorry?”

“What?” The confusion on the boy’s face made Taiga almost laugh especially because they were both adults and he just looked like a confused ten year old boy.

“You never apologized or are you telling me you worry for me, but aren’t actually sorry for doing all this shit in the first place?”

It seemed like an actually hard question for the other one and Taiga was slowly getting tired of arguing with him.

“Whatever, just leave,” Taiga said and finally got up again, ready to move on, but as expected his legs felt even heavier now and he hissed when he put more weight on his hurt leg.

“I am sorry! Please let me help you back to the city,” the boy suddenly let out, almost yelling the words at Taiga.

There was something extremely weird about the boy’s twisted character, but as much as Taiga hated him for stealing his bracelet there was nothing actually dangerous about him. After all even though he had made a game out of his stealing and had brought a lot of trouble towards Taiga he had rescued him back at his fall. He had even come back to look if Taiga made it back to the city and was tagging along now. So maybe he should give him a chance to actually realize what it meant to be sorry.

“Fine apology accepted, but don’t you dare to get close to me!” Taiga said warningly when the boy smiled and wanted to walk up to him. “I still don’t trust you and I swear I will kill you if you ever touch my bracelet again!”

The warning was clear and the boy swallowed nervously, but finally nodded. “I will make sure to keep my distance. If you need my assistance or don’t remember the way let me know!”

Taiga growled in a low voice on the boy’s sudden friendly behavior and he started walking, but stopped once more after a few meters and the boy stopped immediately as well, looking a bit scared when Taiga turned back to him.

“One more thing!” Taiga said and the boy nodded nervously. “What’s your name?”

The innocent question made the boy relax and he smiled at Taiga before he bowed. “I am Sakuma!”

“I can’t say it’s nice to meet you Sakuma, but at least you might have learned a lesson today and hopefully other people won’t keep the name Sakuma in the same bad memory as I do.”

Again harsh words, but the boy knew he deserved it.

“Will you tell me your name?” Sakuma asked when Taiga kept walking, but he shook his head when he looked over his shoulder.

“Only if we reach the city without any problems. Then my name will be your reward. Doesn’t seem like much, but just see it as a challenge as my name is something you cannot steal!”

***

“TAIGA!”

Of course Aki spotted him immediately and as much as it seemed as if she’d love to jump at him and give him a tight hug she stopped and looked panicked at the boy’s ripped clothes and the bruises. “Oh my god what happened to you? We were so worried for you since yesterday! I asked everyone in town if they had seen you!”

“I am so sorry for worrying you,” Taiga said and took the girl’s hands in his, because she was shaking nonstop. “I am going to be fine now that I am back. The restaurant must be super busy today without me, right?”

“Screw the restaurant. We need to treat you first!” Aki yelled and then her look fell on the boy standing behind Taiga. “Who are you?”

Sakuma didn’t dare to reply and looked at Taiga instead on which the other one suddenly came up with an idea and stepped next to Sakuma.

“This is Sakuma he will help out in the restaurant so that I can take a break.”

“What?” Sakuma and Aki asked at the same time and Taiga pinched Sakuma’s arm, making the latter flinch.

“Yes, awesome timing, right? You can start right away. The Chef is in the kitchen and can give you work clothes, but be careful he will be pretty angry right now. You can apologize to him for the chaos.”

“Wait, does that mean you have something to do with this?” Aki asked furious and stepped in front of Sakuma, pointing her finger right into his face on which the boy stepped back automatically.

“Details later, let’s make sure the restaurant will be okay for the last few hours today. Then we can have a talk,” Taiga said and then pushed Sakuma to the front. “And you make yourself useful now.”

“Who said I want to stay?”

“I said so just now or are you deaf?” Taiga said. “Be happy I am not asking more of you! This is the least you can do to make up for all the chaos and now follow Aki so she can explain everything to you. The restaurant is still open for two more hours and she had a tough time without me so be nice to her and the Chef!”

Sakuma slowly nodded still confused about the sudden change of his situation, but then he turned back to Taiga with a smile.

“What is it?” Taiga asked a bit confused.

“Taiga it is? Now I know at least your name.”

It felt weird seeing the boy being so happy about knowing such a small detail, but Taiga was satisfied with the fact that Sakuma actually really seemed okay with helping out, but he also had to have a close look at him to make sure he wouldn’t steal something and run off with it.

***

“Here, your payment,” Taiga said and handed the money to Sakuma who looked a bit reluctant to take it.

Sakuma had only helped out the next day so Taiga could actually rest and take care of his wounds, but now he felt ready to go back to work even though Aki complained about it already.

The work for the day was done and Taiga was sitting on one of the benches outside of the restaurant, because earlier three young men had entered and wanted to talk to the Chef so while Aki showed them the way he and Sakuma stayed outside.

“I shouldn’t take it,” Sakuma finally said and stepped a bit away, shaking his head.

“So stealing is okay for you, but actually earning money isn’t?”

“No, that’s not what I mean,” Sakuma added immediately. “It’s just that- well, I am at fault that you weren’t able to work so it’s not like I should get paid for it.”

“True, but I am not taking no for an answer,” Taiga said and stood up, taking Sakuma’s hand and putting the money in his palm.

The boy’s look fell on Taiga’s bracelet on that move, but this time Taiga didn’t pull away. He was somehow sure that the boy had learned his lesson, not that he could be sure he wouldn’t be stealing from other people from now on.

“It’s really precious to you, isn’t it?”

“Would I have attempted a suicide jump if it wasn’t?” Taiga teased and while Sakuma tried to form a smile it wouldn’t actually last long and finally for the first time he seemed really sorry. He stepped a bit to the back and bowed.

“I am really sorry for causing you so much trouble.”

“Well, at least this is something I believe you. But now you have to remember that feeling, because even if you run away after stealing something you never know how the person you stole it from will end up. You might have ruined a lot of people’s lives until now.”

Taiga always ended up finding more scolding words for Sakuma, but like that he would maybe actually learn. “Now you have some money, so use it first and then when you are out of money again search yourself a job instead of stealing stuff, because look the restaurant work seemed to fit you pretty well.”

Taiga meant what he said, but Sakuma didn’t seem used to praising and couldn’t actually reply anything, so he just bowed once more before he stepped away from the restaurant.

“I hope you will have a calm time here and a safe travel from here on,” Sakuma said and Taiga had the perfect next teasing ready, but instead of saying that if he wasn’t going to meet more people like Sakuma he’d definitely be safe, he just nodded.

“Thank you. I hope you have a safe travel as well.”

It was weird not to know what Sakuma was up to from now on. If he was really just the shy boy with the weird habit of stealing or if he had a dark side as well and was actually annoyed by what Taiga had said. Whatever it was Taiga didn’t want to think about it for too long. He had to think about his own journey from now on.

“Taiga, do you have a minute,” the Chef called him from inside the restaurant and Taiga walked over to him as the other young men left. “I know this is sudden, but I was wondering when you were planning on going back on your travel?”

That was indeed a sudden question, but when he saw Aki in the back with a kind of sad expression he realized what was going on.

“I was waiting for a good timing to be honest. After Tai-chan had left there were not enough people so I decided to wait, but I guess that problem is solved?”

The chef nodded with a brief smile on his skill of reading the atmosphere. “Indeed. The three young men are also on a journey down the Nakasendo and wanted to work here for a few weeks, so if you want to keep going this might be a good timing.”

Taiga wasn’t sure if he was supposed to give a reply right away, but if he went with his stomach feeling then yes he had a reply already. “I’d love to leave for the next town then, I don’t have any kind of schedule, but maybe it’s really time for me to travel on.”

Aki seemed of course sad to hear that, but she was also supportive of the boy’s travel so she was definitely also happy for him.

“Aki, make sure to keep an eye on the new workers, they can’t slag off or the soba of our chef will get a bad reputation.”

Aki nodded on that and finally walked up to the two. “As long as I am here everything will be fine, the Chef is too strict with new staff anyway, without me everyone would run away immediately.

The chef gave her a scolding look on that, but he knew she was actually right. He made sure to give Taiga a bit of extra payment for his hard work and warn him not to get into trouble again, but somehow Taiga was sure he had bad luck when it was about that part. Nevertheless he promised to be careful.

“Say hi to Tai-chan in case you meet him somewhere again,” Aki said and Taiga nodded with a bright smile, because he would love to be able to meet him again.

Chapter Text

Back in his Hakama and packed with a bit of food which Aki had handed him in the end, Taiga finally made his way out of Karuizawa the next day.

At the Nakasendo at the end of the main street was a map showing the next big cities, but the next one shown was Narai and he would definitely need a week until there if not even longer.

“There are some small towns on the way where you can find cheap Ryokans I heard.”

On a familiar voice Taiga turned to the side and his look stopped on an expression between confused and amused.

“What the hell are you still doing here?”

“Did you really expect me to run off to the next town in the middle of the night?”

“Well, you ran off into the forest in the middle of the night before?”

Taiga and Sakuma exchanged a teasing smile before they both chuckled. “So I think we have the same direction we are heading to?”

“Seems like it,” Taiga said, but Sakuma bit his lip when he wasn’t sure if Taiga’s reaction was something positive or not.

“I know you said to leave you alone, but just if you don’t mind- you know…”

“Yes you can tag along,” Taiga said and started walking without even waiting for a reply, but he saw out of the corner of his eye the small happy jump Sakuma did on hearing that and he couldn’t hide another chuckle. “But remember-”

“No stealing, I know!” Sakuma said in a strict tone to himself on which Taiga shook his head and kept walking.

“And not too much talking!”

“I am not talking that much!” Sakuma pouted.

“Well you just have two moods, talking or running away, until now I didn’t find any in between.”

Sakuma opened his mouth to protest, but then he realized that this was indeed true and he just shrugged his shoulders and walked beside Taiga.

“So Taiga, what brings you all the way up to the Nakasendo?” Sakuma dared to ask after they had walked in silence for quite a while.

“Nothing much, I just felt like I needed to travel around a bit. Find new places, meet new people.”

“Mh, sounds like a secret,” Sakuma replied teasingly. Well it wasn’t actually like he tried to keep anything a secret, but the fact about him losing his memory was a part he was pretty careful about.

“Then what about you?”

Sakuma ran to the front on that question and kept walking backwards while making way too big movements with his arms while explaining. “Okay, listen to this! There was once this super strong feudal lord, but he didn’t want to bow to the Shogunate, so he tried to hide himself in his castle and keep himself out of the politics and keep going with his way as always. He was quite abusive with his soldiers and also not helping the citizens much so there were uproars, but he had a lot of money so he paid off some Shinobi to take care of everyone who dared to go against him. So the people feared him and called him the black lord and called out for help to the Shogunate. Unfortunately the Shogunate didn’t do anything, because the black lord kept hiding in his castle and wasn’t going for any war, so Edo and the Shogunate didn’t bother helping the suffering citizens.”

Sakuma was so into his story that he didn’t realize how much Taiga was actually laughing at the way he jumped from right to left, kicking the air while talking and seeming to have the fun of his life while doing his storytelling.

“Then there was finally someone who dared to stand up against him, but there were only rumors about what had happened and-”

“Sakuma,” Taiga finally let out on which the boy looked at him in confusion. “Didn’t I say not too much talking? I only asked you for the reason you are here, not the whole fairy tale you heard before coming here.”

First Sakuma kept staring back in silence before he started laughing and looked a bit embarrassed. “Right, sorry. Anyways the people of that area were finally free to choose how to live and where to go after the black lord was gone, so here I am!”

“Good that your black lord is gone then I guess?” Taiga asked and patted Sakuma’s shoulder while passing him.

“I guess so, yes,” Sakuma let out, not as happy as before, making Taiga stop and tilt his head, but Sakuma started laughing immediately on his reaction. “Never mind. I have way more interesting stories if you want to hear any. Let me know what you are interested in? War stories? Legends?”

Taiga kept thinking for a moment before he looked at his bracelet and then decided to try his luck. “Okay, then tell me if you have any story about some legendary objects.”

“What kind of objects?” Sakuma asked random as if this was really something important even though he could easily come up with the weirdest stories without any details, Taiga was sure of it.

“How about objects which come with a special ability? To make people do or feel something special?”

“Oh that sounds interesting, okay then how about this-” Sakuma started immediately on which Taiga shook his head with a smile. Now he had given the boy the okay to talk a lot and he could only hope that they would soon reach a town to rest or he would strangle him at some point.

***

A lot of people and even more laughter, but why was Taiga not laughing with them? He couldn’t even exchange a look with any of them as he couldn’t see their faces.

He saw people touching, hugging and even kissing and yet he couldn’t even stretch out a hand towards anyone.

“Such a soft and pale skin, the customers will like that.”

Taiga could hear the voice completely clear right next to him yet he couldn’t turn to look at the person who suddenly touched his body. Then another person approached, throwing clothes over his shoulders.

“I LOVE it, Taiga you look so stunning!”

 A compliment, yet it made him feel nervous and then he fell, landing on a futon the clothes gone again. Another faceless person way too close to him.

“Guess you didn’t see that coming? Let me tell you I didn’t either, but I have to admit I am impressed.”

As if wanting to run away from all the unknown conversations Taiga tried to get the sheet and pull it over his head. But someone suddenly pulled him on his lap. A new person again, but he wasn’t able to look over his shoulder at the stranger’s face.

“I am really sorry if I sound impolite again, but you look like a beautiful doll.”

“STOP IT!”

This time Taiga woke up from his own words and the way Sakuma hurried to light the lamp in the room he realized that for the first time he had actually spoken that loud in a dream.

“What’s going on?” Sakuma asked worried as he crawled over to Taiga’s futon. They shared a room in a small Ryokan in the next town they had reached by nightfall.

“Just- A nightmare...I guess. Sorry that I woke you up!”

It hadn’t even been that bad of a nightmare. People had been praising him in it, had been nice to him, yet he felt uncomfortable with all the dreams no matter if bad or not, because he could never see faces, never remember voices or names.

“It’s okay. You want to go back to sleep?” Sakuma asked, but intuitively sat down next to Taiga as the boy was also sitting and hugging his knees.

“Maybe in a few minutes,” Taiga said, feeling actually exhausted through the intense dreams he had and Sakuma stood up and got something from his bag. He threw a small towel at Taiga before he sat down again.

“You are totally sweaty if you didn’t notice,” Sakuma said on the boy’s confused look.

“Oh, sorry. Thank you.”

It was so clear how much Sakuma wanted to ask about this nightmare. He was the easily excited, but also easily worried type after all. On the other hand he also realized that even though he was allowed to tag along he couldn’t call himself Taiga’s friend yet and their first encounter made Taiga feel still a bit cold towards him sometimes.

“Let me know if you need anything else,” Sakuma said and headed back to his futon, but left the lamp on for now.

A few minutes passed in silence, but even after lying down again Taiga couldn’t sleep.

“What kind of person do you think I am?”

When there was no reply Taiga thought Sakuma had already fallen asleep again, but when he turned his head to look at him the boy showed a thoughtful expression.

“A pretty straight forward person,” Sakuma said. “Fearless as well and thoughtful about others, oh and forgiving!”

“We will see about that,” Taiga teased, making Sakuma chuckled.

“What do you think of me?” Sakuma asked back, challenging the other one and also trying to take his mind away from his dreams.

“An idiot,” Taiga said and just turned around on his futon without any other word.

“What?” Sakuma asked scandalized and kept staring at his back in disbelieve before he realized that Taiga was trying to hold in a laughter and he threw his pillow over to him on which Taiga finally bursted out laughing.

“Look, I was right!”

“I take back what I said about you. All you are is mean!” Sakuma said pouting, resulting in Taiga laughing again.

If they kept teasing each other like that they wouldn’t be able to go back to sleep, but at least Taiga’s mind was taken off all the things he shouldn’t worry about in the first place.

***

“Wait so he taught you sword fighting and yet you left the wooden sword at the restaurant?” Sakuma asked as Tai-chan randomly became part of their conversation.

“It wasn’t my sword and I never asked Tai-chan about it, so it felt wrong to take it with me.”

“Okay so wait, you can do sword fighting, but you have no sword. Can you do anything else?”

Taiga kept walking down the forest path towards the next town while crossing his arms to his chest with a thoughtful expression on which Sakuma got impatient.

“Is there so much you are good at that you need to think about it so long?”

“I wish,” Taiga replied laughing and shook his head. “As you definitely remember I don’t have the best stamina, I am not a good jumper and well in matters of sword fighting Tai-chan is also a way higher level than me.”

“So in other words you suck at almost everything that could protect you,” Sakuma concluded on which he had to duck the next moment when Taiga picked up a stone and threw it at him. “Could you stop that?”

“Why? It’s something I am good at,” Taiga teased the latter.

“Shall I teach you the things I am good at then?” Sakuma offered and Taiga wasn’t sure if he was joking or indeed serious.

“Not if you are going to make fun out of me if I fail,” Taiga said and Sakuma shrugged his shoulders.

“Then better not, because I am not good at poker faces and I will definitely laugh at you if you mess up.”

Taiga just rolled his eyes on that statement and kept walking until they found a good place to take a rest before having to hurry to the next town if they wanted to make it before night fall.

“Okay so just to be clear if you want me to teach you some tricks and skills I would totally love to,” Sakuma offered again after they had eaten a bit of their provision and this time Taiga was sure he was serious about his offer.

“Then tell me what can you teach me, because running as fast as you is something I won’t be able to learn if I don’t actually do it every day.”

“Well, that is actually how I managed that skill. We can have some races down to the next towns from now on that will definitely help with your stamina,” Sakuma said as he got up and looked around. “Until then let me show you some tricks how to get away from people quickly.”

“Why do I think you learned such skills, because some people actually caught you after stealing something?”

Sakuma’s look was answer enough and Taiga also put his provisions back and finally stood up. “So then show me what you’ve got!”

Sakuma walked off to an area with a lot of trees and a small hillside before he turned to Taiga with spread out arms. “Try to catch me.”

“What?”

“If you can get a hold of me for more than three seconds I will teach you some of my tricks.”

Taiga shook his head with a sarcastic chuckle, but what else had he expected? At least this time he was in an Hakama and the cut on his leg was also as good as healed.

“Fine, but don’t complain if you get hurt,” Taiga warned him and Sakuma just showed him a lopsided smile.

“Good luck trying to even get close to me.”

Trying to catch the other one off guard Taiga dashed straight at him, but as he had expected Sakuma was faster and swift in getting away no matter how fast Taiga tried to turn and get a grip on him.

After a few turns left and right Sakuma finally showed off his jumping skills again and he took advantage of the trees around them. Two jumps later he was sitting on a branch, pointing down at Taiga. “So what now?”

Once more though Sakuma had to duck away from flying stones as Taiga started throwing whatever he could.

“Dude, that is so dangerous,” Sakuma complained and tried to hide behind the tree, but Taiga could move easily from where he was so the location was to his advantage and Sakuma soon gave up on his hiding place and jumped down, dashing away before Taiga could catch up to him.

“I told you I wouldn’t hold back,” Taiga yelled as he tried to catch up to the other one, but he knew he would lose the game if he kept chasing after him.

“I will make sure to find an area with only leaves and no stones extra for you,” Sakuma said and turned around with a teasing smile, but then he stopped. “Taiga?”

The latter was nowhere to be seen and Sakuma walked back a bit, his look now up on the trees, but he was obviously not sure if the boy could have actually climbed up that fast.

With a yelp he jumped back when Taiga appeared out of nowhere from the ground, hidden right behind a fallen tree. He got a grip on the latter’s sleeve, but not long enough to call it a win.

“Woah, that was a close call,” Sakuma said laughing. “Smooth move to be honest! Not that an enemy would come back for you.”

“Well, that is not the challenge today, right? But you can of course just keep running and leave me behind if you prefer,” Taiga teased before he dashed to the front again.

Sakuma finally took advantage of the small hillside and climbed it up so that there was quite some distance between them as Taiga had trouble following.

On top of the hillside where some fallen trees blocked the way Sakuma dashed over to some of them.

Taiga wasn’t even yet up the whole hillside, but then he saw how Sakuma struggled with his own balance for a second and he slowed down as he reached the trees. Maybe it had been caused by an earthquake, but some of the rocks under the fallen trees had crumbled and formed something like a hidden abyss underneath them.

“Woah, that wasn’t fun,” Sakuma said as he had to actually put down his hands to find his balance as he got surprised by the sudden black abyss as well. “Taiga wait, let’s move somewhere else.”

Taiga had already jumped on the first tree, but even on Sakuma’s words he didn’t stop. Carefully, but steady he jumped on the next tree and Sakuma looked a bit skeptical at him.

“What? You thought after I jumped over a deadly abyss before, this would scare me?” Taiga asked on which Sakuma’s look darkened.

“That was different! It’s not like you have to prove something here.”

“What a shame that I like proving myself anyway,” Taiga said serious when he jumped to the next tree, but there it happened. He was only a few meters away from Sakuma, but his Geta slipped on the brittle surface of the tree and he landed on his stomach, having to hold on to the tree to not fall into the hole beneath it. It might only be one or two meters, but there could also be sharp stones or a deadly depth waiting for him.

“Taiga, hold on! I am going to get you!” Sakuma shouted and jumped back to the same tree and without any hesitation he stretched out his hand and Taiga took it, letting himself get dragged up.

“That’s why I said let’s move locations,” Sakuma scolded him. “After I taught you a few things you can try something dangerous like this.”

When Sakuma wanted to carefully move back to the safe ground he realized that Taiga kept a hold on his hand and he looked up at the other one in confusion. “What are you doing?”

“One, two, three…” Taiga counted slowly while adding a bit more pressure on the latter’s hand before forming a triumphing smile making Sakuma gasp.

“Don’t tell me you slipped on purpose?”

“Well, I checked earlier if you would come back for me if you lost sight of me, right?” Taiga asked innocently. “So I was sure you’d definitely come to my rescue.”

“Of course I would, you idiot! This doesn’t count!”

“Why not? You never said there was a rule that I had to be the one coming to you! I caught you, after you came to me on your own. I won!”

There was actually no argument Sakuma had against that and he shook his head with a sigh. “Fine, you won! Now let’s go back to a safe place and then we can do some trick training for real enemies, okay?”

Taiga nodded with a teasing smile, because he knew the tricks the boy could show him were definitely helpful for him in the future. Tai-chan’s sword training, Sakuma’s trick training, it all seemed to help him a lot with his confidence, even though he hoped of course he wouldn’t end up in dangerous situations in the first place, but something told him that fate wouldn’t be that nice to him!

Chapter Text

“Stop touching it,” Sakuma said and hit Taiga’s hand as the boy kept poking his own leg while they were sitting at a small restaurant. They had finally arrived at Narai after a good week of travelling.

“But it hurts.”

“And poking it will make the pain go away? How old are you?”

Well Sakuma was indeed right, but it was also his fault that Taiga ended up with a huge bruise on his thigh. Their training had become more and more intense over the time as they spend more time on the road than in the small towns in between.

They had started using wooden sticks for some sword training in the mountains and challenged each other to races to the next town. Over the last two days Taiga finally was fast enough to be able to not get left behind too far.

“You are a bad jumper after all,” Sakuma said as he handed Taiga one more of the dango they had ordered.

“That jump was too long for me in the first place.”

“Yet you tried it.”

“Because you said to try,” Taiga pouted.

“Guilty, that was my mistake as your teacher,” Sakuma mumbled between eating his dango.

“Maybe you can give me payback if you find something you can teach me instead?”

Taiga could only nod in silence, because there was nothing he could actually offer to teach so he just kept eating, hoping that Sakuma would drop the topic. When Sakuma’s look fell on the busy main street of Narai he almost choked as he started to hit Taiga against the arm with eyes shining in excitement.

“Taiga, look!”

The boy almost shouted and Taiga wasn’t even sure what to look at, because there were so many people, but then some made way for someone coming through. Coming in sight was a beautiful woman, in a three layered kimono with her hair pinned-up with yellow pins. An Oiran! Two young girls followed her through the town as she made her way over the main street.

“Damn, we are so lucky. I didn’t know they have Oirans here. Shall we go and visit one of the houses?”

“Visit one of the houses?” Taiga asked a bit confused on which Sakuma gave him the most shocked expression he had ever seen on the boy.

“Don’t tell me you never went to any brothel before?”

There was no true reply Taiga could give, but for now he just took the safe choice and shook his head, making Sakuma snort. “Okay, wait, that’s...something I can’t let pass. Eat up, we are going!”

Taiga could barely grab the rest of his food before Sakuma packed up their things and dragged Taiga along the main street. Maybe he should have replied yes after all, because he wasn’t sure if he was that happy about Sakuma’s plan.

“Damn they have a whole street?” Sakuma chirped in excitement as they arrived at a side street where the structure of the buildings suddenly changed and there was a red gate with a narrow street behind it. Taiga spotted some other Oirans and of course customers walking around and looking at the women sitting behind the bars on the windowsills.

“Let’s go,” Sakuma said and dragged Taiga along.

“Sakuma, we don’t have enough money for this,” Taiga tried his luck, knowing that it wasn’t actually true.

“We can definitely find a job in Narai for a few days to earn some or…”

“No you are not stealing anything,” Taiga said strictly on which Sakuma laughed.

“I actually wanted to say we could work here.”

Taiga shook his head on Sakuma’s stupid idea and kept following him around, but didn’t even dare to look around too much. Luckily it was getting dark already and the houses put on some lights on which the whole street seemed to change colors to red.

With a hiss Taiga stopped and put his free hand to his temple and Sakuma stopped dragging him along.

“Are you okay?”

“Yes all good.”

“Another headache? You didn’t have any over the last days, also no nightmares. Could it be that you are not good with crowds?”

“Maybe,” Taiga let out before he tried to get in control of his emotions, because the headache was one thing, but he also felt weirdly dizzy and he couldn’t fall ill now, because he didn’t plan on staying at this big town just for lying in his room with a fever.

“Let’s keep going,” Taiga finally said and pushed Sakuma along the street and ensured him that he was feeling fine.

“This is so cool. I can’t believe they have an official street. I bet they even have tea houses. We should really find a job to be able to pay a night at a tea house.”

Taiga’s confused look was enough for Sakuma to slow down with the information rain. “There are official districts like this one where you can legally visit without problems and illegal places which are also often connected to gambling or drugs, so be careful with those. The tea houses are the places where the Oirans show off their skills like fan dance, Shamisen play and others, then later you can spend the night with them at their house.”

Taiga nodded, but while it made sense it wasn’t anything he was interested in or more like not necessarily in all parts. He would actually like to see Oirans perform their skills, it sounded entertaining.

Taiga had spaced out for a moment and realized a bit too late that he was almost running into someone coming his way. First he only saw the Kimono, one layered, yet with a beautiful butterfly pattern on it and he hurried to step out of the way before he dared to look up and apologize in case the woman was angry at him for blocking her way.

When he looked up though he held his breath as the person who passed by pierced him with an intense look. Half the person’s face was hidden behind a blue fan, yet this one look alone was strong enough to make Taiga shiver.

“A boy?” Taiga whispered as the other one had passed him and kept walking without spending him any more attention.

“Taiga, what takes you so long?”

When Sakuma was already at one of the houses a few meters away he finally turned away and hurried after him. There was a lot about this kind of place he didn’t seem to know, yet he didn’t feel as surprised about some things as he should? 

***

While Taiga had felt like this would become the most uncomfortable situation he had experienced so far it wasn’t actually that bad when they had finally made it to their room in the teahouse.

A week had passed since they had arrived in Narai and while Taiga had kept Sakuma from actually spending their money on any brothel so far there was no way he could stop him from planning this evening.

They had found a small job at a Ryokan in town and Sakuma made sure that Taiga promised him that they would use the money on a night at the teahouse and now they were finally here.

An assistant of the Oirans had guided them to their room, but at first they had been left alone and Taiga didn’t even know what to expect. Nevertheless he didn’t feel as nervous anymore the moment they had finally sat down in the room.

“Look at all this expensive stuff,” Sakuma said and took the sake bottle from the table in front of him.

“Better don’t touch it, we can’t pay if we break anything,” Taiga said a bit worried, but then he zipped it the moment the assistant from before slid open a door from the other side.

Two young women entered and Taiga automatically scanned their three layered Kimonos. One of the women seemed to be the senpai, her Kimono in bright red with a phoenix pattern on it. The younger woman, maybe even younger than Taiga, had a blue Kimono with a river pattern on it and when she realized how Taiga scanned her Kimono she turned around so he could have a look on the back pattern as well. The river was going over the back as well, but the pattern mixed with pink as there were sakura trees on the back as well.

Again Taiga could feel a headache coming up yet he tried his best to not let it affect the evening, because Sakuma was going crazy next to him and enjoying his best life so he didn’t want to spoil the fun.

“I somehow feel you’ve decided for your company already?” Sakuma teased him and pointed to the younger woman on which Taiga finally realized how much he was actually staring at her or more her Kimono. “Lucky for you that I might have my eyes on our red beauty.”

Taiga needed to stop himself from rolling his eyes, because he had to remind himself that there was nothing wrong with enjoying this evening and that he was the weird one for not enjoying it.

For a while they kept talking, the two women asking them some questions while they poured them some sake. To his surprise Sakuma declined the cigarette which was offered to him by the older woman.

As always the same questions came up and Taiga needed to find some lies here and there about his family and life so far. Sakuma on the other hand just talked like a waterfall about every single question they had.

“Your friend really enjoys himself,” the younger woman said as she handed Taiga another cup of sake.

“He was looking really forward to this evening,” Taiga replied.

“And you didn’t?”

The sudden question and slightly sad expression of the woman made Taiga put the sake cup down with a brief apologizing smile. “It’s my first time at a teahouse so I wasn’t sure what to expect.”

“Is there anything I can offer for your entertainment?”

The woman pointed to the back of the room where they had prepared some instruments and also fans. Taiga remembered that Sakuma had told him about the different skills they learned to entertain them.

“What’s your favorite instrument?” Taiga asked and the woman seemed to hesitate a bit. “It’s okay if you can’t play any please choose the skill you feel most comfortable with.”

“Oh, let them perform together,” Sakuma yelled from the side as he had heard them and the older woman nodded.

“Excuse her shy behavior, she doesn’t know herself how skilled she is,” the older woman said and told her to get up.

While the lady in red grabbed the fans, the younger woman took the Shamisen and sat down next to her.

Sakuma already clapped his hands before they even started while Taiga gave the lady in blue a nod and a brief smile as she looked a bit unsure about the performance, but then she smiled back and started playing.

Sakuma kept cheering and hitting Taiga against the arm in excitement while Taiga’s look was first on the fan dance, but then the younger woman started singing together with her Shamisen play and that was when Taiga’s eyes remained on her for the whole time of the performance.

In his chest something was clenched together and he wasn’t sure if it was a positive or negative feeling. But how could something this wonderful could awaken a bad feeling in him? Her voice was beautiful, her play flawless! Yet something about the combination with the fan dance made it feel weirdly painful for him, not that the Senpai wasn’t a great dancer. Her fan dance was beautiful!

When their performance was over Taiga needed a moment to finally clap while Sakuma had already jumped up in excitement, yelling compliments at them.

They both bowed and went back over to them. The younger woman brought the Shamisen with her and put it down before she sat down and bowed once more. “I hope our performance was enjoyable?”

Taiga didn’t even know what came over him, but he stretched his hand out and patted the woman’s head making her look up with a shy expression, which made Taiga smile. “Your Senpai is right you don’t know how skilled you are. You should really be more confident!”

The complement made the sSnpai and Sakuma chuckle while the woman in front of him started blushing.

“Do you mind?” Taiga asked and pointed at the Shamisen.

The woman smiled and handed him the Shamisen and just holding it felt weirdly familiar. Suddenly he seemed to drown in his own unknown world as he let his hands move over the instrument.

“It’s a really beautiful instrument,” Taiga let out on which the woman gave him a smile.

“It takes some time to learn it, but-”

As if it was a daily movement for Taiga he had picked up the Bachi and moved it over the sites. While he had expected it to sound annoying to the ear it somehow didn’t and even Sakuma stopped talking and listened to him.

For a second he thought about putting it down, but his hands moved on its own and he started playing a song which he didn’t even know.

He didn’t mind how everyone’s eyes were on him and then he started singing along the melody, the words popping out of his mind as if he had sung them a thousand times already.

They got interrupted when the assistant girl slid the main door open after she had left to get some more sake from the kitchen before.

Taiga didn’t stop immediately and his look fell outside to the corridor where he suddenly spotted a familiar face. A boy giving him a lopsided smile and an intense stare. Had he listened to his play from the outside?

The girl slid the door shut again on which Taiga finally fell silent and put the Bachi down.

“Wow….” Sakuma let out before the two women started clapping in excitement.

“What a lovely melody, you are so skilled, where did you learn playing?” The Senpai asked in excitement while the younger woman couldn’t even find any words.

“I- ehm… would you excuse me for a second?”

 Without even waiting for a reply he put the Shamisen carefully down and left the room without giving the assistant the time to open the door for him.

It wasn’t making sense why he was suddenly hurrying down the corridor and it made even less sense when someone was waiting for him around the next corner.

“That was an impressive play,” the boy in front of him said in a neutral voice, while he was resting with his back against the wall and his arms crossed to the front. He was wearing the same butterfly patterned Kimono as the day before, but he had light make-up on which showed that he had been busy with customers in the teahouse before as well.

“Thank you,” Taiga replied and then he realized how stupid this situation was. What was he going to do now? He didn’t even know why he had hurried after the boy in the first place.

“You seem a bit confused,” the boy said after a moment of silence.

“Well, ehm yes,” Taiga said honestly. “I am sorry for hurrying after you like this. I don’t even know why I did it.”

“So honest, cute,” the boy said and finally moved away from the wall and stepped right in front of Taiga making him hold his breath. “Then shall I tell you why you did it?”

The boy didn’t hesitate to put his hand under Taiga’s chin and even though everything screamed danger for Taiga he didn’t pull back. He didn’t even feel uncomfortable, not even when the boy moved even closer.

“You did it, because you like the unknown.”

Well that was definitely true, Taiga had found that much out himself.

“But,” the boy said before he pushed Taiga a bit to the back and gave him a lopsided smile. “For tonight you should be busy.”

Taiga looked over his shoulder, knowing that he left everyone behind in a confused state and that they had paid for the night already.

“I know that look, but even though I don’t know you I am pretty sure you are too responsible to run off with me like this.”

“I am not planning on running of with you,” Taiga said a bit pouting on which the other one chuckled.

“I just said that, didn’t I? But that doesn’t mean you can’t come by when you are free.”

Once more the boy came closer, but then he stepped to the side and just stopped briefly next to him, leaning over to his ear. “My house is at the right side of the street towards the back, hard to miss trust me. Ask for Kento.”

That was the most straight forward invitation he had ever received, but he couldn’t say he wasn’t happy about the information. When he wanted to say something as well Kento shook his head. “If you want to tell me your name then come over when you are free, we can have a talk then.”

With those words Kento vanished back into the next corridor leaving Taiga in a confused yet excited state.

But Kento was right he was indeed too responsible to leave Sakuma and the others alone like this, but that didn’t mean that he wasn’t thinking about taking the boy’s offer later!

***

A faint Shamisen play, somewhere, a place he couldn’t find in the endless corridors of sliding paper doors. Why was he in such a hurry? The play was calm, a song he knew!

Finally an open door came into his sight, but while the Shamisen play continued there was no one actually playing. He flinched when the sound of two fans getting spread out echoed in the room.

There was a boy facing with his back towards him, two golden fans gracefully in his hands. Like hypnotized Taiga kept watching his dance, but when the boy turned around, Taiga gasped. Another demon, so many had he faced already.

He wanted to turn and run, but a Kimono landed on his shoulders and while it was indeed just a normal Kimono it forced him down on his knees.

He started screaming, but he couldn’t hear his own voice. Another layer landed on his shoulders, elbows now pressing against the tatami ground while the demon boy got closer.

“I can teach you if you want.”

The demon spoke in a familiar voice and Taiga shook his head, almost crying as the third layer was too heavy to even look up anymore.

“Make it stop,” Taiga whispered. His voice was a bitter echo of a long forgotten time. “I can’t endure the pain…”

"You were always so easy to play."

“STOP IT!”

“TAIGA!”

With a gasp Taiga opened his eyes as he was roughly shaken by the shoulders and Sakuma gave him a worried look.

“Are you okay?”

Taiga needed a moment to even realize that it had been another nightmare and by now he felt really tired of them. As always after his nightmares his hand went directly to his bracelet while his look turned apologizing. “Maybe I should take a room for myself from now on.”

“What are you idiot saying?” Sakuma said angry and hit Taiga against the shoulder. “If I am not there to wake you up you’d just keep seeing those nightmares. So no, you are not taking your own room!”

“But I am keeping you awake all the time and-”

“No but, no excuses. Taiga, if you knew how to make the nightmares stop you’d do it, right?”

Of course he would, but he indeed couldn’t, so all he did was nod for now.

“Look, until we find a solution just get ready to be yelled at each time you have a nightmare,” Sakuma said teasing before he headed back to his futon. “If you don’t wake up though I might have to hit you at some point.”

“Now I am considering another room after all,” Taiga said with a brief smile, but when Sakuma turned off the lamp it faded again.

The nightmares, the headaches, everything just randomly appeared in situations Taiga couldn’t connect yet. But maybe he didn’t even want to connect them?

For now he wanted to just keep moving, because at least he had fun traveling around, meeting all the interesting people and that was all that mattered for him right now.

Chapter Text

“Wait, you don’t want to come?” Sakuma said a bit perplex. “Didn’t you have fun at the teahouse?”

“That’s not it,” Taiga tried to explain, but suddenly he felt more than embarrassed.

After a few more days in the city Sakuma had offered to move on, but he wanted to spend one more night at the Oiran district and while Taiga didn’t disagree he was aiming for another house, but explaining the reason made him blush.

“Oh, so did you find another lady of your taste at another house already?” Sakuma teased him and Taiga just nodded. It wasn’t actually a lie, right? Just that the lady was actually a boy.

“Fine with me. Then you go hunt down your lady and I am going to enjoy my time here, but we will make sure to get back to our Ryokan after the district closes, deal?”

Taiga nodded more enthusiastic this time and promised to be back on time, after all this district had strict closing times.

It felt a bit weird for Taiga walking down the street on his own, passing by all the houses, not having a single interest in the women behind the red bars.

“Towards the end, on the right,” Taiga whispered to himself and then he could see it. Like all the other houses there was nothing special about it, but it was indeed easy to spot.

Behind the red bars he spotted boys waving at the customers outside, trying to find company for the last hours of the day.

The face he was looking for though he couldn’t spot. Had he chosen a bad timing? Maybe he was busy with another customer?

Suddenly his confidence left him a bit, but he also didn’t want to leave the town without actually taking Kento’s invitation. Trying to shake off his doubts Taiga hit himself against the cheek and finally made his way to the front door of the house.

An assistant opened the door for him and greeted him politely. “Welcome. Who may I bring for you?”

It felt so weird to have this young boy speak of the workers in the house as if they were objects and while Taiga knew that this was how this type of milieu worked it was still making him feel a bit angry.

“I am looking for Kento,” Taiga finally dared to say and the boy bowed and stepped to the side.

“Please follow me.”

So it had been the right house at least, as long as he wasn’t going to be brought to another Kento that would be the highest point of his embarrassment.

While making their way to the second floor one of the sliding doors got violently ripped open and the boy halted, signaling Taiga to step to the side.

“My apologies,” a boy was heard and Taiga could see him kneeling and bowing towards a customer he couldn’t see yet.

“Stop that, it’s not your fault. Guess my standards are too high,” the customer said half laughing before he finally stepped out of the room. A boy maybe a bit younger than Taiga, quite strong looking and with tousled short hair. When the boy turned around and spotted them he looked a bit confused, yet not angry. “What are you looking at?”

“My apologies, I was bringing a customer inside,” the assistant said with a bow and the other boy looked up at Taiga who didn’t know if he did something to bring him into trouble or not.

“Mh, first time here?”

Taiga nodded trying to be as polite as he could. Trouble was the last thing he needed now.

“Who did you choose?”

“Kento,” Taiga said a bit hesitant and he flinched when the boy let out a snort mixed with a laugh before he walked up to him and put his arm around his shoulder. “Best choice! Trust me with Kento you’ve hit the jackpot. I am just traveling through, but over the few days I spent here Kento is definitely the one I’d recommend the most. Don’t end up too ‘tied’.” On his own joke the boy burst out laughing, while Taiga didn’t even get the joke in the first place.

“Nakamura-dono, your swords,” the boy from the room said and hurried to hand the other one two swords and that was when Taiga realized that he was dressed in a quite expensive looking hakama.

“Then farewell my friend. Enjoy,” Nakamura said and waved before hurrying down the stairs.

“Sorry for the inconvenience,” the assistant boy said, but Taiga just shook his head.

“By the way who was that?”

“His name is Nakamura Kaito, he is a samurai on his way to join the western Shogunate clans for the upcoming war.”

“A war?” Taiga asked perplex. Because yes he had seen quite a lot samurai and mercenaries on his way to far, but an actual war?”

“Please don’t be worried, this part of the country is in no uproar and you are totally safe in this town,” the boy added before they kept walking towards the room at the end of the corridor where the boy knocked and kneeled on the floor before he slid the door open.

“Kento, you have a customer.”

“Mh, who is it?” The boy asked and Taiga automatically held his breath when the boy in his butterfly Kimono walked up to the door. “Oh, hello there. What a surprise.”

Taiga bowed as if he was actually the worker and Kento couldn’t hide a chuckle on his reaction before he asked him to get inside the room and ordered the assistant to leave them.

The room was nothing special. A table and two pillows, an unused futon rolled up in the open cupboard and that was it.

“Came to have some fun?” Kento asked a bit challenging, but pointed towards the table and sat down while Taiga followed his example. Kento picked up a cigarette he had obviously put down earlier and while Taiga just kept staring Kento blew the steam right into his face making Taiga cough and Kento laugh.

“Stop being so tense, you are here to have fun. This is not a police interrogation,” Kento reminded him and he was indeed right. Yet something about the situation gave Taiga one of his annoying headaches.

“So now to the details,” Kento said as he put the cigarette back down and his look immediately changed to something more dangerous. “Except for your teahouse trip have you ever been to any other district?”

Taiga could only shake his head, but that movement made Kento’s look turn even darker. “I’d call you a liar, but something tells me that for you this is the truth, so let’s just leave it this way.”

How was he able to read him like this? It was almost offending Taiga to be such an open book, but maybe for once it was nice to have someone who was handling him this way?

“Then for starters, this house is not just special because we are boys. We offer more than the normal service, but that is a question of how far you want to go?”

“How far are you allowed to go?” Taiga asked back which brought a stunned expression on the latter’s face for the first time, before it changed back to playful. He leaned closer to Taiga over the table, but didn’t make any other move yet. “Tell me a word.”

“A word?”

“Yes, any word is fine.”

Taiga didn’t even know what kind of word to think of and his headache wanted to take away the ability to concentrate on the conversation, but he refused to let it take over and then his eyes stopped on Kento’s Kimono again. “Butterfly.”

Kento raised an eyebrow before looking at his own Kimono with a lopsided smile. “Nice choice. Then we take butterfly. That word is your safe word from now on. You are not allowed to say it anymore until you want me to stop what I am doing.”

This was sounding so confusing yet so inviting and even though Kento only got up and walked away from him there was already the first shiver running through his body.

“Let’s play a game,” Kento suggested as he stopped in front of the cupboard. “I will play the bad guy and I am going to get something from you, your job is to stop me from getting it.”

While Kento opened the cupboard to get something out of it, Taiga shifted a bit away from the table with an excited expression. “Then what are you trying to get from me?”

Kento turned back to him with the most dangerous shine in his eyes he had yet seen from the boy, in his hands he was holding a rope now and once more a shiver ran through Taiga’s whole body.

“Your name.”

Kento walked back towards him while playing with the rope in his hands and Taiga automatically shifted even more back until he hit the wall.

“Remember, our safe word can make me stop at any time. Whatever else you say or do I will see as a part of the game.”

Whatever weird switch it was that got pulled over through Kento’s game Taiga nodded without giving it a second thought and his headache seemed to have left him alone for now. This was definitely not going to be a common night at one of the district houses, but he was indeed looking forward to it.

“So I guess you don’t want to tell me your name right away, do you?”

Instead of replying immediately Taiga got up and walked towards Kento on which the latter looked a bit surprised. Had he not seen coming that Taiga could play this game as well?

As if it was a regular movement for him Taiga stretched his arm out and put his pointer finger under Kento’s chin. The change in the latter’s eyes made Taiga almost form a smile.

“If you want my name, you need to force it out of me.”

Kento leaned a bit to the front on that statement before he moved so fast and swift that Taiga couldn’t actually hide a gasp when his outstretched arm was suddenly trapped by the rope. With a rough pull Kento brought Taiga out of balance and pulled him right in front of him. “Trust me I am good at winning these kinds of games."

Taiga had no doubt about that and a part of him was hoping Kento would win, the other part was a proud brat not wanting to lose, so now he had to find out which part was stronger.

"But first," Kento added and eyed the bracelet on Taiga's wrist and waited for a nod from the other one before he took it off, obviously understanding that this was something Taiga wouldn't be happy about if it got broken in their game. Kento threw the bracelet on the unused Futon, Taiga turning to look if it was really landing safe in place.

With a hiss Taiga realized that Kento had used his distraction to get the rope so tight around his wrist that he wouldn’t be able to get it off easily.

The next move had Taiga stare in confusion as Kento threw the rope towards the ceiling, where it made its way over a beam and back into Kento’s hand. “Let’s see how strong your willpower is.”

Kento pulled on the rope again and Taiga’s wrist went up until he was barely standing on the top of his toes. “Too uncomfortable?”

“No worries, I know how to help myself out,” Taiga said confident and immediately took advantage of Kento getting too close. He tried to pull his arm down, knowing Kento would hold against it and have his eyes on the rope for the brief moment he needed to jump on Kento. And he really literally jumped on him to the latter’s obvious surprise. He didn’t let go of the rope, nor did he let Taiga get his arm down, but he had intuitively tried to stabilize Taiga when he had closed his legs around Kento’s hips, but he soon realized that Taiga seemed quite comfortable in his position and didn’t actually need any help.

“Full of surprises aren’t you.”

“I fear yes,” Taiga replied teasing.

“Afraid of your own confidence, I see?” Kento replied now back in his role of the bad boy. “Is it comfortable now?”

“Could be better, but I am definitely not complaining,” Taiga teased as he put his free arm lose over Kento’s shoulder.

“Well, what a shame that I am not here to make it comfortable for you,” Kento said and released the rope without any warning while making a step to the back.

Taiga hadn’t even noticed how much he had taken his balance from the rope and with Kento moving backwards as well he could only squeal and try to get his legs down in time before hitting the ground head first.

When he thought he would get a second to get his orientation back Kento was already hovering over him. This time he didn’t get any warning or time to react and Kento forced him on the stomach and pulled his shirt forcefully out of his hakama and threw it to the side, moving with such skilled hands that Taiga felt like he hadn’t even blinked once before he found both his arms tied to his back. So this time he was obviously planning ahead and didn’t make the mistake to leave any clothes in the way for later.

“Finally uncomfortable enough for you to tell me your name?” Kento tried again while throwing the rope back up over the beam once more. “Next time your legs will end up tied as well by the way.”

Before Taiga could reply Kento pulled him up once more and this time it was indeed a bit more uncomfortable than before, but not really to a degree where he’d say it was painful. He kept his eyes on Kento who tied the rope to a metal handle in the wall, which was obviously installed for exactly this purpose.

“That’s what he meant with not getting too ‘tied’, still not funny,” Taiga whispered to himself while Kento went back to him. This time Taiga was still able to stand, but his arms were pulled up in such a weird angle that he couldn’t actually stand straight, but had to keep leaning a bit to the front.

“Then let’s see where your weak point is,” Kento suggested and kept moving around the latter, putting his hands teasingly on his skin. On Taiga’s back though he stopped for a bit longer. He had definitely seen the scars earlier already, but Taiga shivered a bit when Kento started tracing them.

“I wonder if those scars are one reason why you keep everything a secret?”

Taiga couldn’t even find a fitting reply to that, because most likely they were, but that was definitely a part he never wanted to remember, because scars were never connected to something good.

“But this one,” Kento said as he moved in front of Taiga again and pushed his head up a bit before stroking with his fingers over Taiga’s scared eye on which the boy closed it intuitively. “This scar is something completely different.”

“What do you mean with different?” Taiga asked curious as he somehow didn’t mind the latter’s touch on his face while he sometimes found it a bit embarrassing when people pointed at his scar or talked about it.

“While scars on the back are something a lot of us have experienced in our lives, this scar is nothing to be ashamed of.”

Taiga couldn’t follow completely, but Kento only formed a brief smile before he put his lips on Taiga’s closed eye and placed a soft kiss over it. “This one is definitely a scar to be proud of, trust me.”

How Kento could know that was unclear, but somehow Taiga wanted to believe him and carry that scar with a little bit more pride. Maybe he had indeed given his eyesight out of a good reason instead of losing it as a punishment.

“Nevertheless,” Kento started and moved rougher this time as he forced Taiga’s head a bit more up with his hand under his chin. “I still need your name, stranger.”

“How about you offer me something in return? Because you know I’ve the feeling I am pretty good in winning games as well.”

“What a challenge ,” Kento replied entertained, but gave Taiga a taste of what could await him in return if he was willing to lose the game. Kento’s lips on Taiga’s moved slow, yet not hesitant. He was skilled in every single aspect in this job and Taiga couldn’t wait to take it further, but he also didn’t want to lose the game that easily.

Unfortunately Kento wasn’t offering him the full program as long as their game was still on and while his hands traveled down to Taiga’s Hakama he lost the contact to his lips and didn’t allow Taiga to find it again.

“Mh, so greedy, aren’t you, stranger?”

Instead of actually getting rid of Taiga’s Hakama, Kento let his hand play around the fabric while he moved closer to Taiga again, but kept his head up this time. With that move though Taiga was on the same height with Kento’s shoulders and before the latter could actually try and make him feel desperate for more as his hand was already pretty busy with his erection, Taiga took advantage of the latter’s distraction and leant to the front, biting down on the fabric of Kento’s Kimono and pulling it harshly from the latter’s shoulder.

“Oh, a biter?” Kento said amused as Taiga let go of the latter’s Kimono and looked up at him.

“If you dare to come closer again you will see how strong that bite can be.”

“What an invitation,” Kento replied before he actually moved so close to Taiga that the latter was forced to try and stand up more straight even with his arms blocking the movement. Kento obviously enjoyed his struggle and put his hand in his hair to pull his head a bit to the back and what seemed like a rough move, was actually pretty helpful for Taiga.

“Then go ahead,” Kento offered and leaned a bit to the front and Taiga would be a fool to not take this invitation.

First he aimed for the other side of the Kimono and pulled the remaining sleeve down and Kento hurried to take both his arms out of the falling sleeves, revealing his upper body now. While Taiga would be pretty satisfied with only staring he wouldn’t let this chance go to waste and he aimed for Kento’s neck first and he heard the latter chuckle and could feel him shiver as he sank his teeth careful yet demanding into the latter’s soft skin.

The need to get his hands free was starting to irritate him as he kept pulling on the ropes while his tongue and teeth greedily moved up to the latter’s earlobe and then down to his jawline until Kento finally allowed him another kiss and this time Kento took full advantage of Taiga’s tied up situation and took the lead in the kiss until Taiga was actually gasping for air and was the one to pull back.

“A stranger full of surprises,” Kento said before he stepped back and turned away, opening his obi and letting his Kimono slowly slide from his hips without another warning. Taiga kept staring after him as Kento moved towards the metal hook where the rope was tied to and then turned around leaning next to it on the wall.

Without even knowing why he felt so embarrassed about staring, Taiga suddenly looked away on which he could hear the other one chuckle. “So, is our stranger going to remain a stranger?”

Wasn’t it too easy? Too ...harmless? On one hand Taiga wanted to hit himself for his stupid thoughts, yet he felt like he was more than up for any kind of danger when it came down to such situations. Slowly though he felt like something inside of him was ringing a silent alarm. The headache had left, yet something else was there, but he wanted to suppress it. With a determined look he faced Kento again and flashed a lopsided smile.

“Are you running out of patience or what is the hurry for?”

“Oh?” Kento replied a bit stunned with a raised eyebrow. “Is our bad boy versus good boy game changing into bad boy versus bad boy? Interesting!”

Instead of approaching Taiga directly, Kento moved back to the cupboard, but he left the item he took out behind his back and approached Taiga again. He made sure to move close enough so that Taiga couldn’t see what he was holding and he moved behind Taiga one hand suddenly back on his Hakama, but this time he was obviously trying to finally get rid of it, which didn’t mean that he wouldn’t take his time and take his hands on a few extra turns before making it drop to the ground.

“Then tell me bad boy, how desperate do you have to be to tell me your name?”

While Taiga still flinched when Kento’s hand closed around his member, he was able to bite back a surprised sound and he tried to keep a straight face as he looked over his shoulder as good as he could to give Kento a dangerous glare, but the latter wasn’t really impressed, because why would he? All the advantages were on his side.

Kento started leaning against the latter’s back, which put more pressure on Taiga’s arms and made it harder to actually find a comfortable position.

“That is a position that fits you,” Kento let out playfully as he stepped closer and let his own erection brush against Taiga’s butt. This time Taiga needed to bite the inside of his cheek to not let out a sound, but he just wasn’t ready to surrender yet, neither to Kento nor to this annoying feeling crawling slowly inside his mind, trying to ruin the fun for him.

“You said you were good at winning games as well, right?” Kento asked and put his free hand over the latter’s shoulder and it took a moment for Taiga to realize what he was holding and this time he couldn’t hold back a gasp, but Kento didn’t give him any chance to move away. “Then I wonder how dangerous the game must become so that you lose?”

It was a thin sharp dagger he was holding, almost as thin as a hair needle, but obviously sharp enough to cause some harm if brought down on his skin.

There was a second of panic, a moment of uproar inside of Taiga, bringing his headache back to the surface, but when he realized that Kento wasn’t actually trying to bring it down or hold him in position he got into control of his own panic.

For a second the word butterfly was lying painfully clearly on his lips, but he just didn’t want to be that scared little boy who couldn’t handle a stupid roleplay and even though he didn’t know Kento until now he was quite sure that someone who seemed famous in this house wouldn’t actually go for some stupid move like really hurting him badly.

“Are you not confident in your own skills?” Taiga finally said, finding his teasing attitude again.

“Mh? A comeback? And here I thought I had you game over,” Kento said honestly and pulled the dagger back and while Kento couldn’t see the move he heard how Kento was putting the dagger between his teeth to have both hands free.

First Taiga wanted to tease him that if he couldn’t speak with the dagger between his teeth now that he couldn’t ask him his name again, but he had underestimated Kento, as so often in this short period of time.

Kento’s hand vanished from Taiga’s member, but instead he moved back and made Taiga gasp as he pushed in with two fingers without any kind of warning or hesitation.

Kento didn’t leave any space for hesitation or complains and Taiga didn’t even bother with bringing out any words, as the latter wouldn’t be able to reply at the moment anyway.

It didn’t take long until Taiga couldn’t suppress the moans he had kept in for so long anymore and his body started shaking through the growing exhaustion of his body and the even faster growing excitement and need.

Each time Taiga wanted to somehow turn his head or bring out a snappy comment Kento found just the right spot to make it impossible for him to keep concentrating and once more his moans and gasps were all that filled the room.

“Would you hurry?” Taiga finally brought out, but that was exactly what he shouldn’t have said, because now Kento knew that he had him exactly where he wanted him. Desperate and ready to lose the game.

As he had expected after his not well thought through yelling Kento removed his fingers and put one hand on Taiga’s thigh instead. When he could feel Kento’s lips on the nape of his neck he knew that he had taken the dagger back in one hand, but it was nowhere near his skin so far.

“If you want me to hurry then you need to give me a name, stranger.”

Kento pulling with his teeth on the skin of his neck made Taiga choke on his own words before he could even come up with any snappy reply. Kento’s hand worked its way up and down the inside of his thigh, but of course he would watch out not to come too close to where Taiga wanted him right now.

“Stranger,” Kento whispered next to his ear and pressed his body against Taiga’s once more on which the boy finally let out a loud curse.

“Taiga!” He yelled, but lost orientation the same moment he finally went game over as the pressure of the ropes was gone in the tenth of a second making him fall straight down to his knees.

“What a sweet name,” Kento said and Taiga saw how he lowered the dagger with which he had obviously just cut the rope. “Then, Taiga, now that you went game over it’s time for my reward of winning this game, don’t you think?”

It was really hard to tell by now who was the customer here, but on the other side maybe Kento was just pretty good in telling the needs of people and until now he had pulled all strings right to make Taiga excited.

Kento put the knife away and crouched down over the other one, forcing Taiga on his back before he got the chance to get up. This was the easy part, the exciting part and what Taiga had gone game over for, yet something didn’t feel right when Kento invited him to turn them around and take what he wanted.

“Are you too disappointed in yourself that you went game over?” Kento asked teasing on the other one’s hesitation and stroked over Taiga’s thigh again. “I can do the work for you if you feel more comfortable down there?”

Kento’s invitation wasn’t mocking. He was taking care of his customer that was all, yet all the excitement was gone for Taiga and he wanted to yell at himself for what was wrong with him, because he couldn’t explain what the sudden uproar in his mind was about.

Trying to get Taiga’s attention again Kento put his hand on the other one’s cheek and leaned closer for another kiss, but he was stopped by Taiga’s hand closing around his wrist.

“Butterfly.”

It should feel embarrassing to say it, yet it didn’t. Kento should give him a teasing look for saying it after everything was already over, yet he formed an understanding smile, which left Taiga confused.

“I wondered where your limits are.”

“What?”

“I can explain what I mean or I can leave you to your lies. It depends on how much you want to know about yourself?”

Now the headache reached its peak and Taiga hissed, putting one hand to his temple while Kento got up to get both their clothes. He didn’t even look in any way surprised or disappointed. It felt like he had known exactly what he was getting himself into when he had invited Taiga over.

“How about this, I will get you some tea for now and after a short rest you can decide what to do?”

Taiga was still too confused to even reply anything intelligent to that offer so he just nodded, hoping that he could calm down enough to make a decision. Not that he knew what the right decision even was. What could Kento actually know about him?

Chapter Text

Taiga waited impatiently at the door until Kento finally stepped out of the building and held a letter out towards him. He had told him to wait for a moment after he had put some writing utensils on the table and Taiga had left the room in a hurry, feeling a bit scared about what Kento’s words could tell him.

“If you want to know then everything I can tell you is written in here. It’s your decision if you read it or not.”

Did he want to know? He could tell that Kento knew something that could help him find out his identity, but did he really want to know? Would his nightmares and the headaches become less if he knew? Or would they rip him apart completely?

“Take your time, it’s not like you need to decide immediately,” Kento explained.

Taiga felt still a bit embarrassed for ending his visit this abruptly, but Kento didn’t seem to mind. He took the other one’s hand and placed the letter in his palm.

“Your memories are nothing I can restore, but maybe at some point you will seek some answers.”

“Thank you so much,” Taiga said and bowed towards the other one. When he had found himself on this journey towards nowhere he hadn’t even thought about the possibility that people who had never met him before could somehow help him remember, but while the thought of remembering was still somehow weirdly hurting him he was also grateful that he would get a chance to get his memories back or at least to find the right start point to look for his memories if he dared to open the letter at some point. For now he put the letter into the sleeve of his top to make sure not to lose it.

“You are a really interesting person,” Kento said with a smile before he bowed to his customer. “Make sure you stay safe on your journey and feel free to see me again if you pass by here.”

Taiga couldn’t hide a chuckle on Kento’s unnecessary wink, but of course he nodded. “Thank you for everything and I will definitely come by again, after all I need to let you know how my journey ended.”

***

It was dark outside already when Taiga was on his way back to the Ryokan, but for once in a while he felt like his heart was a bit lighter than usual. All the nightmares and the headaches were definitely signs that he wouldn’t be able to run away from his past for the rest of his life, but something told him that for just a while longer he should allow himself to live carefree.

For now he would just go where his legs would take him to and until now he had made a lot of interesting new company and while his first encounter with Sakuma had been anything but a good start he hoped that the latter would actually travel a bit longer with him.

“Mh I didn’t know you boys would get off work that early,” someone said close to him, but at first he didn’t even think he was the one being spoken to until he realized that the person who had said it was alone and was looking directly at him. Taiga slowed down, but didn’t actually stop, resulting in the man in his maybe early thirties to walk alongside him.

“Excuse me, do I know you?” Taiga asked politely as he kept heading towards the Ryokan, while the man just gave him a weird smile.

“I thought boys like you are polite towards all your customers, no matter if in the house or not?” The man teased getting way too close for Taiga’s liking and then it clicked.

“I am not part of the entertainment district of this town if you thought that,” Taiga explained, but the man just chuckled.

“What other kind of work could a pretty boy like you be capable of?”

Now Taiga started to get annoyed and he stopped, facing the man directly. “Okay, first it doesn’t matter how someone looks, just because someone is pretty doesn’t mean they are all working in entertainment districts and second even if I was working there then you would break the rules right now and follow me after working hours and outside the district!”

“Oh so familiar with the rules, suspicious isn’t it?”

Taiga rolled his eyes before he just walked off towards the Ryokan with faster steps this time. There were barely two more corners until he would be there and after he had indeed had a nice evening he wasn’t in the mood to let it get destroyed by an idiot.

Unfortunately the person followed him as he had already expected and Taiga had to decide if he wanted to stop again and yell at him or if he should actually prepare for a dash back to get away from him?

“What if I pay you?”

“Huh?” That question took Taiga by such a surprise that he actually stopped again.

“I mean no matter if you work there or not you should definitely be interested in earning some extra.”

First Taiga wanted to yell at him, but before he could actually do so he had calmed down again. While this was indeed pretty bold and kind of impolite to ask he had to give the man the recognition that he asked in the first place, that was...if he reacted as calm the moment Taiga would deny his offer.

First Taiga thought about a good way to formulate his reply as he was sure that the man wouldn’t let him off just like this even if he declined the offer. When he thought he found the right words he faced the other one, but to his surprise the man’s eyes were on someone else, but before Taiga could turn to see who was behind him an arm ended up loose over his shoulder.

“What a shame that I have to steal him away from you for tonight.”

A familiar voice and Taiga stared up at Ryohei in a loss of words. Then he looked back to the other man and to his surprise he didn’t seem angry, more like taken aback and who wouldn’t to be honest? Ryohei had his left hand over the hilt of his sword in the white sheath. Maybe the same way as this sword had given weird vibes to Taiga before it was also helping with chasing away the annoying man?

“If you want to have him for yourself I fear we have to fight over him,” Ryohei added letting just an inch of the blade show when he lifted the hilt up with his thumb, but the man shook his head right away.

“He’s all yours. I am not looking for trouble, just for fun,” the man said as he was already taking some steps back before he turned around and hurried away.

“Great, then I can have my fun now?” Ryohei asked on which Taiga gave him such a confused expression that the latter burst out laughing. “I am joking! How have you been? I didn’t expect to see you so soon again and again in trouble, you seem to be a magnet for it.”

Taiga felt how he was actually between getting angry and blushing on that comment, because as much as he hated to admit it he was right.

“So how about I bring you back to your place just to be sure?” Ryohei asked and Taiga nodded, because who knows how much trouble he could actually run into in a few minutes.

“Thank you Ryohei, you seem to always be there at the right timing,” Taiga said as he wanted to start walking, but before he could do so Ryohei squeezed his shoulder once more before he ruffled with his hand though Taiga’s hair. “Let’s hope it stays like this so that I can be there if you are in real trouble one day!”

“Hands off!”

Taiga was interrupted the moment he wanted to say something and suddenly someone jumped in between Ryohei and him. Ryohei had to actually jump a bit back as the other one had jumped in with a wide left hook.

“Whatever you are up to, trust me you won’t be in the mood for it anymore after I am done with you,” the other one said way too self-convinced and while Ryohei tilted his head in confusion, Taiga clicked his tongue before he made a step next to the other one and hit him harshly on the head on which the other one whined.

“Sakuma, what the hell are you doing?”

“Ow, that hurt!” Sakuma said instead of explaining himself.

“Trust me it would hurt way more if you actually fight against Ryohei!”

“Ryohei?” Sakuma asked confused, looking over to the other one. Taiga walked up to the taller man and pointed at him. “This is Ryohei, I met him before I met you back in Karuizawa. He just helped me out so you better apologize for being so rude.”

Well he hadn’t actually expected Sakuma to bow and say sorry and as expected the boy pouted and crossed his arms in front of this chest. “You were running late so I was worried and looked for you. It’s his fault for being so close and suspicious.”

Again Taiga sighed, but Ryohei put his hand on his shoulder. “Don’t worry I am not mad. You have some interesting new company. It’s nice to know that you have someone to look after you.”

“Oh he definitely needs someone to look after him in as much trouble as he always stumbles,” Sakuma agreed on which Taiga was the one pouting this time.

“You have to admit that he is right,” Ryohei joined in and Taiga hit him against the shoulder making all of them started laughing.

“So are you already leaving this town?” Taiga finally asked on which Ryohei shook his head.

“Actually I just arrived. I had some business away from the main street that’s how I was slow to catch up with you. I am not in a hurry as all I am doing is heading down the Nakasendo for now.”

“Want to join our travel for a bit?”

“No way,” Sakuma said right away.

“Why not, are you afraid he will be faster than you?” Taiga teased him.

“More like super annoying,” Sakuma whispered in annoyance.

“Oh I see you are capable of more than just jumping into fights without being able to win them?”

“I would definitely win against you,” Sakuma said, but looked at the other one’s sword next. “In a race definitely.”

“How about we find out tomorrow when we leave for the next town? You can have a duel if you want?” Taiga suggested and Sakuma’s eyes seemed on fire the next second.

“I am totally up for that,” Sakuma said and for a second Ryohei seemed like he wanted to shake his head on which Sakuma laughed. “Backing out already? Better for you! You would stand no chance!”

With a sigh Ryohei showed a small smile. “Fine, then let’s have a race tomorrow.”

“What do I get if I win?” Sakuma asked on which Taiga rolled his eyes. Why could he not just be satisfied with the race itself?

“How about I will train you for a week if you win?”

First Sakuma definitely wanted to make fun out of that offer it was written all over his face, but then he halted for a second, because what if that was actually some useful training he could get?

“Does that include me?” Taiga asked hopefully.

“If you want to?”

“Definitely,” Taiga said excited, because since he had trained with Tai-chan he hadn’t had any sword fighting lessons anymore and he’d love to do some sparring with Ryohei.

“Fine then,” Sakuma said. “What do you want if you win?”

Ryohei thought a moment about that before he smiled brightly. “You have to grant me one wish if I win, no matter what it is.”

“Mh, a dangerous request,” Sakuma replied.

“Can we say that this request can’t have anything to do with hurting someone?” Taiga asked just to make sure things wouldn’t get out of hand.

“Of course, I wouldn’t ask anything impolite or dangerous, don’t worry.”

“Then we have a deal,” Sakuma said totally excited now and Taiga couldn’t from shaking his head. How had they ended up in such a weird duel between them? But on the other hand he wasn’t directly involved so he could observe it from the sideline which was definitely going to be interesting!

***

“Okay, ready?” Sakuma asked while stretching and putting his weight from one leg to the other before already getting into a start position.

“Impatient, aren’t you? We didn’t even decide until where we race,” Ryohei reminded him.

“Fine, let’s say the next city!” Sakuma replied.

“Do you want me to carry your sword?” Taiga asked as he realized that it was unfair that Ryohei had to run with such a disadvantage.

“So polite, as always!” Ryohei replied, but shook his head. “It might sound a bit stupid, but if there is anything I won’t hand to others it’s this sword.”

It didn’t sound stupid at all, because there was also something Taiga wouldn’t easily hand to others and he intuitively grabbed his bracelet.

“Taiga, give us a start signal. You can take it slow and we meet at the next city,” Sakuma said, getting impatient.

Taiga looked at Ryohei who nodded, but didn’t actually seem as into sprinting off like Sakuma.

“Okay, ready?” Taiga asked and both nodded. “Go!”

As expected Sakuma dashed down the main road towards the next city without even looking back and Taiga shook his head while looking after him, but then he realized something even weirder.

“Ehm, why are you not running after him?” Taiga asked perplex as Ryohei stood next to him with a light smile, watching after Sakuma.

“Well I am, but there is no need to run, follow me.”

Sakuma was already out of sight and Ryohei walked off towards another direction so Taiga shrugged his shoulders and followed Ryohei instead.

After a few minutes of walking down a different path, a bit smaller than the main street and without people, they came across something that looked like the entrance of a cave.

“What’s this?” Taiga asked and Ryohei gave him a teasing smile.

“A shortcut,” Ryohei said proudly. “I heard of it from someone in town. While the main road will have one pretty rough mountain to climb on the way, this way allows us to just skip it and walk straight through it.”

Sounded nice, but there was something that troubled Taiga about this shortcut and Ryohei seemed to understand his hesitation.

“That person also explained that the people think that there is a demon living inside so there are not many people taking this road.”

“Great…” Taiga replied as he dared to step a bit closer to the cave entrance. Ryohei put down his luggage which he had carried on his back and pulled out an oil lamp, lighting it so they would be able to see inside.

“Do you trust me?” Ryohei asked and as much as Taiga would definitely feel safer to go over the mountain path he wasn’t ready to be called a coward and they weren’t cheating either, because no one had said they weren’t allowed to use another path to make it to the next city.

While he was still hesitating a bit he made another step inside the cave, just to have a closer look at the surrounding to know what would await him. When he saw a sudden flash of light he gasped before he even realized where it was coming from.

“Oh, that’s interesting,” Ryohei said and when Taiga followed his look he realized that it was his own bracelet which had suddenly changed colors as he had stepped into the darker part of the cave. It wasn’t actually producing light. It was more like the stones were shining in the dark, making it easier for them to see.

“We have something in common as it seems,” Ryohei said and when Taiga tilted his head the other one drew out his sword a bit and fascinated Taiga stared at the green blade. He had realized before already that it had a special color, but now the same as his bracelet the blade was shining in bright green.

“Maybe both of our precious belongings were made from the same gods?”

That actually sounded pretty spiritual, but there had been so much unexplainable happening around the bracelet, Taiga would believe almost everything.

“Then shall we? Before the demon realizes that we are here?” Ryohei said teasing and stepped further into the cave with the lamp in his hand and Taiga nodded, following him so he wouldn’t get left behind or lost in this cave.

Chapter Text

“HOW?” Sakuma shouted as he stopped in front of Ryohei and Taiga after running down the steep mountain path in front of the next town. He was sweaty and out of breath, but he had been indeed pretty fast as the other two had barely arrived a few minutes ago.

“Magic?” Taiga replied, shrugging his shoulders on which Sakuma pouted and Ryohei started laughing.

“Shall we head to the city first it’s going to get dark soon,” Ryohei said and turned already.

“You’re really not going to tell me how you made it earlier here than me?” Sakuma said stunned and walked next to Taiga as they made it to the entrance of the city. Taiga gave a short glance at Ryohei, but the latter didn’t seem like he minded if he told him.

“There was a shortcut under the mountain, we came from there,” Taiga said teasing on which Sakuma crossed his arms to his chest. “Unfair! That was cheating. I am not going to gain your one request like that!”

Ryohei laughed on hearing that. “Well please yourself, but remember that we never agreed on any rules like taking a shortcut.”

Sakuma couldn’t actually say anything against that, but he still felt betrayed.

“Unfortunately that also means you won’t train us, right?” Taiga asked a bit disappointed.

“Mh, we will see,” Ryohei said on which Taiga got excited, because Ryohei was definitely nice enough to actually consider it after all.

Before they could continue their conversation though Ryohei stopped and Taiga and Sakuma looked over his shoulder, finding some of the villagers in front of them. They had barely arrived and were still at the entrance of the city where ways from four directions crossed.

“They look scary,” Sakuma whispered towards Taiga and there was actually really something scary about them as they obviously blocked their way.

“May I help you with something?” Ryohei asked politely, but Taiga didn’t miss the way his hand landed on the hilt of his sword. After all some of the villagers also carried swords or other weapons, not that they seemed like Samurai or mercenary.

“Did you just say you came here through the cave?” One of the men in front asked.

“Yes we indeed came through that cave,” Ryohei said calmly.

“Then stay out of this village!” Another man shouted and stepped a bit to the front, lifting a short sword. “We won’t let any demons into our town!”

“Demons?” Sakuma asked confused.

“There seems to be a legend about a demon in that cave, but there was absolutely nothing. It was a normal cave,” Taiga explained, loud enough for the villagers to be able to hear him.

“As if a mere human could see the demon,” one of the villagers shouted. “He can possess you without you noticing. GET OUT!”

“YES GET OUT!”

More and more villagers shouted at them and gathered around them. Even children and women were giving them judging looks.

“Maybe we should take one of the other ways and make our way to another city?” Taiga asked and Sakuma nodded immediately, because they weren’t bound for a goal in particular so they could easily just take another path.

“No other city around here will accept you!” One of the villagers shouted and lifted a fork he was carrying.

“We will just not tell that you went through the cave,” Sakuma whispered, but the man in the front seemed to have heard him.

“Clear words of a demon!”

“Dude, I didn’t even go through the cave,” Sakuma shouted back.

“Even more proof that the demon possessed everyone close to those two already,” one other shouted.

“Okay this is getting ridiculous, let’s get out of here,” Sakuma said.

“Don’t let them run away, they will spread the evil,” someone shouted and soon people were blocking their way out of the city.

“Are they serious?” Taiga asked perplexed.

“Well, you better take them serious or we have a problem,” Ryohei said and drew his sword on which the villagers seemed taken aback for a second.

“Can I make my request now?” Ryohei said suddenly.

“What, now?” Sakuma asked stunned.

“Don’t die! Neither of you!”

Well that sounded dramatic, but that was definitely a request they wanted to accomplish for sure!

“I’ll open a way to the back as there are not so many people, you run as soon as you see a chance, okay?” Ryohei said and Taiga couldn’t do more than nod, because he had no weapon and running was something Sakuma and him were good at anyway.

Without a warning Ryohei swirled around and went for the villagers behind them and luckily they seemed so surprised that some stumbled and fell, others had to doge the sword as Ryohei swung it in a wide radius to make them all back of.

“NOW!” He shouted and Taiga and Sakuma dashed through the opening, Ryohei following them immediately.

“Stop them!” One man shouted and some people hurried after them, but they shouldn’t have trouble escaping. On the crossing they had to decide which direction to run to, but then Taiga noticed a lot of dust in the forest on the right path and before they reached the crossing a few dozens of horses showed up, samurai on their way to the city and now they were blocking their way.

“Damn, what a shitty timing,” Sakuma cursed, stopping before the horses could trample over them. The samurai luckily stopped as well and the villagers didn’t dare to attack them with the unexpected visitors.

“What is going on here, why are you blocking our way?” One of the generals in front was shouting. This time it wasn’t just about one or two samurai Taiga had seen on his way, nor normal mercenary. Those samurai were in full armor, two swords on their sides and the emblem of the Tokugawa shogunate on their flags.

“My apologies for blocking your way on an official business,” Ryohei started and bowed towards them before any of the villagers could talk. “We had some trouble in this city as we took a shortcut here from which the villagers think it is haunted by a demon. We told them we would leave in that case, but they threatened us so we tried to flee.”

“We cannot let them run, they need to be killed. They are possessed!” One of the villagers shouted.

“We told you we are not!” Sakuma shouted back.

“Enough!” One of the generals said strictly and they all fell silent again. “Ask our Daimyo how to proceed with this problem,” he told one of the soldiers on foot who nodded and vanished to the back.

“Are we in trouble?” Taiga whispered towards Ryohei, but the man seemed calm.

“Depends on the mood of their Daimyo I fear.”

When they heard a loud laughter between the samurai they waited for someone to come into sight.

“I really need to see this for myself. This is too funny to not watch,” someone shouted on his way to the front.

“This is not our business though, wait for our Daimyo you idiot,” another one spoke and that was when Taiga noticed a familiar voice.

“So where are our demons?” The samurai who came into sight asked and stopped in front of the three on the run. First he was still smiling brightly, but then his look fell on Taiga and then both gasped, pointing fingers at each other.

“What are you doing here?” Kaito asked perplex.

“You are the samurai from the-” Taiga got interrupted by Kaito almost jumping on him and putting his hand over his mouth.

“Don’t you dare say that out loud or I will kill you,” Kaito said threatening, but also panicked and for now Taiga just nodded so that Kaito would let go of him again.

“Kaito what the heck are you doing,” someone else said as he walked up to them. “You shouldn’t- Taiga?”

This time Taiga didn’t need to fear a rough greeting and he smiled widely as the other one walked up to them. “I knew I heard right, nice to see you again Tai-chan!”

“Taiga, what is going on, why do you know samurai? Are we in even bigger trouble now?” Sakuma asked a bit afraid, but Ryohei on the other hand finally put his sword back into the sheath and bowed towards the two samurai.

“Sorry for troubling you. We didn’t intend to get in your way,” Ryohei explained again on which Kaito just laughed.

“So you are the demons?” Kaito asked pointing at them.

“Well, not me, I went over the mountain, they cheated in a race,” Sakuma said.

“Anyway, let me talk to the villagers for now,” Tai-chan said. “I am not really willing to let them kill a friend of mine.”

“You have powerful friends, I should definitely stay with you for longer,” Sakuma said teasing on which Taiga rolled his eyes.

“With all our respect my lord, but we cannot let them leave,” the man who had shouted so much before was now talking nicely to Tai-chan. “This is not just a myth and we had people killing villagers after they had been touched by the evil of the demon.

The villagers in the back also shouted and demanded that they would get handed to them and Tai-chan seemed a bit lost.

“Silence!” 

On someone on a horse coming to the front now everyone fell silent and the villagers suddenly bowed, while Tai-chan and Kaito stepped to the side.

“What shall we do about this situation?” Kaito asked the young man on the horse who was looking at the villagers. He seemed in his thoughts for a moment and Taiga kept looking at him. Maybe it was because he was still so young and yet obviously the Daimyo that he was so fascinated by him? Different to the other samurai he was carrying a long sword, but just a normal Shoto instead of a longer Taito and then Taiga’s look fell on the emblem on it. An emblem which wasn’t of the Tokugawa shogunate. A bridge?

It didn’t take more than a few seconds for a breaking headache to overwhelm Taiga and he almost lost his balance as he was seeing stars in front of his eyes. Sakuma realized what was going on and took him by the shoulders to stabilize him.

“Are you okay? A headache at this timing?” Sakuma asked scolding, yet worried.

Ryohei didn’t know what was going on, but he also seemed worried.

“Who are the people those villagers are threatening, bring them to me,” the Daimyo ordered as Kaito and Tai-chan were still standing with them a bit away from him and Taiga tried to get a grip and walk up to him with the others. He bowed politely as he knew that they could end up in trouble if they angered a Daimyo.

“What?” The Daimyo asked so confused that Taiga looked up at him just to find the other one’s eyes fixed on him with a shocked expression. “Taiga, what the hell are you doing on the Nakasendo?”

Now all eyes were on Taiga and the Daimyo, but Taiga couldn’t reply, because there wasn’t a true answer he could give and something told him that this wasn’t an encounter he wanted to happen, at least not at this timing.

“You know each other?” Tai-chan asked and walked up to them.

“Taiga you are well known everywhere as it seems,” Kaito teased.

“Wait, you two know Taiga as well?” The Daimyo asked on which they nodded.

“I worked with Taiga in the same restaurant on the way here as I needed to earn some more money before making it to the camp and I was a few weeks early anyway.

“Same here, I just ran into him in one town,” Kaito added, still trying to hide where he had actually met him.

All Taiga could do was looking confused from one to the other, but he felt more than uncomfortable with a stranger looking at him this intensely and also that scolding. He hadn’t done anything wrong, had he?

“Tai-chan, tell the villagers that we will take care of them from here. They shall not worry. Just tell them we will purify them from the demon or whatever other story you can come up with to calm them down.”

Tai-chan nodded and left with Kaito to talk to the villagers while the Daimyo got off his horse and stopped right in front of Taiga. His look fell on Sakuma and Ryohei who he didn’t seem to know.

“Dono, thank you for your help. We are so sorry for getting in your way of traveling,” Ryohei apologized. The man only nodded before his look fell back on Taiga and then his look softened a bit, almost changed to sad, maybe even disappointed?

“You don’t recognize me, do you?”

Taiga could just shake his head, because at least this much he could tell. For all he knew for now he had never met him, but he also knew that this couldn’t be the case and suddenly his wrist felt a hundred times heavier than before. His bracelet seemed too heavy to carry.

“I am the Daimyo of this prefecture and on my way to join with the Daimyo of another prefecture as we are on our way to war, but details later.”

Taiga bowed on that explanation. Was there even a way he could have ever known someone as important as a Daimyo?

“Dono, thank you for letting us know. My name is Ryohei, this is Sakuma and as you seem to know this is Taiga. We are traveling along the Nakasendo together, but we are on no specific trip or search for a specific goal,” Ryohei explained on which the Daimyo smiled and nodded.

“Mh, seems like a nice journey,” he replied, but Taiga couldn’t find a fitting reply as the man still looked kind of sad.

“Let me make sure that your journey won’t end here,” he said with a smile. “Then let me introduce myself. I am the second Daimyo of this prefecture under the Tokugawa Shogunate, my name is Shimekake Ryuya.”

***

Shime made his army leave to the next city so that the villagers wouldn’t try any stupid moves against Taiga and the others after all. In the next town they had to split up into several Ryokans and some Samurai were camping outside, guarding their supplies and the horses.

On Shime’s request, Tai-chan, Kaito, Taiga, Sakuma and Ryohei stayed with him in one Ryokan.

“You did what?” Tai-chan asked or more like yelled and was already getting ready to take Sakuma by the collar.

“It’s okay, as you see I’m still alive,” Taiga tried to calm him down and luckily Tai-chan sat back down, but he still gave Sakuma a few death glares.

“Sakuma actually taught me some useful skills after our, well, not so nice first encounter,” Taiga added on which Sakuma nodded so fast that he almost choked on the rice he was eating.

“So you didn’t use a sword since I taught you?” Tai-chan asked and Taiga shook his head.

“Actually I would have gotten a lesson from Ryohei if Sakuma would have won the race,” he added on which Sakuma accused Ryohei of cheating again.

“So what were you doing before your travel?” Kaito asked while still shoving food in his mouth and a weird eating battle between him and Sakuma started as they were facing each other and Taiga hoped he could just let the question drop as they didn’t seem to spend him any attention anyway. But when he looked ahead he held his breath when Shime was staring back at him.

“As we are having a calm evening and a lot of spare time as well, why not introduce ourselves properly?” Shime added to Kaito’s question.

“Oh, oh, let me start!” Sakuma suddenly yelled and raised his hand, swallowing his food in a hurry on which Kaito also finally stopped shoving all the food in like an idiot.

“Then please go ahead,” Shime said, knowing that Taiga would sooner or later have to talk about his past and he panicked already, because he couldn’t just make up another lie as Tai-chan and Sakuma had been told the same lie from him and things would get awkward then, but on the other hand Shime could also just tell him about his past if he really knew about it or was he just someone he knew briefly?

 “Okay, listen to this! There was once this super strong feudal lord-” Sakuma started and Taiga rolled his eyes on which Tai-chan hit him against the thigh.

“Did he tell you that story before?” He whispered while Sakuma had actually jumped up while retelling the story he had told Taiga before.

“Yes he did. He loves making up things and exaggerate so everyone would be impressed by him,” Taiga whispered back, but to his surprise the others didn’t make fun out of him. Ryohei carried a light smile as always, but Shime and Kaito exchanged a few glances here and there on the story about the abusive feudal lord who didn’t want to bow to the Shogunate.

“They seem pretty into it,” Taiga whispered, but didn’t get a reply on which he looked over at Tai-chan who looked thoughtful ahead. “Tai-chan?”

When Taiga waved his hand in front of his face he blinked and smiled awkwardly. “Sorry, I was totally in my thoughts.”

“So in the end the people were freed, the castle burned to the ground and everyone was finally able to live a calm life!” Sakuma ended his story, standing in a mighty pose with his hands on his hips.

“Where are you in this story?” Kaito asked a bit perplex after a moment.

“Eh?” Sakuma asked back as if he hadn’t gotten the meaning of the question.

Ryohei had to chuckle on that as well. “He was obviously one of the first citizens to pack his stuff and leave for this amazing journey which made him end up being treated as a demon by the villagers,” Ryohei answered the question.

“You two are the demons, not me! You cheated!” Sakuma shouted back.

“Okay, okay we got it, sit back down,” Kaito urged him and then pointed on Ryohei. “What about you? How did you end up here with everyone?”

“My story might also end up like a fairytale if I go too much into details,” Ryohei said, making Sakuma pout as he didn’t see his story in any way as exaggerated.

“Well then we will have another nice fairytale session now,” Kaito said.

“More like a nightmare I fear,” Ryohei replied on which he got the full attention of everyone in the room.

“I grew up as an orphan, I don’t even remember my parents,” he started. “But I didn’t want to live the life of a criminal or a thief.”

His eyes landed briefly on Sakuma who looked away immediately.

“On the other hand I also didn’t know how to make it without stealing, because no matter how much I begged people for food, no one would give me anything. So in the end I went to a temple near my town to pray. A monk saw me and heard my prayers. He was impressed that I was wishing good fortune on the people of the village even though they didn’t care for me, I even wished for my parents to be well, even though they had left me behind.”

Taiga kept listening closely, but for a moment he feared another headache would make it difficult for him to sit still and listen. Something about the story seemed familiar, but it didn’t seem too obvious, because the headache he had feared wasn’t coming through.

“The monk told me about a mythic temple in the depth of the forest. A place which could only be found by the ones who really needed the help of the gods.”

“Mh, that story is definitely better than Sakuma’s, I can tell that already” Kaito said on which Tai-chan threw a dango at him resulting with the boy pouting and scolding him for playing with the food, so in the end he just ate the dango.

“The monk also had a warning for me,” Ryohei added. “If my heart wasn’t pure enough the gods of the forest wouldn’t guide me and I could have fallen victim to the demons hiding in the caves beneath.

“Mh, sounds familiar. Maybe you are a demon after all?” Sakuma asked on which Taiga gave him a death glare this time, because he had been in that cave as well.

“Actually, if it wasn’t for something I had been handed as a gift by the gods at that time that outcome could have easily been happening,” Ryohei said and even Shime seemed skeptical this time.

Ryohei gave Taiga a short side glance which the boy didn’t understand at first until Ryohei grabbed his sword and pulled out the green blade. Taiga’s hand went to his bracelet right away and he gave Ryohei a worried look.

“This is the gift of the gods! It’s a holy blade, able to repel all evil,” Ryohei announced on which all eyes were on the glimmering blade.

“Wow, that’s so cool! Sakuma where is your magical weapon?” Kaito asked and Sakuma seemed ready to start a fight.

“With a weapon like this I think you don’t have to fear a myth about a demon in a cave,” Shime said seriously on which Ryohei nodded and smiled. “But can it protect others?”

With that question Shime looked at Taiga who kept a tight hold of his bracelet under the table and he could feel Tai-chan’s eyes on him as the boy knew how precious the bracelet was to him, but he also didn’t know more about it, not that Taiga himself knew much more.

“As long as the people with me are of a pure heart as well they will be protected,” Ryohei replied and that answer made a huge stone drop off Taiga’s heart, because he just didn’t feel like talking about his bracelet and how it had suddenly shone in the dark of the cave.

“Then both your stories had a happy ending, great,” Kaito said cheerful.

“At least until here, yes,” Ryohei added with a calm smile and Taiga felt already how he panicked, because he knew he was next, but to his surprise he found Shime looking at Ryohei with a serious expression.

“It’s late, shouldn’t we make sure we take a good rest before we have to move on tomorrow?” Tai-chan asked Shime who looked a bit lost for a moment before he nodded.

“Yes we should indeed make sure to have a good rest,” Shime said and gave Taiga another side glance, but didn’t try to make Taiga talk about his past, for now!

We’ve reserved one room for the three of you, it might be a bit small, but with all of us staying here we cannot occupy too many rooms,” Tai-chan explained and got up.

“As long as there is a roof over our heads we are more than happy and thankful for your help,” Ryohei said and bowed towards Shime. Sakuma and Taiga followed his example before they got up and wanted to follow Tai-chan to so he could show them their room.

Kaito hurried out first with Tai-chan and when Taiga wanted to leave, Shime stood up as well. He didn’t block his way yet Taiga automatically stopped and looked at him. Both of them starred at each other in silence for a moment.

“Let me ask you once more,” Shime said dead serious on which Taiga felt like running away before he even posted the question. “You don’t know who I am?”

As before Taiga needed to shake his head, because he couldn’t come up with a lie about someone he really didn’t know.

“Very well,” Shime said and turned towards the door first, but turned around once more. “If you seek answers then follow us one more day, if you want to keep going like this turn your back tomorrow!”

With those way too dangerous and deep words he left Taiga alone in the room. It was an easy type of request, to run or not to run! But the choice was everything but easy!

The knowledge about his past was standing against the carefree life he was living at the moment. What would await him if he followed Shime? Would his story be one of gods or of demons?

Chapter Text

A beautiful house, a lot of people and friends next to him he felt safe with. Taiga let himself drop on the tatami floor, pouring sake into cups of unknown people, laughing with the strangers.

“Taiga,” he was suddenly called and he turned, smiling at a familiar face. Like a long lost friend Shimekake stood in the door frame with a bright smile waiting for Taiga to get up.

He excused himself and got up, but when he turned around again there was a dark figure standing behind Shimekake. The only thing he could clearly see was a Shoto in the other one’s hand. The same emblem on it as on the one Shimekake was carrying around.

He wanted to warn him, to reach out for him as the short sword was raised behind him.

“Shime!” He heard his own voice echoing in the room and his shouting made the figure in the back disappear into black smoke.

Shime walked up to him with a calm smile and bowed, voicing out a thank you that was inaudible to Taiga as all the words he said afterwards and when he wanted to put his hand on Shime’s shoulder to ask what he was saying he was dragged off his feet, pulled away from Shime as if he wasn’t allowed to hear what he was saying.

Desperately he tried to fight the force pulling him away, but not out of fear, but because he felt like he needed to talk to him, like he needed to be with him.

“Shime!”

This time Taiga didn’t wake up from a nightmare, no this one was different. Sakuma was calmly sleeping next to him as was Ryohei on the other side, so he hadn’t been talking in his sleep this time.

“Shime?” He repeated the name. Why did he call the Daimyo with such a name? It was definitely impolite and didn’t make any sense to him, but the more important thing was why did he feel the need to go back to sleep and find out what he had tried to tell him? For the first time on his travels he had seen a dream that didn’t give him haunted nights.

The rest of the night was dreamless, which was a shame because Taiga would have loved to see more details from the previous dream, but of course it wouldn’t work like that.

“We are going to leave the Nakasendo from the next town,” Tai-chan said as they all gathered in front of the Ryokan in the morning. Shimekake was already on his horse and Kaito got the horses for himself and Tai-chan while most of the Samurai were waiting outside the town already for them to arrive and head on. “What will you do from here?”

That was a very good question which wasn’t easy for Taiga to reply to. He turned to Sakuma who yawned and stretched out his arms and Ryohei only gave them a calm smile as always.

“What do you two want to do?” He finally asked.

“Well I am following you around anyway, so whatever path you choose for now I will tag along,” Sakuma explained with an encouraging smile.

“I met you two times already so I guess you can call this partly fate, so I guess for now I will also tag along. It’s not like I have an urgent business or any goal in particular,” Ryohei explained calmly.

That reply made Taiga feel relieved, because like this he could decide without having to fear to part ways with his new won friends.

“So?” Tai-chan asked again on which Taiga’s look went over to Shimekake.

“Do you mind if I talk to your Daimyo before I decide?”

That question came a bit sudden for Tai-chan, but even though he was a bit skeptical he nodded and told him to do so if he wished to.

Shime seemed to have waited for him to approach and his look was still hard to read.

“Have you made a decision?” Shime asked him on which Taiga shook his head.

“Can I ask you a question before I decide if we head with you or not?”

Taiga’s question changed something on the other one’s face and he nodded with a softer expression now.

Taiga took a deep breath, because he knew how much of a ridiculous question he would state, but it was a really important factor to him. The reply would make it clear how to decide.

“What shall I call you?”

Shime seemed a bit startled at first on the question and who could blame him? He was a Daimyo, so people had to call him by that title, but something told Taiga that this question was important for both of them and then Shime’s face softened so much that Taiga could finally see an expression close to the one he had seen in his dream.

“Is there a name you want to call me?” the Daimyo asked on which Taiga hesitated to reply as he wasn’t sure if he should voice it out, but luckily he didn’t have to as Shime chuckled and nodded.

“Very well,” he finally said. “You can call me Shime.”

In the matters of seconds Taiga’s chest went from a tight feeling, over a heavy painful feeling towards a sudden relief.

“Do your friends call you Shime?”

He hadn’t even thought about his own question and for a second he wondered if he had been too bold or impolite, but then Shime smiled and nodded. “Indeed, they do.”

“I will travel with you,” Taiga let out without giving it another thought and once more Shime’s expression seemed so much more welcoming than the evening before. “If you don’t mind Ryohei and Sakuma would also like to come along.”

“They are more than welcome to,” Shime said and turned his horse around to tell Kaito that they were going with them and to saddle some of their remaining horses for them.

“Thank you,” Taiga said and wanted to go back to the others to let them know about his decision.

“And Taiga,” Shime shouted after him on which he turned back to him. “Thank you for tagging along.” This time Shime’s expression seemed to show something like relief, maybe even something more intense? Hope?  Was that what Taiga was also feeling since his dream? Had his nightmares changed to something new? Was he ready to face whatever was awaiting him from here?

***

“I’ve never been this much to the western side of Japan,” Sakuma said, looking around all the rice fields alongside the mountain path they were just getting down from. “This is all so cool, I- WOW, TAIGA LOOK!”

First Taiga didn’t even know what Sakuma meant as he didn’t point at anything as he was holding the reins of his horse, but he tried to follow his excited look into the valley in front of them and then he saw it.

“Wow,” Taiga let out as well, because what other word was there to describe the huge white castle in front of them?

“Never saw a castle before?” Ryohei teased them on which Sakuma pouted immediately.

“I know a way bigger one just so you know,” he replied. “But this one is definitely way more beautiful!”

It was indeed beautiful, a clear white color and a long front part, which was hiding the main castle in the middle. The high main building in the middle was definitely giving an amazing view of the surroundings, so maybe they already spotted them approaching? That thought made Taiga turn towards Tai-chan with a little bit of worry.

“Tai-chan, are we meeting friends or enemies here?”

The other one laughed on that question before he replied. “Do you really think we would dare to approach a castle in such a sloppy way if it wasn’t of a friend?”

Well he was definitely right about that, because they were without any hideouts and the people on the fields didn’t seem bothered by their arrival. A lot of the close workers also bowed towards Shime and the Samurai as they were passing by.

“This is the Kanazawa castle, ever been here?” Kaito yelled from the other side, but Taiga shook his head. He doubted that he had ever been that far west, but also the fact that such a castle had never appeared in his dreams until now made him think that this time he would really enter a completely new place.

“Taiga, even though this is a friend of Shimekake-dono, please remember that the person in this castle is also a Daimyo and that we will go to war together so we have to be polite and discreet,” Ryohei explained.

That reminder made Taiga nod immediately and then Ryohei’s look went to Sakuma who yelled at him before the latter had even said anything. “I can behave, don’t worry!”

“Please feel free to not behave, because then we have something to laugh,” Ryohei said teasing.

Their quarrel continued until they were close to the main gate and they slowly fell silent, feeling the nervousness about the unknown territory overcoming them.

“Shimekake-dono, thank you for coming. We apologize for the trouble of traveling all the way over to our Daimyo’s territory,” one Samurai greeted him at the gate on which Shimekake got off his horse and urged his Samurai to follow his example.

They talked a bit before he waved at some of his men to bring the horses to another place away from the main building. Tai-chan signaled the others to follow him and the remaining men towards the main building. More and more Samurai from the Kanazawa clan came into their sight and Taiga noticed the emblem on their flags, showing the first kanji of Kanazawa in a beautiful calligraphy.

Before they entered the castle Shime stopped and waved Kaito over to him. Taiga saw how he looked over to Taiga and the others for a brief moment before he vanished inside the castle with only a handful of his men.

Kaito moved over to them and told Tai-chan to head in first and the latter hurried to follow his Daimyo, but he also gave Taiga an apologizing look.

“Shime said he will talk to the Daimyo first and you can go in later to greet him,” Kaito said on which they all nodded. It wasn’t like they were part of this war in the first place, not that Taiga wanted to be part of it. But something else had caught his attention.

“You can explore outside the castle for a bit if you want, no one will harm you,” Kaito said on which Sakuma was off in an instant and Ryohei shook his head. “I better follow him before he gets himself in trouble after all.”

Taiga nodded gratefully on that and turned back to Kaito when they were gone.

“Nakamura-dono,” Taiga started on which the latter shook his head.

“Don’t be that formal, Kaito is totally okay.”

Well he was also saying Tai-chan so maybe it was really easier to address him with his first name. “Say Kaito, you are calling your Daimyo Shime, right?”

Yes?”

“Is everyone calling him by that name?”

“Mh, not everyone, but Shime usually allows people he trusts to call him like that.”

“People he trusts,” Taiga repeated a bit absent minded.

“By the way,” Kaito started now in a lower voice. “Could you do me a favor?”

Taiga carefully nodded, not knowing what kind of favor there was to ask him.

“The time at Kento’s house, could you keep it a secret to the others?”

For the first time Taiga formed a teasing smile in front of Kaito and the latter seemed to feel a bit embarrassed out of a sudden.

“Mh, and here you were so confident when you visited there,” Taiga teased.

“If you don’t promise me I will make sure to tell everyone about your visit as well,” Kaito tried to threaten Taiga, but it didn’t have the effect he hoped for when Taiga shrugged his shoulders.

“It’s not like I have to protect any status,” Taiga teased back on which Kaito seemed to become desperate and while Taiga enjoyed his slightly overacted suffering he would need to calm him down.

“But don’t worry, I won’t tell anyone,” he finally said on which Kaito looked more than relieved.

“Don’t tell anyone what?”

When Tai-chan appeared right behind Kaito, the boy squealed and jumped to the side. “Would you stop sneaking up on people like that? You are not a Shinobi!”

“Are you sure?” Tai-chan teased. “You can join us inside now, call the others back.”

Kaito headed off to get Sakuma and Ryohei while Tai-chan sighed next to Taiga. “Everything alright?”

“I just wonder when he will realize that we all know that he is sneaking away all the time at night to have his fun around the night districts.”

“I somehow guessed that you already knew,” Taiga replied with a smile.

“But to be honest I am a bit surprised that you have met him there,” Tai-chan added on which Taiga was the one to feel embarrassed this time. “But knowing what kind of houses Kaito heads to and realizing now that you are the same explains a lot.”

“Was I somehow obvious about that?” Taiga asked, because he didn’t feel like he had made any weird comments about his sexual orientation back at the restaurant.

“Let’s say the way you showed Aki the cold shoulder while she was so obvious in love with you was already a big hint.”

“Aki was in love with me?” Taiga asked dumbfounded.

“Look, that’s exactly what I mean,” Tai-chan replied, but changed the topic when the other three finally came back into sight. “Let’s head in for now, shall we?”

***

The inside of the castle was as beautiful as the outside. The floor had a light brown color which almost shimmered golden in the light of the setting sun piercing through the high windows.

The only thing that actually casted a dark shadow over the beauty of the castle were all the weapons Taiga noticed. They were preparing for a war after all and a shiver ran through his body when he thought of what could happen if they got attacked here in the castle.

A staircase towards an upper floor brought them to an even more expensive looking part of the castle and here a lot of sliding doors waited for them, a few rooms were empty, showing tatami mats and detailed wall paintings.

Towards the end of the corridor they could hear voices from a room and when they headed to the open door Tai-chan bowed. “I brought them.”

The others hurried to bow as well and Taiga realized that Shime’s other men had obviously already retreated and now it was only him and the daimyo of Kanagawa and a person who was sitting next to him. While Shime had traveled with his army and was in full armor, the Daimyo of this castle was dressed in a Kamishimo and a black Eboshi*₁ while the person next to him was dressed more simple in a Hakama. What he had not seen coming was both of them starting right back at him the moment he had dared to lift his head a bit.

While the Daimyo himself almost gave him a death glare, the boy next to him seemed sad and not the way Shime had seemed sad before, this boy seemed close to getting a breakdown and again Taiga didn’t understand what was going on.

“Please come in,” Shime said and they hurried to sit next to him and bow once more to the Daimyo of this prefecture.

“We are very grateful that you welcome us in your castle,” Ryohei started. “We are no part of Shimekake-dono’s army, but he was nice enough to help us out of a pinch and let us follow him to your castle.”

“Well you have the biggest troublemaker of this country with you, no wonder you ran into trouble on the way,” the Daimyo spoke, but when Taiga gave him a confused look the Daimyo wasn’t even looking at him. He behaved as if he hadn’t said anything in the first place. “State your names.”

“I am Abe Ryohei, a traveler and swordsman,” Ryohei said first.

“My name is Sakuma Daisuke, I am also a traveler.”

When Taiga didn’t continue with the self-introduction Shime gave him a stern look.

“My name is Kyomoto Taiga,” he said eventually and he didn’t miss the way the two people in front of him exchanged a brief look. What he also realized was that again there was a pretty young Daimyo sitting in front of him. Maybe both clans had recently named them as a successor?

“Where are you from, Taiga?” The Daimyo asked neutral, but his dangerous look was still the same.

“I am from Edo,” Taiga replied.

“What brought you on a journey over the Nakasendo?”

Again Taiga felt as if he was interrogated and once more he had to go with the same lie he had told everyone already, but this time Shime was also hearing his lie for the first time as he hadn’t had the chance to ask him before.

“I’m from a farming family and decided to take on a travel over the Nakasendo as my family has passed away.”

Silence followed his lie. A pretty heavy and long silence until the Daimyo sighed. “Very well. You are all welcome to stay in the castle with the rest of Shime’s men, but in a few days we will prepare for our leave towards the rebellious prefecture, so you have to make a choice by then.”

A choice? Taiga had just made the choice to join Shime to come here and without even knowing what outcome this side trip would have for him he had to make another decision?

“You can join us in the fight. Especially you Ryohei as you said you were a swordsman or you can leave and travel back safely on the Nakasendo.”

Joining? A battle? A war? There was no way Taiga would even think about that, never would he be able to last in a war and no money would actually motivate him enough to risk his life for people he didn’t know.

“We will consider your offer,” Ryohei said gratefully.

With that statement the Daimyo got up, followed by the person next to him. “Please feel free to rest in our guest rooms. You can also use the bathhouse we have in the back of the castle grounds.”

Ryohei hurried to bow before they could leave and dared another question. “Daimyo, do you mind letting us know your name?”

It wasn’t like they were allowed to address him with his name if he didn’t allow it, but usually he would at least introduce himself after they had done so as well. Was there something that stopped him from doing so?

Once more Taiga felt a piercing look from the Daimyo and then he saw the brief side glance towards Shime who nodded.

“I am the successor of the Kanazawa clan, Matsumura Hokuto and this is Kochi Yugo he is my Hatamoto*₂.”

Two more unknown names to two unknown faces… or not? Something was different from the time he had met Shime. And it wasn’t the absence of his headaches. There was something deeper, something more dangerous. Like a cage inside of him, something so deep hidden away that he didn’t even dare to try and figure out if this encounter was something he had wished for when he had followed Shime!

 

+++

*₁ traditional Japanese hat wear for Daimyo and priests

*₂ banner man, direct service under the Daimyo

Chapter Text

“Damn, even the bath house alone looks like a small castle,” Sakuma said as he hurried to get out of his clothes and Ryohei had to scold him to go wash himself before jumping into the bath.

“Didn’t you say you know a way bigger castle? Why are you so surprised over a bath house?” Ryohei asked on which Sakuma rolled his eyes.

“Yes I said so, but I also said this one looks way nicer and this bath house confirms it! This castle is just amazing! The Daimyo of this place knows how to impress people!”

Ryohei just shook his head and put the new clothes they had been given by some servants into the shelf before he looked at Taiga. “You look tired, better try and go to sleep as soon as you can. This travel has been tough on all of us.”

Taiga nodded gratefully, because he was indeed tired and that also showed as he took way longer than the other two to even get out of his clothes. Carefully he took his pink bracelet off and he moved it through his fingers for a moment, lost in his thoughts. Recently it seemed to have lost a bit of its shine, which had maybe to do with Taiga’s dark mood.

 He made it over to the washing place when the other two were almost done already. When he walked closer to them he stopped though as he noticed something he carried as well, scars!

Sakuma jumped up before Taiga could actually look away and the latter had of course realized what he was looking at. “If you find the ones on my back impressive, look at this one,” Sakuma said and pointed at a burn scar on his shoulder which Taiga had of course not seen until now.

“And now you will tell us that this scar is actually your own fault?” Ryohei teased on which Sakuma got ready to yell something at him when he suddenly stopped, shrugged his shoulders and went into the bath, making Ryohei laugh as he was obviously right.

Taiga just chuckled as he sat next to Ryohei. He was happy that they weren’t making a big deal out of it, so he felt a bit more comfortable as well.

“You know we all have our stories, but none of them have to be told if we don’t want to,” Ryohei said on which Taiga nodded before they both headed into the bath as well.

“Wow, that one definitely has a good story, doesn’t it?” Sakuma asked as Ryohei stepped into the water, revealing a stab wound on the right side of his stomach.

Ryohei gave Taiga a knowing look and Taiga almost started laughing, because no matter if they didn’t want to tell some stories, some people would always ask.

“Well, this one you could actually also call my own fault,” Ryohei said to their surprise.

“You won’t tell me that you stabbed yourself,” Sakuma said with a raised eyebrow.

“You burned yourself, why can’t I stab myself?”

“Fair counter,” Taiga replied on which Sakuma splashed some water towards him.

“So what, next you tell me that you took your eyesight yourself?” Sakuma replied as careless as always. Taiga’s look didn’t darken as much as he thought it would, but his hand went up to his eye nevertheless. “Sorry, I didn’t mean- you know…”

“Don’t worry,” Taiga replied with a brief smile as his confidence came back quicker than he thought. “This scar is actually something I am proud of.”

That reply took the other two by obvious surprise, but Taiga wouldn’t be able to go into details, because the only reason he thought of it that way was because Kento had told him to be proud of it.

“I guess we all have things we can be proud of in our lives,” Sakuma said with a smile as he leant back against the edge of the bath with outstretched arms and a long breath.

“For example that you put my money back after trying to steal it?”

“What?” Taiga asked perplex on Ryohei’s teasing question towards Sakuma who felt caught immediately and yet tried to play innocent.

“Sakuma!” Taiga let out warningly on which the latter held out his arms to the front.

“Wait, I didn’t steal it! As Ryohei said I put it back! But, wait- you noticed and didn’t say anything?” Sakuma asked towards Ryohei who shrugged his shoulders.

“I know you are proud of your speed, but trust me if you had actually dared to steal something from me I would have killed you before you could have even thought of running.”

While he said it with a light smile there was nothing to laugh about in his reply and Sakuma moved a bit away from Ryohei whispering another small apology.

When Ryohei made a sudden fast movement and pretended to jump up towards Sakuma, the boy squealed and hid behind Taiga.

“Okay, if we continue this I think you will actually really run away, so no worries I won’t kill you,” Ryohei finally said.

“As if I would believe you ever again,” Sakuma said and looked pretty scared when Taiga shifted away and got up.

“Well, you brought this on yourself, now deal with the consequences,” Taiga teased as he stepped out of the bath.

“You’re already heading back?” Ryohei asked.

“Yes, I feel pretty tired so take your time. I will see you in the castle later.”

“Don’t wait for us if you feel like sleeping already,” Sakuma said, waving at him as Taiga got into the Hakama they had gotten earlier.

Taiga had to smile on the way Sakuma refused to get out of the bath yet, while he was actually pretty afraid of a scolding or worse a few minutes ago. With those two, Taiga had found pretty amazing companions he was sure of that!

On his way out of the bath house Taiga decided to take a small walk through the castle garden before going back in. It was peaceful in this area and if it wasn’t for all the Samurai around the castle there wouldn’t be any sign of an upcoming war.

On his way around one of the castle walls he spotted a familiar face. If he remembered correctly the boy’s name was Kochi and he was sitting at the side of the moat surrounding the castle.

First Taiga thought of heading back to not disturb him, but the sad expression on his face didn’t pass unnoticed and he had looked pretty down earlier as well. Without giving it a second thought Taiga headed over to him and the boy looked startled as he just dropped next to him on the grass.

“Mind a bit of company?” Taiga asked with a smile on which Kochi could only give him a confused look for a moment before his expression suddenly grew softer and then unfortunately back to sad.

“I never mind your company,” Kochi spoke, obviously realizing the next second that he shouldn’t have said that and he looked away, trying to behave as if he hadn’t even said anything in the first place.

There it was! Weirdly, Taiga didn’t feel taken aback or scared, not anymore. Over his months long travel he had faced so many times where he had to decide if he wanted to dig deeper into his nightmares and headaches or not, but with the appearance of Shime and his first night in months without a nightmare he had made a step into the right direction, at least he felt like it.

“You know me, don’t you?”

The direct question hit Kochi emotionally in the worst spot and he could only nod, but was still unable to look back at Taiga. “I am sorry that I don’t know you.”

That reply made Kochi’s tears drop to the grass and as much as Taiga felt the need to reach out for him, he just couldn’t. He was the reason he was crying, how could he be the one to take away the pain?

“I doubt I am the one you should be apologizing to,” Kochi finally brought out in an unsteady voice as he dared to look at Taiga. For the first time the boy looked up at him as someone who was so close to him, yet so unfamiliar.

Intuitively Taiga grabbed his bracelet and the move got noticed by Kochi of course and Taiga lifted his wrist. “I don’t know where I got it from or what it actually stands for, but this is the only thing which I am taking really good care of. It seems like it can show me who I can trust.”

“Can you trust me?” Kochi asked on which Taiga smiled.

“You just shared tears for me,” Taiga replied instead on which Kochi let out a sob mixed with a chuckle.

“You are still an idiot, no matter if you have your memories or not,” Kochi said and hit Taiga against the shoulder. It felt all so familiar, so...so what? Why had he been running away from people and memories which seemed to be so nice?

It was that one simple thought which brought him the long awaited headache and he put his head down, fisting his hair with a groan.

“Are you okay?” Kochi asked alarmed on which Taiga tried to get a grip. He knew it wouldn’t last for long.

“I’m fine, sorry for worrying you. I have those moments from time to time,” Taiga replied after calming down.

“Taiga, don’t you think it would be better if you have a talk with me, Hokuto and Shime about your past?” Kochi finally let out directly. “Shime told us about your memory loss and how you somehow recognized him, yet tried to lie to him. Don’t you want to remember?”

That question was something Taiga couldn’t reply to and for a moment he just looked down at the water in front of them until he realized something that might gave both of them the answer already.

“Taiga…” Kochi said in a soothing voice as he realized that Taiga was crying in silence. There wasn’t even any explanation he could give why he was crying, but it made Kochi realize that for now it was definitely not the right time for Taiga to be confronted with all the details of his past.

“Hey, what are you- Taiga, why are you crying?” On Sakuma’s loud voice coming from the side of the castle wall Taiga hurried to wipe away his tears and give Kochi another grateful look for understanding his situation.

“Dude, did you say anything mean to him?” Sakuma was asking Kochi who looked at him in panic and shook his head.

“No Sakuma he didn’t,” Taiga said and got up. “And remember that he is the right hand of the Daimyo of this castle, you might want to address him a bit more politely.”

Sakuma seemed to have forgotten about that tiny important fact as he hurried to zip it and bow towards Kochi before he pushed Taiga away from him, hoping Kochi would forgive his rudeness. Taiga on the other side didn’t miss Kochi’s amused smile and he just knew that he wasn’t the type of person to get angry that easily.

***

When Taiga woke up the next morning he needed a moment to realize that it was indeed the next day already. No dreams...not a single one and while he was relieved that he didn’t have another nightmare he was also disappointed that there was no dream as he had when he had met Shime. He had accepted the truth that not only Shime, but Kochi and Hokuto were somehow connected to his past, but why wouldn’t he see anything about them?

Was it the same reason as the sudden headache when he talked with Kochi? The boy seemed to be even more affected by the situation than Taiga himself.

Of course he could just walk up to them and ask about his past, instead of waiting for any dreams, but he was too afraid of it. Maybe it was just not the right time? Not yet…? Maybe he was blocking out the dreams himself as well. His subconscious mind was either protecting him or playing a pretty mean prank.

Sakuma was still deep asleep, which was a relief, because he had woken him up often enough through his nightmares. Ryohei on the other hand wasn’t in the room so Taiga decided to get up as well and leave the room as quiet as possible without waking Sakuma up.

A lot of people were already up in the castle and Taiga tried to get outside without actually disturbing any of them. On his way to the first floor though he spotted someone outside from the window and when he took a closer look he was surprised to find Ryohei with Tai-chan and Kaito. They were obviously training and Taiga hurried outside to them.

“Oh, already awake?” Tai-chan asked as Taiga walked up to them as they took a break from their sword training.

“Not as early as you as it seems,” Taiga greeted them.

“We wanted to test Ryohei’s skills,” Kaito said. “He will join us in the war.”

“WHAT?” Taiga immediately lowered his voice again, but this one took him by full surprise. “Why would you do that?”

“Well, it’s good money,” Ryohei said calmly. “And I am a swordsman after all, so it’s not like I am afraid of a war.”

“But you could still die, even if you are a good fighter,” Taiga said worried.

“So if I die it’s okay?” Tai-chan teased.

“No, of course not!” Taiga replied serious on which Kaito walked up to him and hit him against the shoulder.

“Don’t take this so serious. I know it seems weird to others, but we Samurai are used to all this, you know? It’s not like we take it lightly, but we also know that our lives are on the line.”

Taiga slowly nodded on that, but what else had he expected? They were warriors after all. They trained for moments like this.

“One more round,” Kaito said and went a bit further away on the open area they were training at. Ryohei followed him and their training session seemed way too serious, too dangerous! They used real swords and weren’t actually careful, but they also seemed to enjoy it?

Totally invested into watching their fight Taiga jolted when something was held right in front of his face. When he made a step back to actually see the item better he realized that it was a wooden sword.

“In memory of the good old times?” Tai-chan asked teasingly on which Taiga took the wooden sword from him with a bright smile.

“If you call a few months ago good old times, then what was the time before that?” Taiga asked while Tai-chan got into position with his own wooden sword.

“Very old times?”

Taiga only shook his head on that before they both fell silent and concentrated on their training. This really felt nostalgic to Taiga and he was more than happy about the way his body moved almost by itself when Tai-chan jumped at him.

“Nice block,” Tai-chan said.

“Bad attack,” Taiga replied before he tried to kick the other one away instead of using his sword, but Tai-chan was faster and jumped back.

“Guess I trained you too well.”

“And yet I am sure you only showed me a handful of your actual knowledge?” Taiga said and Tai-chan formed a lopsided smile before he went into an inviting stance.

“Want to find out?”

A dangerous invitation yet Taiga was going to take it, because how else was he going to stand a chance against Tai-chan someday?

This time though Taiga knew the boy was serious, he could see it clearly in his eyes and he tried to shut everything around them out, making sure that this wouldn’t end with just one attack.

Calculating three steps ahead Taiga finally dared to dash forward, but he wasn’t as stupid as thinking that Tai-chan wouldn’t have seen his move coming, so he made a step to the side the moment Tai-chan blocked his attack and of course that step had been too obvious as well and so he had to dodge a fast coming strike directed towards his stomach area and he succeeded, barely! He could actually feel the wood against his Hakama, yet he had to concentrate, because Tai-chan was already up to something else and Taiga blocked the boy’s knee with his own to the other one’s obvious surprise. But now the difficult part was starting! A block, a counter and an attack after both their swords were too inconvenient for the short distance, until here he had planned, but now what?

Tai-chan saw the moment of hesitation and used it, but Taiga’s intuition saved him from a painful hit against the shoulder as he moved back into a defense stance immediately and lifted his sword up. Now he was completely open though and Tai-chan knew that as well, spinning around and aiming with a spinning kick for his stomach. What the other one had not seen coming was Taiga’s increased speed through the training with Sakuma and he was able to twist away and actually land the first hit of the fight! With his turn he had moved half behind Tai-chan and he hit the latter with the sword against the back. Of course the other one had seen the attack coming at the last moment so he had tried to dodge and he had almost succeeded, so the hit wasn’t hard, but it was indeed a hit.

“Impressive,” Tai-chan said, but Taiga didn’t lose his focus yet. Out of the corner of his eye he noticed that Kaito and Ryohei had stopped and were watching now, but he couldn’t lose his focus through them.

“My turn,” Tai-chan said and dashed forward again. This time he was faster as well, his movements even more unpredictable and as Taiga had already guessed, this skill level was something Tai-chan had never shown him before.

Taiga was still able to block and dodge somehow, but there was absolutely no opening for a counter attack, not even time to think! More and more he got pushed back until his inexperience and lack of stamina decided the fight. First a kick against his knee, bringing him out of balance, a barely missed slash with the sword right under his chin making him automatically step back and take his upper body back, the one miss he had done so often already, but as always it was too late to actually do something about it as Tai-chan used his open posture to land a hit with the sword right against his ribs before he used a kick to Taiga’ stomach to completely bring him out of balance and Taiga found himself flat on the back.

“You’ve gotten a lot better,” Tai-chan praised him while Taiga had his eyes closed for a moment after the not so comfortable impact on the hard ground.

“Not good enough,” Taiga said as he finally got up on one elbow for now and Tai-chan wanted to head over to him to help him up, but then he stopped and looked ahead, bowing towards someone behind Taiga.

They had both been so concentrated on their fight, that they hadn’t even noticed new spectators at the gate. Taiga hurried to sit up and turn around to see who it was and when he spotted Hokuto and Shime he hurried to get up and bow as well.

“So it seems you have trained together before?” Shime asked on which Taiga gave Tai-chan a questioning look, not knowing what to reply.

“Yes when I met him before in one of the villages I helped him a bit with his sword fighting skills, but he was already quite capable of the basics,” Tai-chan explained and Shime gave Hokuto a side glance.

Hokuto was the one person Taiga couldn’t read at all. Shime had been so emotional at first. Between sad and angry, while Kochi had been an open book right away, but Hokuto...he was just looking at Taiga with those dark eyes. Almost as if he was looking through him. Maybe in the past they hadn’t been friends? Maybe something had happened between them?

“Get the men ready, they all need to have a few more training sessions over the next days,” Shime said and Tai-chan and Kaito bowed before they told Ryohei to follow them.

Taiga shifted a bit nervously from one leg to the other as he wasn’t sure if he was allowed to leave or not. It got even worse when Shime bowed to Hokuto and left as well, leaving them alone.

“Kochi told me about your talk,” Hokuto said straight forward on which Taiga bit his lip and hoped the ground could just swallow him.

“I’m sorry…” Taiga let out, not even knowing why he was actually apologizing.

“I believe you that one,” Hokuto said to his surprise, not that the latter’s expression softened when saying that. “Follow me.”

Not daring to ask any questions Taiga just did as he was told, especially because Hokuto just started walking without looking back if Taiga was following.

They went to a part of the castle Taiga hadn’t seen yet and he was quite sure that he wasn’t actually supposed to be here. Especially when Hokuto opened a door to a room which looked pretty much like his private room, Taiga stopped on the hallway, not sure if he was allowed to get inside.

He watched Hokuto as the boy was looking through some books he had on a desk in the room. There were a lot of books all over the room, also a desk with writing utensils and books he seemed to be writing. He also spotted a pair of round glasses on the windowsill.

“If you don’t mind asking, did you write all of these books yourself?” Taiga dared to ask while Hokuto was still looking through one pile of books.

“If I had written them all I would have no time to take care of my domain,” Hokuto replied and Taiga felt stupid for asking, because it took indeed long enough to write one or two books already.

Taiga remained at the door, looking to the ground, trying to read the book titles of some of the books on the ground. Some seemed to be from the Shogunate, others were about the prefecture and the duties of a Daimyo, but some also looked like story books.

“Here,” Hokuto said and handed Taiga a book as he had obviously finally found what he was looking for. “Read it when you have some time.”

Taiga took the book from the boy with a light bow before he looked at the title. “Demons behind red bars?”

He tilted his head before he wanted to ask Hokuto why he was giving him that kind of book, but then he started shaking to his own surprise. No headache, no other sign, but he could clearly feel his hands shaking and even Hokuto raised an eyebrow at him. “Everything alright?”

“All good,” Taiga said and clenched the book against his chest, trying to hide the shaking of his hands. Why would a book make him react with such a panic? He could even feel how his heart was hammering against his chest.

“Let me know what you think about it when you finished it,” Hokuto said before he walked out of the room and vanished down the corridor.

“Hokuto?” Taiga shouted after him without even knowing why he addressed him this casual, but the boy stopped and turned. “Thank you.”

“Better don’t thank me yet,” Hokuto whispered, for the first time a weirdly painful emotion audible in his voice. “Who knows maybe it would have been for the better if you hadn’t met us again.”

Chapter Text

 

At nightfall the district seemed to change faces. The lights hung up at the houses turning the red bars into something even more dangerous. Like a beast in a cage they were all daring their hands outside to lure their prey inside, that was how it seemed to him at first, but wasn’t he mistaken? Wasn’t he the prey?

“Here you are,” Sakuma interrupted Taiga as he had started reading Hokuto’s book. He had hurried back into his room to start reading right away and as expected he got ripped out of reality and thrown into that character’s chaotic world.

“Sorry, I’ve totally lost track of time. How are things going outside?” Taiga asked as he put the book to the side for now.

“They are preparing for marching to the battlefield already, I think they might leave in less than two days,” Sakuma said, leaning against the wall, looking out of the window to the many Samurai preparing for their battle.

“That’s pretty soon,” Taiga said, not knowing what else to add.

“Taiga?” Sakuma suddenly asked in a bit of a gloomy mood on which Taiga nodded. “What are you planning to do from now on?”

“That’s a question I try to answer for the past days already,” Taiga replied honestly.

“Just going back on the Nakasendo, working here and there and having a nice life doesn’t seem to be your goal anymore, right?”

“I can’t actually say it was my goal from the very beginning, it just- happened?” Taiga said, giving Sakuma a small smile. “What about you?”

“You know my life changed a lot over the past months and since I’ve started traveling with you I had a damn lot of fun, but I wonder what will happen if you are not traveling with me anymore.”

That was a question Taiga couldn’t find an answer to of course, but something about Sakuma’s gloomy look made Taiga feel a bit worried.

“You also don’t want to keep traveling, do you?”

Sakuma shook his head without even having to think of it twice and that realization left both with an even scarier truth.

“Ryohei said they are paying really well,” Taiga let out, biting his lip as if he had slipped and said something he shouldn’t have, but at the same time Sakuma let out a joyless chuckle.

“Right, then we can at least spend the money on a lot of fun stuff if we survive, right?” Sakuma said sarcastically yet his expression didn’t change, the trouble was more than visible.

“You can also just settle down somewhere, learn a job, and become a farmer or something. It’s not like we have anything to do with this war,” Taiga said, not even convincing himself.

They had barely been here for two days and yet something about the whole atmosphere had made them think a lot.

For Taiga it had been for different reasons as for Sakuma that was obvious as Sakuma didn’t seem to have anything to do with Shime or Hokuto, but for Taiga this could be his chance to get back what he had lost if he dared to?

“Can I say something really stupid?” Sakuma asked suddenly on which Taiga tilted his head and waited. “Don’t get this the wrong way, but when I realized that you might stop traveling here I couldn’t think about traveling on alone even though I’ve done so for the past months. Now it would just feel...lonely.”

The topic was so serious yet a smile appeared on Taiga’s face, because he was more than happy to hear something like this from the boy. After all they had started off as enemies, more or less and now Sakuma was so honest with him.

“I am actually quite happy to hear that, because the reason I was thinking about not traveling further was out of the exact same reason.”

That statement obviously caught Sakuma by surprise as he turned to face the other one with a confused look.

“You know, Ryohei is a swordsman so I thought before already that he would definitely take the chance and join this war, but I felt something restless about you as well. Now it’s clear though that we both have actually thought the same and made each other worry.”

Until just a few days ago they had all traveled together without any specific goal or reason, yet Taiga couldn’t but think that maybe all of his encounters had been for a reason after all and that deciding on this dangerous path was also out of some important reason.

With a deep breath Taiga closed his hand around his bracelet, as if he was asking it for advice. Were they on the right path? Was it worth the risk?

“Shall we ask them?” Sakuma asked after a moment. “If we can join them in this war?”

Speaking it out loud was making it sound even scarier than it had been in Taiga’s mind, but at the same moment he felt as if his bracelet was giving him a rhythmic impact against his hand, like a calm heartbeat, which helped calming his own racing heart.

“So we are really going for this,” Taiga said not knowing himself if it was a statement or a question.

Sakuma stepped closer to him and stretched his hand out with an encouraging smile. “If we work together we will definitely be able to travel again after this war is over.”

They were indeed a good team. And Taiga would definitely feel a lot better with Sakuma at his side on the battlefield. For just a second he closed his eyes and took another deep breath, asking himself if there was any doubt about their decision left in him, but he couldn’t find any. With a smile he reached out for Sakuma’s hand and let himself get dragged to his feet.

“Then let’s go and tell them! We are going to war!”

***

“Do you really think this is a good idea?” Kochi asked a bit worried.

“You prefer letting him wander around without his memories?” Hokuto asked back as he sat behind his wooden desk starting another letter after he had given another one to some of his men before.

“You want to write another one?” Shime asked as he kept walking up and down the room, not able to sit down. Not that Kochi was calm either, but he kept shifting on the tatami mat instead.

“I wrote this one to Kamenashi’s house, but if something happened there then chances are high that this letter won’t be delivered,” Hokuto explained.

“So who are you writing to?” Kochi asked.

“To Aran,” Hokuto said as he kept bringing his Fude to the paper, hurrying with this letter as well.

He had sent two of his own men earlier with the first letter directly to Edo as he couldn’t shake off a weird feeling about the situation. He had also told his men to try and deliver that first letter to Aran in case they wouldn’t be able to find the given address out of whatever reason. But he just wanted to be one hundred percent sure that they could get in touch with them, so he would send two more men with this second letter later.

“We are almost done with our preparations though, we can’t wait for a reply, it will take weeks, maybe longer,” Shime said.

“I am not going to wait, I told them to deliver any possible reply directly to the battlefield,” Hokuto replied serious.

“How long do you think this battle will last?” Shime asked on which Hokuto finally put the Fude down and crossed his arms to his chest.

“Yabu is up to something else,” he let out thoughtful. “You can’t tell me that he has played the obedient Daimyo for so long just to lose his temper like this and go against the Shogunate.”

“He had always been suspicious that’s for sure,” Kochi added. “I remember that even Yamashita’s father had said back then that if Yabu ever became the Daimyo it would mean trouble.”

“What worries me a lot is his little brother though,” Shime said and kept pacing up and down the room. “This timing is just too much of a coincidence.”

“But it doesn’t seem like they are connected. Didn’t all of this happen when he was still a baby?” Kochi asked.

“But who knows if he had been in contact with anyone? That could actually explain why things escalated like this at two prefectures at the same time,” Hokuto said as he folded the letter and put it in an envelope. “Anyway, let’s talk about the details tomorrow. For today I want to make sure to get this letter out to Edo as well. I won’t let Taiga run around carefree while the others might worry for him.”

“I wish I could help him more, after all it was thanks to him and the others that I was able to regain my memory as well back then,” Kochi let out with a sigh while Hokuto got up and patted him on the shoulder while passing him.

“I know this is even more difficult for you as you share a similar experience and I understand that Taiga feels somehow afraid of regaining his memory, but I won’t sit back doing nothing while he has done so much for us in the past.”

Kochi could only agree on that, because they still owed him a lot and they also wanted to know what had caused such a sudden memory loss while everything seemed still fine when they had sent a letter about half a year ago.

“I really hope the others have some answers for us,” Shime added as Hokuto headed for the door.

“There must be a good reason, because otherwise Ju-”

Hokuto had slid the door open, but had been unable to complete his sentence when he stood face to face with Taiga and Sakuma.

Kochi jumped up the moment he saw them and also Shime finally stood still, while Hokuto couldn’t even think of something to say, because one thing was for sure, they had heard them!

While it seemed like all color had left Taiga’s face, they were maybe mistaken the reason for it, because Sakuma was rooted to the spot, emotionless for what seemed to be several minutes.

“How- how about you come in and we have a talk?” Kochi asked after no one else seemed to find the right start.

“Right Taiga go in and have a talk,” Sakuma said without even facing Taiga. Now Hokuto could finally spot an emotion on his face and it was anger, no not even that harmless of an emotion, it was pure hatred!

When Sakuma turned to leave without another word Taiga reached out for his arm, but as expected the other one shook it off. He even made such a dangerous step towards Taiga that Hokuto stepped forward as well in case things would escalate. He and the others had no idea what was going on, this was obvious between Taiga and Sakuma, but Hokuto wouldn’t let them start a physical fight over it no matter what the problem was.

“Won’t you have a talk with us?” Taiga asked, but he had already given up, it was written all over his face. He would love to run away as well.

“We have nothing to talk about anymore,” Sakuma hissed back at him and he was right as Taiga remained silent, unable to voice out anything. “So much to our awesome friendship.”

He spit it into Taiga’s face like poison and the boy didn’t even attempt to stop him when Sakuma turned around and stormed away from the room.

Shime and Kochi exchanged a worried look as they didn’t catch up to the situation yet. Taiga had been aware of their knowledge about his past, so even if Taiga was angry it could only be about the letters, because they hadn’t ask him about it, but Sakuma wasn’t directly involved, was he?

“Do you want to come in?” Hokuto finally tried again on which Taiga flinched as if he had been lost in his own world. He couldn’t even nod. All he could do was stare to the ground in defeat. What had he done?

When Hokuto pushed him gentle towards the room Taiga finally moved and he felt how that push back into reality also brought tears down his cheeks. Had he broken a bond he had just formed?

“Do you want to explain what just happened?” Kochi asked as they all finally sat down on the tatami mats.

Taiga remained silent for another moment until he let out a shuddering breath. “I- I didn’t tell Sakuma about my memory loss.”

That realization had only hit him the moment they had walked up to the room and had overheard their conversation. They had already arrived when they had talked about the war, but Sakuma had stopped Taiga from entering, because he thought it was fun listening to them. Never had they thought it could have this outcome.

“I didn’t mean to, I was just- I was scared to tell people about it. I always made up lies about a fake life I had and while Tai-chan wouldn’t believe me at all, Sakuma never even once questioned it, so it just ended up to be the truth in his eyes.”

The others exchanged some understanding looks as they could imagine that Sakuma was a nice and trustworthy boy who wouldn’t actually suspect such a lie from someone he had met on the road. It wasn’t even a lie that could bring so much trouble in the first place, but in their case there had been something destroyed through such a simple lie, their trust! Their bond!

“You want to go after him?” Kochi asked after another moment of silence, but Taiga shook his head.

“Not now, it would just end up in a fight.”

“Why were you coming to see me in the first place?” Hokuto asked on which Taiga couldn’t stop from letting out a sarcastic chuckle.

“Well, that is not important anymore, because now I doubt what we wanted to ask will ever happen in the first place.”

The others seemed not sure what else to say or ask so they could only remain silent until Taiga stood up. “I’m sorry for troubling you. It’s not like I am a part of this or would know what is going on with this war, so please don’t mind me and my personal problems.”

Taiga bowed towards them before he hurried back towards the corridor.

“He’s the one always worrying for everyone else and now he tells us not to worry for him?”

Of course Taiga had heard Hokuto’s words after closing the door, but he also knew that Hokuto wanted him to!

He was definitely acting selfish! But he didn’t like it to be the center of attention and especially not when the two Daimyo should be concentrating on their upcoming battle. Maybe it was better after all if he and Sakuma wouldn’t join them. After all he didn’t want to cause even more trouble.

Chapter Text

For the rest of the day Taiga had hidden in his room, reading Hokuto’s book and hoping he could forget about reality like that at least for some time and it worked better than he thought, because the character in this book seemed to have an even worse life than him and that constantly. Some things about his behavior and decisions reminded him of himself as if he was able to predict the next chapter without knowing the story.

He had read through over half of it in the matter of a day and when he was about to call it a day the door got slid open and his expression stopped between gloomy and surprised when it was Sakuma who entered.

Ryohei was still out with the other Samurai as Hokuto wanted them to prepare for their departure in two days.

Taiga had noticed earlier that Sakuma’s bag was still in the room so he knew the boy hadn’t left, yet! To his surprise Sakuma changed into his night Yukata instead of packing his stuff and Taiga finally put his book down.

It took Taiga a felt eternity to even dare to say anything, but his try was cut short when Sakuma gave him a death glare the moment Taiga said his name.

“Don’t talk to me! Don’t you think I am not angry anymore just because I am still here,” Sakuma said before he lay down, turning away from Taiga immediately.

It was definitely too soon for an apology, but he also didn’t want to miss his chance. What if Sakuma decided to leave in the morning without saying good-bye?

“I’m so-”

“Don’t say it,” Sakuma interfered again. “I don’t want to hear it.”

Taiga bit his lip before he decided to actually give up, because he knew he’d just make things worse between them.

With a defeated sigh he also got ready to sleep, but it was a stormy night outside and he was sure that it wouldn’t be easy to get sleep in the first place.

After he had turned around a felt dozen times he had made himself feel weirdly dizzy. Then he felt like his senses were playing games as he thought he had heard someone running through the corridor, but the next moment it was completely silent again, except for the wind rattling on the windows.

Obviously not able to rest as he wanted to, he got up just to gasp on the sight in front of him. Someone was sitting on the windowsill on the open window, causing the wind to blow strongly into the room and with it a lot of papers and other lose items in the room went flying. When Taiga looked back up he realized that the figure had stood up and he was holding the book from Hokuto in his hands.

“No, stop! I need to return that,” Taiga yelled and got up, but at the same moment the person jumped outside, which made Taiga gasped, because they were pretty high up.

When he looked around the room he realized something even more disturbing, he was alone! Sakuma was gone and Ryohei had obviously not returned.

Not knowing who to call for help in the middle of the night he dashed outside the room, somehow not even bothering with taking a lamp with him or even getting into his Geta on the way out.

When he had reached the main gate he pushed it open easily, which shouldn’t be possible, right? They should have been locked and guards should have been there.

The second he stepped out he found himself running on grass instead of the stone of the courtyard. Was he confused by that? Weirdly not!

As if he knew where he had to go he dashed through the way too familiar looking forest and there he finally spotted the figure from before, dashing away from him way too fast until he jumped up some rocks and vanished on the other side.

Taiga needed to climb up the rocks instead, slipping on the way and hurting his legs, but he wanted the book back!

When he reached the other side of the stones he had to stop as an abyss had opened in front of him. The other person though was standing on the other side of it, laughing and showing him the book.

“Do you want this back?”

A familiar voice? Why was this situation feeling like a Déjà-vu to him?

“Who are you? Why did you steal the book from me, give it back!”

Another laughter before the person pretended to let it drop into the abyss. As if it was a natural reaction Taiga had almost jumped off the rocks to get it, but at the last moment he took a hold on the rock, realizing how stupid that move would be.

“Oh, is it so precious to you that you would jump after it?” The figure in front of him asked mockingly.

Taiga on the other hand looked down the abyss, finding red water at the ground and it should make him feel scared, but it didn’t. “Yes I would jump after it, so give it back!”

When the figure laughed this time the moonlight broke through the clouds and revealed the thief's face.

Not believing his eyes Taiga shook his head and stepped back.

“Oh you don’t want this anymore?” The other one asked and balanced the book dangerously between two fingers right over the abyss.

“It can’t be. You wouldn’t do something like this.”

“Why not?” The other person asked in a dangerous and serious tone this time as he looked directly back at Taiga. “You destroyed everything! You couldn’t trust me from the start.”

“No, I trusted you, I still trust you,” Taiga said, wanting to make his point clear, but again all he got was a mocking laughter.

“Too late for that, what a shame,” the other one said before he didn’t just drop the book, but also let himself fall after it into the abyss.

“SAKUMA,” Taiga shouted and jumped without giving it a second thought. With an outstretched arm he tried to reach the other one, but then he hit the red water.

With a gasp Taiga opened his eyes and realized that it had happened again! A nightmare!

With erratic breathes and sweaty hair he hurried to get up, but even though it was daytime now no one was in the room with him. Even worse: he couldn’t see Sakuma’s bag!

Without giving it a second thought he dashed out of the room and through the open gates out to the yard.

Even though people crossed his way he didn’t spend them any attention until he saw a familiar face.

“Kaito!” He shouted still meters away and the latter who was in armor and obviously training with his men seemed pretty confused about Taiga rushing up to him.

“Wow, what’s up with you? Do you realize that you are still in your night Yukata?”

“Did you see Sakuma?”

“Why? Sre you looking for him?” Kaito asked on which Taiga grabbed him by the arms and shook him.

“Did you see him or not?”

“Woah, calm down Taiga,” Kaito complained.

“What is going on here?”

When Tai-chan appeared around the corner Taiga went on to rush over to him instead.

“Did you see Sakuma?”

“Taiga, what is going on?” Tai-chan asked with a raised eyebrow.

“Why can no one answer my question?” Taiga shot back completely annoyed and lost. Instead of trying again he wanted to run towards the town, maybe he could still catch up to him if he wasn’t too far gone already. Maybe he could also ask Hokuto or Shime to give him a horse?

All his thoughts so were good for nothing when Tai-chan grabbed him by the arm before he could dash away.

“Okay, enough of this.”

“Let go I need to go after him,” Taiga yelled on which Tai-chan pulled him closer and grabbed him by the collar. For the first time Taiga felt threatened by the other one as he gave him a death glare and Taiga fell immediately silent.

“Listen, I have no clue what the exact problem is, but we are preparing for war and you running around here and disturbing the preparation and training is something I won’t let pass, am I clear?”

Taiga couldn’t even find a reply to that before Tai-chan dragged him along and yelled at Kaito to resume training with the Samurai.

Tai-chan dragged him to the back yard, where they had trained before as well and before Taiga could even think about asking where he was bringing him Tai-chan had tossed him with such a force to the front that he landed flat on the ground.

“And now I want to know what is going on, because I have enough!” Tai-chan shouted. Never had Taiga seen him that angry. When he finally got up into a sitting position he didn’t face Tai-chan though, but two people who had been obviously training until now.

“What is going on?” Ryohei asked as he put the wooden sword down, but the person he had trained with didn’t seem to need an explanation as his look darkened and he took his sword down as well.

“That is what I want to know as well,” Tai-chan said and pointed at Sakuma who flinched on the other one’s angry gesture. “You came begging to me in the morning to let you train with us without giving any good explanation and you,” Tai-chan continued looking at Taiga. “Are running around like an idiot looking for another idiot! So what the hell is going on?”

“I- I thought Sakuma had left,” Taiga said in a low voice.

“Why would you leave?” Tai-chan addressed Sakuma directly to the boy’s obvious surprise and he struggled for words.

“Because of me,” Taiga replied instead.

“I can’t follow,” Ryohei said confused on which Sakuma’s look darkened.

“Well he should explain that if he wants to be honest for once?”

That cynic behavior made Taiga want to crawl back into his shell, but before he got the chance Tai-chan had walked up to him and dragged him back up to his feet. “Okay I have enough of this shit.”

He walked up to Ryohei who seemed a bit over challenged with being caught up in the middle of this. He didn’t have to fear to be involved though as Tai-chan snatched away his wooden sword and told him to stand back. Then he shoved the sword against Taiga’s chest.

“If you two are too stupid to talk things through then let’s go with the primitive way, here you go!”

“What? But I don’t want to fight with Sakuma,” Taiga let out on which Tai-chan gave him another death glare as he stepped back next to Ryohei.

“Well, you seemed desperate to find him earlier, so here he is and if you two don’t get whatever went wrong between you right again I am going to let you stand out here for the whole night, without food and without sleep.”

That wasn’t just an empty threat and with the upcoming war Taiga didn’t want to risk even worse punishments, but he still didn’t understand how fighting would help them in their situation.

“Sakuma, you wanted to train, here is your chance, use it,” Tai-chan addressed the other boy and different to Taiga he didn’t seem that much against the idea of having a fight. Which didn’t come to Taiga’s surprise after all he had been pretty pissed off the day before and all his anger was directed at Taiga anyway.

“I don’t think this is a good-” Idea was what Taiga wanted to say, but Sakuma thought otherwise and he went for his first attack right away. It wasn’t like Taiga wouldn’t be normally able to block or dodge, but he just didn’t feel like this was right, so he had to take a pretty heavy blow to the stomach right away, bringing him to his knees with a cough.

“If you don’t train serious then I will make you leave,” Tai-chan said to everyone’s surprise.

“It’s not like I am one of you anyway,” Taiga said, the words coming out so fast that there was no chance to take back what he said.

It had been only a second since Taiga had been back on his feet and yet he found himself on the ground once more as Sakuma kicked him down. “Right, not one of us. You don’t seem to be with anyone, but yourself.”

“You are also not with them, we are no Samurai,” Taiga hissed back, getting up once more and this time he was angry enough to block the other one’s sword. His feet were hurting as he was barefoot and his Yukata was definitely not the best thing to wear for this either, but for now he really didn’t care anymore.

“Oh so you lied to me when you said we should join them and fight together?”

Sakuma’s words made Ryohei form a surprised look, Tai-chan on the other hand didn’t seem surprised at all.

Instead of replying anything Taiga finally countered and Sakuma had to start dodging if he didn’t want to get hit.

“What are they doing?” Kaito asked as he walked up to Ryohei, but the other one couldn’t actually explain the situation either so for now Kaito could only just watch.

“Stop running!” Taiga hissed while Sakuma kept dodging, knowing that he was way faster than the other one. On Taiga words though he abruptly stopped and blocked the next stroke. That move took Taiga by such surprise that he wasn’t fast enough to step back from Sakuma’s foot sweep, which took him off his feet and before he could get up Sakuma had his sword pointed right at Taiga’s face. “Running away? Aren’t you the one running away? The boy from Edo, working on the rice fields?”

Taiga didn’t want to feel angry on hearing that, but he did and he slashed the other one’s sword away and kicked Sakuma against the knee before he lunged out with his sword, resulting in Sakuma jumping back. “At least I chose a believable story and am not talking weird fairytale stories, aren’t you at fault as well?”

“Excuse me what?” Sakuma asked completely stunned.

“You are a thief, nothing more and yet you tell stories about black lords and wars. You are not better than me!”

This time the anger needed a moment longer to fill Sakuma’s eyes as it was first something darker, hurt. Yet the anger got the upper hand again and Sakuma dashed to the front, this time though it could barely be called a sword fight anymore and so Kaito walked up to Tai-chan.

“Wouldn’t it be better if we stop them? They will seriously hurt each other if they keep going,” Kaito whispered, but Tai-chan kept a serious expression and shook his head.

“This is exactly what they need right now.”

Sakuma’s attacks got so heavy that Taiga’s hands started hurting and a moment of hesitation gave the other one the chance to hit Taiga directly on the hands on which he hissed and had to drop his sword. Once more Sakuma lunged out, but when Taiga tried to get out of range Sakuma cursed and threw his sword towards Taiga instead, which took him by full surprise and he had to lift his hands to make sure the wooden object wouldn’t cause serious damage. The next moment though Sakuma had jumped at him, not bothering to get his sword back. Instead he lunged out and punched Taiga directly in the face.

It made Ryohei make a step to the front, but Kaito walked back to him, trying to explain that they should wait and see for now, even though he looked pretty skeptical as well.

“Not better than you?” Sakuma shouted as he lunged out again, pulling on Taiga’s  Yukata to stop him from getting away from him. “I apologized, you asshole!”

“And you didn’t give me the chance to,” Taiga roared back and finally dared to lunge out for the other one as well, but to no one’s surprise his punch didn’t make it and the next moment he was thrown to the ground, Sakuma sitting down on his stomach and taking him by the collar.

“Because you lied to me for weeks! WEEKS, TAIGA!”

“You almost killed me before and I still forgave you,” Taiga yelled back, now trying to get the other one off him, but Sakuma just shoved him back to the ground, landing another hit on the other one’s face.

“You know what? Yes you forgave me and damn I was happy about that. You know what I was happy about, too? You giving me a chance, you spending all those weeks with me and yet,” Sakuma took a shaking breath in between and clenched his hands back into Taiga’s Yukata as he wanted to keep yelling, yet his voice was about to break. “Yet I hate you for never telling me about your lost memory. I hate you for lying me straight in the face, I hate you for not trusting me!”

Before even giving Taiga the chance to reply he lunged out again and while Sakuma’s tears made Taiga tear up as well he didn’t try anything to defend himself. The right side of his face was slowly becoming a violet color and Sakuma’s hand started shaking even more with every punch until Taiga finally stopped him.

The moment he stopped Sakuma’s fist with his hand the other one started crying even louder and sank with his head down on Taiga’s chest. This shouldn’t be how their friendship was supposed to crumble. Nothing of this was right and yet it had been so necessary.

“I trust you,” Taiga said in a low voice, as he was afraid that if he spoke louder he wouldn’t be able to voice it out in the first place. “I didn’t trust you at first. I hated you for stealing my bracelet, I hated you for playing around with other people’s feelings and lives, but you showed me that people can change.”

Sakuma’s sobs got less as he actually gave Taiga the chance this time to speak, to finally voice out that apology. “I was happy about you tagging along, for training with me and for comforting me while I had my nightmares and headaches.”

Taiga needed to calm down himself this time as he feared that his voice would give up as well. “I never told you the reason behind those moments, yet it wasn’t because I didn’t trust you. It was the opposite actually. I didn’t feel the need to talk about it. I know it’s a stupid reasons and I know I have to apologize a thousand times for this and I am also aware that you might never forgive me and I have to accept that too.”

A weird silence fell between them before Sakuma finally dared to sit up. It was hard to read his expression as the hurt and the anger were still there. “Then tell me.”

Sakuma’s request made Taiga feel a bit confused and he gave the other one a questioning look, hoping he wouldn’t make him angry again, because more punches would definitely break his cheekbone at some point.

“Tell me about your past.”

Taiga bit his lip on that question, because it was such an easy question yet so difficult for him to answer, but he wouldn’t lie this time, not again.

“All I remember is that my name is Taiga and that I am indeed from Edo. I have blurry memories of my childhood. I know I was an only child and that I lived with my father, I was taken away from him at some point, but after that things get too blurry to remember. The last memory I have is walking down the Nakasendo, not knowing where I was going and why I was there.”

He could see that the others were listening as well and while Tai-chan seemed to have expected that kind of story since the start already, the other two didn’t seem to have seen this coming.

“The nightmares don’t actually give me too many hints about my past, but the fact that they are nightmares made me refrain from trying to find out more. That was until I met Shime. I wasn’t sure at that time, but because he seemed to know me I had to make a choice. So I followed him to learn more about my past. Kochi and Hokuto were the next people who seemed to know me and suddenly the nightmares and headaches got less, until I feared that you could leave, because I lied to you.”

“At least I can feel proud now, because I am worth enough for you to run out a castle barefoot and in your night Yukata,” Sakuma said, yet even though it was a teasing statement, neither of them laughed.

“I am sorry,” Taiga replied instead. “I am sorry for lying to you and making you feel as if I don’t trust you.”

Sakuma lifted his arm on that statement and Taiga closed his eyes as he feared another punch, but to his surprise Sakuma reached out for Taiga’s arm instead and he dared to look up again, just to gasp when he realized that his bracelet wasn’t on his wrist. Already panicking he looked around. Had it ripped? Were all the pearls lying around them now?

“You are looking at the wrong place,” Sakuma said on which Taiga looked back at him.

Sakuma moved his hand to his sleeve and pulled out Taiga’s bracelet. “Aren’t you happy to have a thief as a friend who cares enough for you to steal your bracelet in the middle of a fight so it wouldn’t break?”

First Taiga was dumbfounded, but when Sakuma put the bracelet back on Taiga’s wrist he finally chuckled on which Sakuma tried to keep a serious expression, but failed after a moment and had to crack a smile.

“Didn’t I tell you I’d kill you if you ever touch my bracelet again?” Taiga asked, now finally in a teasing matter.

“Be happy that I was ready to take that risk to actually save it!”

“Are you done?” Tai-chan interrupted them on which both looked up at the other three. “I’d love to give you more time to get things completely right between you two again, but I have to train my soldiers today.”

Sakuma and Taiga exchanged a knowing look on that and when Sakuma stood up and held his hand out to Taiga the latter took it with a confident smile. They walked up to the others and Taiga hurried to get his Yukata straight as it was pretty messed up through their fight.

“Then here you have two more soldiers to train,” Sakuma spoke first on which Tai-chan raised an eyebrow.

“In the morning you asked me if you can train with us, was that the reason for it?”

“Actually we are both asking to join,” Taiga said. “But well things got interrupted.”

“By your stupidity? Nothing new to me,” Tai-chan replied seriously, yet Taiga couldn’t be angry at him. He was right after all. “Anyway, are you both really serious about this?”

They exchanged another look before they both nodded on which Ryohei and Kaito gave them excited looks.

“Fine, you are more than welcome to join us in this war,” Tai-chan replied on which the other two exchanged a smile. “But let me be honest with you. Both of you are no trained Samurai, neither do you have skills that are extraordinary. You might die in this war.”

The dark atmosphere was making it hard to actually reply something, but then Kaito jumped between them and threw his arms around them. “No problem, for tough times me and the others have your backs. And even though Tai-chan seems so scary right now he will have your back as well, right?”

The other one just rolled his eyes on the other one’s words, yet Taiga knew of course that while they didn’t want to be a burden and they knew how dangerous it could be they could also rely on their friends, even if it might not save their lives in the end.

Chapter Text

"So you remember absolutely nothing else?"

"Sakuma, even if I tell you that a dozen times my memories won't just come flying back," Taiga replied as they were back in their room in the evening. "And maybe I also don't want them to come back like that."

"Do you fear bad memories will come back?"

"Well my dreams were mostly nightmares connected to my past so maybe," Taiga said and took the book from the ground.

"But your bracelet seems to be a good memory, right?" Sakuma asked as he pointed at the pink accessory.

"I hope so at least," Taiga replied, still not sure why he treasured it that much. The others didn't say anything about it so maybe he had gotten it recently?

When the door got slit open Ryohei stepped inside, still in his training gear.

"There you are, we couldn't find you after the last training," Sakuma said on which Ryohei apologized and grabbed his Hakama to head to the bath house. "Sorry I was with some of the Samurai to have a talk about how Shime and Hokuto were planning their first attack after we march out tomorrow."

"And is it a good plan?" Sakuma asked.

"We will see, hopefully."

"Wait I come with you I still didn't have time to get to the bath either," Sakuma said and got up.

"That's because you don't stop nagging about my past," Taiga scolded him.

"It's definitely an interesting topic, even though you can't actually tell your tale," Ryohei said with a mix of sadness and support.

"One day maybe I can tell you my story," Taiga said before he opened the book and used the time with those two out for a while to finish it. The story had heated up a lot towards the end and Taiga had become fond of a lot of the characters and he feared that with the Shinobi clan some of them might die.

***

"Are you not going to sleep?" Sakuma asked as he and Ryohei had come back from the bath house and got ready to sleep.

"I want to finish this before we leave tomorrow so I don't have to bring it with me," Taiga explained.

"You're really into that book," Ryohei said as he already cuddled himself into the sheets.

"It has something catching, something real."

"Well a lot of stories have true content after all."

This was indeed also true for this story as Taiga felt as if he was part of the story.

"Just don't stay up too long," Sakuma said as he also fell flat on his futon and seemed to have fallen asleep in just a few minutes.

Taiga sat next to the small lamp while finally reading the last chapter and while he had been so excited the whole time he somehow felt scared when finally read it. Was he so worried for the characters? He could almost feel his hands trembling while going from one page to the other.

 

He froze on the spot when hateful eyes were staring back at him behind a black mask.

His friend had obviously hurried back to get his Shoto, but now it was lying on the ground, the blade was drawn, but he hadn’t succeeded in defending himself from the attackers, which wasn’t a miracle with his opponents being three Shinobi.

One of them carried the boy over his shoulder, while one was already half out the window. The third one looked at him now and the boy had frozen to the spot. Just when the one carrying his friend made it to the window he moved and picked up the Shoto on the way.

When the other one got in his way he tried to lunge out for him, but as expected the Shoto got ripped out of his hand before he got tossed to the ground.

“I won’t let you take him!” He shouted as he got up once more. He knew that he couldn’t win, but maybe he could delay them enough to make the police officer and his men secure the area and stop them. Unfortunately there were too many of them and his friend vanished out of his sight before he could stop them.

 

Usually Taiga should be excited about what was going to happen next, yet he weirdly felt so empty about it as if he had read the last page beforehand, knowing the outcome. Yet he dared to keep reading as if he wanted to assure himself that he wasn't mistaking. Was he actually hoping for the ending to be different from what he was expecting?

 

“Come here,” the owner said as calm as possible and the boy bit his cheek from the inside as the pain of just walking was almost unbearable. He had barely made a few steps when he had to pass the Daimyo to get over to them and he could feel his eyes on him, then he made the biggest mistake of his life. It was just one look, but exactly that look was enough to not just upset the other one, but to turn him into a beast.

“DON’T!” The police officer was heard the moment the Daimyo moved. The boy hadn’t even seen the movement coming as the weapon in his hand hadn’t been lifted up. There wasn’t even pain, it was like a moment of emptiness and numbness before he started screaming and hid his face in his hands as he sank to the ground.

“DESERVES YOU RIGHT, ARROGANT BASTARD!”

 

As if in trance he kept reading even though this one scene had him in shock and only after reading the last line of the book he finally dared to take his already shaking hand up to his eye.

"No way," he whispered.

He was blocking the possibility out, not even leaving space for his head to break into a headache yet.

Was this the reason Hokuto had given him the book? Could this really be true?

He got ripped out of his thoughts when he heard something in the corridor, but it fell silent right away. He had been reading for quite a while the whole castle should be asleep by now.

Was he supposed to remember everything through this book? Was he strong enough to actually ask Hokuto about it? But what if he was mistaken?

All his thoughts spinning around made him feel too restless to sleep and he got up, slowly opening the cupboard to not wake the others up. He grabbed his Haori so he could walk around a bit to clear his head. Then he noticed his usual Hakama he hadn't worn over the last days and then he gasped before he went for the sleeve without any hesitation. His heart seemed to beat ridiculously fast over the small envelope in his hand. Kento's envelope!

Taiga hurried out of the room with the envelope in his hand, but immediately slowed down as he remembered that the castle floor was made to hear people walk and he didn't want to wake people up.

Slowly he made it to a close by window using the light of the moon to read the letter in the envelope.

He pulled the letter out, yet his eyes somehow refused to read what was on it.

What if the truth would hurt too much? Did he want to be the boy from this book or would he prefer not to be? What happened after the book ended? It didn’t seem like a sad ending, yet he was sure there was more to the story.

He took another deep breath before he finally dared to read the letter. His eyes fell on one single word, yet it gave all the answers he was looking for. He wasn't happy, he wasn't sad, he was just empty.

Five seconds, ten seconds, slowly he could feel the pain, the memories trying to force themselves on him through another breaking headache. But was he ready? Did he want to face this?

Before he could actually decide if he wanted to get another breakdown or not he heard the sound from before again.

"Is anyone there?" Taiga asked, but there was no reply out of the dark corridors of the castle. Yet he could hear the faint noise of someone walking on the castle floor, so skilled that it almost made no sound.

Suddenly getting a bit scared he shoved the envelope into his Yukata's sleeve before he headed back to their quarters.

If he was going to have a tormenting memory flash back now he could for once tell Sakuma the truth and let him help as much as he could at least.

After he made it around the corner he realized two things that weren't right. First the door was open and he had definitely closed it, second the lamp he had left on had been put out.

With a groan he almost fell to his knees as his headache obviously didn't want to wait any longer and he hurried back to their room.

"Sakuma, are you-"

No he wasn't awake and even worse he wasn't there at least not where he was supposed to be.

A panicked look up from Sakuma's Futon made Taiga's headache change into a painful déjàvu as he spotted the dark figures at the open window. When he realized that they were dragging Sakuma along he forced his headache to stand down for now and he got ready to shout for help so the Samurai around the castle would stop them.

Yet his words died in his throat as another dark figure appeared right behind him and muffled his shouting. Before he had time to struggle a sharp pain on his neck had him jolt and seconds later he felt how his body became heavy and his surroundings blurry. He tried to stretch his arm out towards Sakuma, but he couldn't hold it up for long and soon he crumbled unconsciously to the ground.

***

Waking up was more than painful and when Taiga opened his eyes with a groan he realized why. He had been tossed on a stone floor, his hands tied together, causing his wrists to be already red without even trying to get the ropes off.

"What the hell is going on?" He voiced out as he realized that this was something like a dungeon. A small window with bars close to the ceiling had sunlight piercing in so it was already the next day. There was a wooden door blocking his way out and he didn't even have to check if it was locked.

Another look around the stone cell made him gasp as he realized that on the other side of the wall someone was laying on the floor. Blood was covering the boy's clothes and as he was lying in the shadows Taiga needed a moment to recognize him, but as he realized that it was the same night Yukata he was also wearing he knew!

"Ryohei!"

When the boy didn't respond, Taiga tried to get up, but with a painful yank on his neck he got pulled down. His hands found a collar around his neck that was attached to the wall. "Oh come on."

He tried to pull at it a few times, but there was no way that it would come off.

"Ryohei, wake up! RYOHEI!"

The fear of the other one actually being dead made Taiga keep yelling at him until the other one finally moved.

"Thanks God!" Taiga let out as Ryohei turned on his back with a groan. His hands were tied together as well, but instead of his neck the chains were on his hands, connected to the wall.

"Taiga?"

Seeming a bit disoriented Ryohei carefully sat up, but Taiga could see dry blood running from his head so he shouldn't move too much. "What happened?"

"I hoped you could tell me." Taiga said. "I went outside the room at night and when I came back there were Shinobi and- Sakuma, where is he?"

Finally realizing that Sakuma wasn't with them, Taiga started panicking.

"Right, they sneaked up on us," Ryohei finally seemed to remember. "I was fast enough to avoid getting taken out immediately, but there were too many of them to actually get my sword and I pushed one of them out of the window, I must have fallen as well."

"That definitely explains your wounds," Taiga said worried looking at the boy's ripped clothes and the dried blood.

"What do you think where we are?" Ryohei asked, looking up at the small window.

"Could this be an ambush from the other clan?"

"But why us? We only joined recently. We had nothing to do with any of the Daimyo involved."

"Also true," Taiga said with a sigh.

For now they could only wait for someone to show up and actually enlighten them on their situation.

***

It was by the time the light had disappeared from the small window that they heard someone unlocking the door.

“Had a good rest?” The boy who walked inside asked. He had curly hair, most of it back in a ponytail and when he gave them a smile that didn’t spread any good vibes at all Taiga just knew that they were indeed in trouble.

“Where are we?” Ryohei asked on which the other one stepped into the room and passed by Taiga.

“If you patiently wait we will tell you, but first,” the other one said and turned to Taiga. “Someone wants to see you.”

“Me?” Taiga asked, looking over at Ryohei in panic, but the other one wouldn’t be able to help him right now.

When the unknown boy stepped closer to him, Taiga pressed his back against the wall, but what if he had a chance to escape if they took him out of the cell? Maybe he should just follow quietly for now? He didn’t say anything when the other one took the chain off his neck and told him to stand up. He gave Ryohei another worried look, but to his surprise the other one seemed calm as well, did they share the same thought?

Out of the cell the other boy locked the door and told Taiga to keep moving. The place seemed similar to Shime’s castle, so even though he didn’t know anything about their war he had the weird feeling that this was most likely connected to their battle.

As they got up a few stairs Taiga spotted a few Samurai here and there, but still no direct door which could lead outside.

“Don’t even think about it, you’d be dead before you’d even find a door,” the other one said on which Taiga stopped looking around so obviously.

After walking down another corridor Taiga could hear voices, but whatever was going on didn’t seem like a normal conversation, more like outraged shouting. The sliding door in front of him was open and the boy ordered him to enter.

“TAIGA!”

Before he could even decide if he was in trouble or even got attacked someone had pulled him in a hug before pulling back with a worrying look. “Are you okay? They didn’t hurt you, did they?”

Taiga couldn’t even reply, because the situation didn’t make any sense anymore. “Sakuma?”

The boy looked back at him with a still worried look, but he seemed relieved to see that Taiga didn’t have any injuries. A closer look around made Taiga realize that they weren’t alone. Another boy was standing in the back with the same Samurai clothes on as the boy who had brought him here. But that boy had an even crazier aura surrounding him as he smiled back at them even though there was definitely nothing to smile about.

There was one more person and while he sat in the middle of the tatami floor with a calm expression there was something dangerous about him. “Look, I told you he was fine.”

When the man in the middle spoke, Sakuma’s look changed and he turned with a threatening look.

"Fine? Nothing of this is fine. Let us go!"

"Daisuke, why are you still so angry after I explained everything?"

Sakuma seemed to get ready for another explosion, but Taiga reached out for his sleeve even though he couldn't actually get a hold of him with his tied up hands. "Sakuma, don't let him provoke you. What is going on here?"

"I can explain that if you want," the man in the middle said with a calm expression as he got up. His clothes were similar to Hokuto's and that made him catch up before the other one spoke.

"You are Yabu," Taiga concluded to the other one's obvious surprise.

"Oh, already connecting the dots, then do you also know why you are here?"

That was indeed a question he had no reply to and Yabu nodded. "Well I guess that question is a bit too difficult. As you already realized I'm Yabu the Daimyo of this prefecture and those two are my most trusted men, Kei and Hikaru."

"I can't say it's nice to meet you," Taiga let out annoyed.

"Well I didn't expect you to, Taiga."

"Why do you know my name?"

"He told me," Yabu said and pointed at Sakuma.

"I needed to know if you're safe when I heard they captured you and Ryohei too. But they said I could only see one of you, how is Ryohei?"

"Pretty hurt actually."

"You said you didn't hurt them," Sakuma roared again, but Yabu just shrugged his shoulders and pointed at Kei and Hikaru. "It was his own fault to put up a fight," Kei said with his hands raised in defense.

"What do you want from us?" Taiga finally asked.

"From you? Nothing. You were just accidentally there," Yabu said on which Taiga tilted his head in confusion before he looked at Sakuma, but the boy wasn't facing him all he did was looking to the ground as if he wanted to disappear into thin air. Then Taiga realized something else about him. While Taiga and Ryohei had been dragged here in their night Yukata and Sakuma had also been in his when they got captured he was now wearing a clean Hakama and slowly, way too slowly it clicked. Before he could stop his body from moving he had let go of Sakuma's sleeve and made a step away, which didn't pass unnoticed and Sakuma gave him a hurt look.

"I like you, you catch up fast," Yabu said, pointing at Taiga.

"You betrayed us?" Taiga let out, facing Sakuma, not even spending Yabu any attention.

"No I didn't," Sakuma said and shook his head immediately. "I had nothing to do with this ambush."

"But you're with them, you are with Yabu," it wasn't a question, it was obvious.

"No I am not, at least not really... it’s complicated," Sakuma said.

"I can't believe you still don’t trust me," Yabu said disappointed.

"How am I supposed to trust you? I don't even know you! Instead of talking to me you kidnapped me."

When Sakuma got ready to actually jump on Yabu, Hikaru held him back with a warning look. "Show your brother a bit more respect!"

"Brother?" Taiga let out in confusion, looking from one to the other.

"I didn't even know I had a brother and I still don't really believe him," Sakuma explained. "I was taken in by another Daimyo after the battle of Sekigahara. I was still a baby so I had no memory of it. I learned over the years that I wasn't actually the son of that Daimyo and wanted to know about my family, but he wasn't actually the nice type of person to let me just meet my family or even talk about them."

"Wait your story about the black lord?"

Sakuma nodded on which Taiga felt like the worst person existing for never believing in his story and even worse, not understanding that Sakuma hadn't just been a citizen, but in the center of cruelty.

"Wait, so you knew he was there, but never contacted him?" Taiga addressed Yabu this time.

The Daimyo walked over to a window instead of replying directly before he gave them a kind of nostalgic look. "I always begged our parents to let me see my brother again, but because the Daimyo, he had to stay with, wasn't actually the nicest person they refused to contact him at all. After I took over I made the decision that things needed to change."

"Why do I think that you are not only speaking about your brother?"

"What a shame that you're with Hokuto and Shimekake or I'd totally want you on my side for this upcoming war," Yabu said half laughing half disappointed.

"Sorry, won't happen," Taiga let out cynical.

"What a shame, but yes you're right I'm about to change more than just the brutal way that Daimyo lead his people. I made sure first that my brother would make it home-"

"And now that he is you'll just go and try to overthrow the whole Shogunate?"

"I won't let that happen," Sakuma interfered.

"It took me only one man to free Daisuke, so how do you think you can stop my trained soldiers?" Yabu asked challenging.

"It's not like we're in any way important in this war. Shime and Hokuto will be able to take you down," Taiga said.

"And that's why you are here," Yabu said on which Taiga rose an eyebrow.

"You said I'm only here, because Ryohei and I were there at the time trying to stop you."

"Well yes, but you know with my own brother a bit stubborn about the situation I thought maybe you would like to help me get a better overview about their number of soldiers or plan?"

Taiga couldn't hide a chuckle on that question. "Why do you think I would tell you?"

"Oh no, don't get me wrong, I know you won't, but Daisuke will."

"I also told you earlier that I won't help you," Daisuke said.

His brother gave him a challenging look on that before he looked at Kei who moved away from his spot for the first time. "Think again," Yabu added.

Taiga had a bad feeling about the situation and when he wanted to back off Hikaru was already standing behind him. The next moment he hissed when Hikaru kicked him against the back of the knee making him fall on his knees.

"Leave him alone," Sakuma shouted, but was stopped by Kei who had drawn his sword and stepped in front of Sakuma.

Hikaru also drew his sword and held it next to Taiga's neck.

"When you asked so desperate about Taiga I figured he might be more important than a few secrets of the other Daimyo, what do you think?"

"You're a coward," Sakuma yelled at his brother, but Yabu just laughed.

"I'd rather call myself good at persuasion, but suit yourself. So what will it be?"

On his question Hikaru put the blade down on Taiga's shoulder and added pressure on which he hissed, but didn't dare to move.

"Leave him alone. He has nothing to do with this," Sakuma yelled, but didn't dare to try and get passed Kei.

“Mh, I’d say he didn’t have anything to do with this until he decided to join this war, same as you, stupid idea by the way. So any information you want to share?”

“Fuck you,” Sakuma yelled at his older brother on which all Yabu did was looking at Hikaru who kicked Taiga in the back so he fell to the front. Before he could even try to get up again a sharp pain in his shoulder made him first freeze before a twist of the blade made him scream out.

“STOP IT!” Sakuma roared and tried to get to Taiga this time, but Kei made it very clear that he wouldn’t mind hurting him if necessary as he put the sword up to the other one’s neck as he dared to get closer.

“Why do you do this? Earlier you talked about all this crap how happy you are that I am safe and finally back. If that was really the case you wouldn’t hurt my friends.”

“Of course that wasn’t a lie,” Yabu said scandalized before he walked up to his little brother with his irritating calm behavior. “Exactly because I care for you I am not hurting you, but him.”

“If you had cared you wouldn’t have left me at that awful place for so long,” Sakuma shot back.

“Oh my apologies for not being able to get skilled Shinobi under my control while our father was still the Daimyo and I was only a sixteen year old heir.”

“Then why didn’t you come yourself? Why did some of your damn Shinobi come to kill the Daimyo and didn’t even tell me anything about my family? I wandered around for so long, not knowing where to go or what to do,” Sakuma shot back. Slowly things were turning from a war talk into a siblings fight.

“Hi, I am Yabu, your older brother and I am here to take you home, would that have worked?” The mocking tone of his brother made Sakuma want to punch him so badly, but he was still aware of Kei standing right next to him with his sword raised.

Another half muffled scream from Taiga when Hikaru pushed the sword deeper into his shoulder made Sakuma turn back to him.

“So what will it be?” Yabu asked again, raising his hand, ready to give Hikaru a signal to end Taiga’s life right there on the spot.

“Fine, I will talk,” Sakuma yelled.

Chapter Text

“Don’t even say it,” Taiga interrupted Sakuma when he tried to apologize again.

Of course Sakuma had talked in the end, even though Taiga had tried to convince him not to, but it was a bit hard to yell at him while a sword was getting pierced through his body.

Luckily Yabu had been ‘nice’ enough to give Sakuma the chance to treat Taiga’s wound afterwards and Hikaru had thrown another Hakama into the room where they were forced to stay for now so Taiga could change.

Sakuma had demanded to speak to Yabu about letting Ryohei out of the cell as well so he could join them, but Hikaru had refused.

“Do you think Ryohei is okay, you said he was wounded, right?” Sakuma asked worried as he kept pacing up and down the small room they were in, while Taiga sat on the Tatami ground, trying to hold his shoulder still as the fresh wound was still hurting a lot.

“He was at least conscious when Hikaru got me and well his look told me that he definitely hoped we could make it out and get help, but I guess that might be a bit difficult.”

“More than a bit indeed,” Sakuma said before he let out an annoyed sound and fell into a cross-legged sitting position and ruffled through his own hair. “I can’t believe all of this is happening. How can there be so many coincidences?”

“What coincidences exactly are we talking about?”

“Well Yabu said he is the one responsible for what happened to the black lord, okay fine I believe him that. But I was on the road for months Taiga, months! He didn’t even contact me once, I never found out anything about my real family, always thought I was some orphan taken in by him. Then I met you, then we meet friends of yours, who you don’t remember, those friends are involved in a war against my brother, who finds out that I am with his enemies for barely days and he already gets some Shinobi to get me here and use me as a middleman to get to know his enemies. This can’t be real, right?”

When Sakuma was finally done freaking out, Taiga gave him a careful look as if he wasn’t sure if he was really done, because he had thrown all of this out in one single irritated breath.

“I have to admit that yes it’s all a bit too coincidentally, but on the other hand I also have no explanation of how this could have been a set up.”

“Well as long as you didn’t lie to me after all and you are not somehow involved in my brother’s plan then I guess we have no explanation for now,” Sakuma said depressed before he dropped with his back flat on the ground.

“No I am definitely not involved with your brother’s domain, I am-” He was what? From one second to the other Taiga’s whole world collapsed. All the chaos had hit him at a very confused moment and now everything was coming back to him like a wave. The end of the book, Kento’s letter …

Everything he had been able to hold in before was breaking down on him now and it only took seconds before he had to put his hands to his head despite the pain in his shoulder.

“Are you okay?” Sakuma asked worried and jumped up, getting over to him when he saw how Taiga was slowly starting to hyperventilate.

Every try to make him calm down made more images flash up in front of his eyes. Places, faces, dialogues, yet still no names, no details.

“Make it stop,” Taiga begged as he fell to the front as his bracelet seemed to pull him to the ground, feeling heavier than ever before. Sakuma caught him so that he wouldn’t hurt himself.

“Try to calm down, I don’t know what’s happening, but I am here,” Sakuma tried to sooth him and it at least somehow reached Taiga as he reached out for the latter’s sleeve and clawed his hand in it.

It felt like he was catching up to the real time. The story from Hokuto’s book repeating itself in his head this time with himself as the main character. Yet it didn’t stop at the scar he got. There was more to the story, new faces, happy moments, complicated dialogues and dark memories as well. The more he made it towards the end of his story the more he tried to fight it off as if he wasn’t ready for the end. He was still blocking out faces of some people, forcing names to stay out of his memories as if they could hurt him and when he saw his bracelet in his memories he felt like his heart was going to rip into pieces.

“Taiga, please calm down,” Sakuma tried again as Taiga now tried to get up and he didn’t even know why. He wouldn’t even make it to his feet, the headache forcing him down, robbing him of his balance and senses.

He didn’t want to see more and when he saw someone’s hand reaching out for his and he got a glance of the blue shimmering bracelet on the other person’s wrist he screamed out, almost hitting Sakuma as he tried desperately to get up, to run! Like a deja-vu he tried to run away from his memories, but this time he had someone to stop him. Sakuma was holding him down, almost lying on top of him so that he wouldn’t get up and hurt himself.

“Please Taiga, listen to me. I am here for you. You don’t have to be afraid, no matter what happened in your past I am here to listen and to support you!”

It wasn’t clear if Taiga reacted to his words or if his body was just giving up on him, but slowly Taiga’s struggle got less and he sank back to the ground, Sakuma protectively closed his arms around him. “I don’t know what you’ve just seen, but please don’t run away from it. Don’t run away from me. I also need you right now.”

“It hurts,” Taiga let out in a weak voice, not even trying to hide how afraid he was about letting his memories back in. “But I also don’t want to be alone.”

“Then don’t. If you are not ready then wait, but don’t run, okay?”

Taiga just nodded, while he closed his eyes and took a few deep breaths before he dared to sit up, Sakuma still worryingly trying to stabilize him.

“Sorry for the sudden outburst,” Taiga said after a few more minutes in silence on which Sakuma hit him against the arm.

“As if I weren’t used to it with all your nightmares and headaches. It’s nice to know why you have them though, because now I feel like I can help at least a bit.”

Again Taiga felt like apologizing for not talking about his lost memory earlier, but before he could actually say anything they both heard something from the corridor.

Someone was running, then swords were clashing, before a heavy dull noise was heard on which both backed away from the door a bit. They didn’t have weapons, but they could still jump at someone if it was necessary.

When the door got slid open though they luckily didn’t find the need to and Sakuma flashed a bright smile and jumped at the other one out of happiness instead. “Oh god, Ryohei, you are okay too!”

“Yes I am and I’d be better if you wouldn’t actually put pressure on my wounds.”

“Oh damn, sorry,” Sakuma said and backed off, but then realized that Ryohei was also dressed differently than when they got attacked.

“I borrowed the Jinbei from a boy who crossed my way, I felt a bit sorry, but I really needed something in which I can move a bit easier in,” Ryohei said.

“How did you get out?” Taiga asked as he got up and looked outside the corridor a bit worried.

“Long story short, a simple chain and a crappy old locked door won’t hold me for long,” Ryohei said with a wink. “And sorry I took so long I took the chance to take care of the worst so I could move better,” he added and showed a bandage under his Jinbei.

“Did anyone else see you?” Sakuma asked, but the other one shook his head.

“There are guards around, but most people seem asleep, but we should leave before Hikaru wakes up again. You can tell me the details later, because I have no idea what is going on in the first place.”

“Trust me neither do I completely,” Sakuma said and left the room, but turned around when Taiga didn’t follow. “What is it?”

“Sakuma are you sure it’s a good idea to leave with us?”

“What do you mean?”

“I know you’re not exactly on your brother’s side, but if you come back with us you need to fight against him, you know that, right? Even if you leave he will try to get you back most likely,” Taiga explained.

“Do I look like the lost little brother who’d suddenly change his mind and join forces with my evil brother instead of helping to defeat him and do the right thing?”

Taiga shrugged his shoulders on that question. “No?”

“I thought so and now move before he or his Shinobi find us,” Sakuma said and followed Ryohei down the corridor on which Taiga followed them as well, passing carefully by Hikaru who was lying unconsciously on the ground. His sword was lying next to him and he was still in a samurai armor, but Taiga noticed something under the armor, but couldn’t take a closer look before he needed to follow the others to not get left behind.

***

“We are almost there,” Ryohei said as they moved down the last hillside. Close by Shime and Hokuto should be already planning their ‘not so much of a surprise’ attack. “At least we have time to relocate.”

“No need for that,” Sakuma said as they hurried towards their location.

“What do you mean?”

“Do I look like an idiot? I gave them a wrong location,” Sakuma said with a proud smile on which Ryohei looked a bit skeptical.

“And they fell for that?”

“Not immediately,” Taiga said as he remembered how Yabu made sure to hurt him again so that Sakuma would spill the right location in case he lied, but Sakuma stayed strong and kept his lie up.

“Guess then we have at least enough time to get things sorted out before they come and search for the right location.”

The closer they came to their own camp the more they had to watch out not to be mistaken for an enemy, but luckily the first few Samurai coming into their sight were people they knew and they were able to get through to the center without any trouble.

“Matsumura-daimyo, Shimekake-daimyo, someone wants to see you,” the soldier said as he headed into the guarded area in the middle first. White banners were shutting them off from the rest of the banners, while only Kochi, Tai-chan, Kaito and a few other trusted men were with them.

“Not now,” Hokuto said as he was discussing strategies with Shime.

“If not now it will be too late,” Ryohei interfered and stepped inside without even being allowed to. Taiga and Sakuma hurried after him, hoping they wouldn’t actually be in trouble through this.

“Oh my god you are safe,” Kochi was the first to speak and jumped up, walking over to them.

“More or less, yes,” Taiga said before Kochi actually pulled him into a hug.

“We were so worried when you were gone in the morning.”

“Your swords were in the room, your clothes and belongings too so even though there wasn’t any hint of a fight we were sure you hadn’t just run off,” Hokuto said as he and Shime also got up, while the soldier excused himself and left.

“What happened?” Shime asked.

The three exchanged a few looks, not really sure where to start.

“You must be exhausted, let’s sit down first,” Kochi said and urged them all to sit down.

“Here we brought them with us just in case,” Tai-chan said as he handed all of them their swords and especially Ryohei seemed extremely happy to have his special sword back in his hands.

“I fear we don’t have much time to explain,” Ryohei started on which the others didn’t seem that surprised.

Ryohei explained a short version of the Shinobi attacking them and that it was Yabu and his men, but when it came to details about what actually happened he wasn’t the one who could explain the details.

“So wait you got taken out and brought to Sakuma, but why weren’t you with them in the first place?” Shime asked curious.

Taiga and Sakuma exchanged a worried look on that question, but then Sakuma let out a sigh and stood up, walking a bit away from them.

“Do you remember my backstory?” Sakuma asked and the others nodded. “There is more to it, a part even I didn’t know about until now. I knew that I wasn’t the son of the black lord, yet I had been with that family for as long as I can remember and never got contacted by my real family even after I left that prefecture. Until now at least…”

Taiga immediately saw the look Tai-chan and Kaito exchanged and it made him tense a bit.

“Wait, are you saying-?” Kochi asked with wide eyes as he caught up too and Sakuma nodded.

“I am Yabu’s little brother.”

It was a reaction they had seen coming yet they had hoped things would end calmer, but Kaito and Tai-chan had jumped up immediately and drawn their swords, but so had Taiga and Ryohei, standing protectively in front of Sakuma.

“Don’t protect a traitor or you will be charged with treason,” Kaito told them.

“He is no traitor,” Taiga said. “He didn’t even know that Yabu was his brother.”

“And he is not really fond of him either, you know,” Ryohei added.

“Right, did he tell you that?” Tai-chan asked. “Ryohei you are the intelligent one here, you should understand that coming back with you here is most likely a trap.”

“Then tell me why he gave them the wrong location?” Taiga asked. “I was with him if you’ve forgotten, I heard everything.”

“That could have easily be a set up,” Tai-chan countered. “He could have already given our location away before they brought you there.”

“I would never do that,” Sakuma finally defended himself. “Please believe me. I didn’t even know my family. I am not even completely believing him yet, because...because I don’t want to be part of such a family…”

“Oh how cute,” Kaito added as he made a step closer on which Taiga and Ryohei raised their swords higher.

Before anyone could actually go for an attack Hokuto was up on his feet and walked over to Taiga who immediately lowered his sword, because he wasn’t threatening him, but Ryohei next to him wasn’t relaxing yet.

“Taiga, you were with him, you saw Yabu and his men, what do you think?”

“I believe him,” Taiga said immediately.

“Why?”

It took Taiga a moment longer before he could reply to that, but then he remembered something that made him smile at Hokuto. “Because you are not the only one who is good in reading people’s intention by now.”

That reply had Kochi on his feet as well. “Taiga, do you by any chance remember?”

Taiga couldn’t nod, because it wasn’t like he had allowed all his memories to just crash him like a wave. So he moved his hand to his scared eye instead. “Let’s say I remember not regretting doing this for a friend and I’d do the same for Sakuma.”

“Well then I guess we have nothing else to discuss here,” Shime said as he got up and turned to Kaito and Tai-chan. “Swords down.”

“What? Are you serious?” Tai-chan asked a bit perplex.

“He said swords down,” Hokuto added as he turned towards them with a threatening look, his hand on his own sword now on which both immediately sheathed their swords and bowed to them, knowing that this wasn’t their decision to make.

Taiga and Ryohei also hurried to do the same and Sakuma walked up to the two Daimyo and bowed to them. “Thank you for trusting me, I promise you I have nothing to do with my brother’s plans and I won’t betray you.”

“If you do then I guess Taiga needs to learn a bit more about people,” Hokuto said, for the first time having a light smile on his lips.

“Let’s get ready to move out tomorrow morning, even if they make it to the fake location today they won’t be able to find us before tomorrow if they try to ambush us,” Hokuto said and dismissed the meeting.

Ryohei stayed with Sakuma for now, knowing that it would be dangerous to leave him alone, but Taiga excused himself for a moment and hurried outside.

“Tai-chan, wait,” he shouted after the other one who walked off away from the camp.

“I don’t want to talk to you,” he said straight forward when Taiga had caught up to him.

To his surprise though Taiga blocked his way with a pissed expression. “I want to talk to you though.”

“About what? Your so trustworthy friend?”

“Yes and about you not being able to trust him or me,” Taiga replied and when the other one rolled his eyes and wanted to get away, Taiga had enough and shoved him back at the shoulders.

“Watch it,” Tai-chan warned him.

“Or what? You see me as a traitor as well?” Taiga replied annoyed. “Tai-chan what’s wrong with you? This is not the person I met on the Nakasendo a few months ago.”

“Well you are, and that is the problem,” Tai-chan replied. “Seems like even having your memory partly back doesn’t change you. Trusting people too much is dangerous and somehow I’ve the feeling you should know that!”

That statement made Taiga refrain from a direct reply on which Tai-chan shook his head and passed him.

“I once trusted someone who killed people I knew behind my back,” Taiga said without actually knowing if his memories were telling him the truth or not as they were still blurry. Tai-chan stopped on hearing that, but didn’t turn around. “I thought he was my friend, I learned a lot from him and saw a good senpai in him, yet in the end I realized he used me, betrayed me and almost killed me in the end.”

It took Taiga a moment to organize his blurry memories, but Tai-chan was waiting.

“I also had a friend who was fighting with me a lot. It was hard to trust him at first or understand what he was thinking. In the end I was the one to rescue him and it cost me a lot, yet I don’t regret it.”

With a deep breath Taiga walked up to the other one and finally Tai-chan turned towards him, now a softer expression on his face.

“If trusting Sakuma means that I might get betrayed in the end then so be it, but if there is any chance that trusting Sakuma will help saving him from his own brother then I am more than willing to take that gamble.”

There was no need to wait for a reply so Taiga just turned and walked back to the camp. If Tai-chan wouldn’t understand him then Taiga and Ryohei had to protect Sakuma by themselves.

Chapter Text

It wasn’t only the armor Taiga was wearing for the very first time which made it almost impossible for him to somehow get sleep at night, but also all his worries for what was awaiting them the next day.

“Can’t sleep?” Sakuma asked from the spot he was sitting, obviously also not able to find any kind of sleep.

“Well that makes three of us,” Ryohei added as he turned around and sat up, while he had at least pretended to sleep until now.

Hokuto had made sure that they were separated from the other soldiers, just in case the information about Sakuma’s family would leak. Things were complicated enough so they didn’t need another fight inside their own lines.

“I am just worried and pretty uncomfortable,” Taiga said and tried to stretch his arms, but his shoulder still gave him a hard time.

“I would love to tell you that it’s okay, but we all know that this is a promise I can’t keep,” Ryohei said, taking his sword and playing around with the sheath.

“I am so sorry for this mess.”

“Why do you apologize? It’s not like you decided to be part of this,” Taiga said towards Sakuma.

“I know, it’s just, I feel like I am not belonging to any side at all.”

“Idiot, you’re belonging to our side, isn’t that clear?” Ryohei said and kicked the other one against the leg.

“And we won’t let them take you away again,” Taiga added.

Sakuma smiled on hearing that as this was obviously his biggest fear after he had left with them and decided to go against his brother.

When Taiga heard the first birds in the trees and realized that the first light of the day was slowly approaching he let out a sigh and stood up. “Guess it’s too late to try and sleep now anyway.” Carefully he stretched again, but then he heard a sound. Not too close, but yet familiar and when he turned around he gasped.

“GET DOWN,” Ryohei shouted, having recognized the sound luckily at the same time and he dragged Taiga down with him and they both fell on Sakuma before the piercing sound of arrows shooting down on them was heard.

People started screaming as the first volley had hit them in the middle of their sleep, definitely costing already some lives. But they couldn’t relax as a second volley got shot down immediately.

Ryohei had reacted fast enough to get the banners around them down to be at least of some help against the arrows, but it was only a matter of time before they’d hit them too.

After the second volley was down Ryohei urged them to get up and retreat to a place where the arrows wouldn’t hit for now.

“EVERYONE GET UP! ARCHERS TO THE FRONT,” Hokuto was heard shouting as the remaining men tried their best to start a counter attack towards the enemies who were still hidden by the shadows of the mountains.

Most of their troops were sword fighters and luckily that was the case for their enemies as well as no new arrows came down on them after the third time.

“Get on your horses and follow me,” Tai-chan shouted at the Samurai around them and while Ryohei didn’t hesitate and hurried to get a horse, Sakuma and Taiga exchanged a worried look.

Before they could decide what to do there was someone next to them and Sakuma was the one to get a punch in the face on which Taiga interfered and pulled Kaito back.

“What was that for?”

“Are you kidding me?” Kaito yelled at both of them. “There is no way they would be here already if they had checked out the wrong location and they wouldn’t have been able to locate us at night! So much about trusting you!”

Even in his outburst Kaito luckily didn’t try to actually kill Sakuma before he followed after Tai-chan and the others.

“I- no, I didn’t…” Sakuma stuttered in realization of what this sudden attack meant for him.

Taiga also finally caught up, but didn’t know what to make out of the situation until Sakuma walked up to him and Taiga made a step back which he shouldn’t have.

“You don’t believe me,” Sakuma said in shock. It wasn’t a question, but Taiga couldn’t even deny it. How had they known the location? Had they been chased after their escape? But even then that spy would have needed to head back first and no excuse Taiga tried to find in his head seemed to make sense.

“I don’t know what to believe,” Taiga said honestly. “But I am willing to find out the truth.”

Sakuma hadn’t expected that reply and while he was close to a breakdown already he stared back at Taiga with a questioning look.

“I will fight and if you do too then that is proof enough for me that this has nothing to do with you,” Taiga said as he marched forward, rushing after the others by foot like the remaining soldiers.

As Sakuma finally caught up to what he had said he grabbed his sword and hurried after the other one.

They heard swords clashing, saw people getting dragged off their horses and realized that if they didn’t watch out they would end up dead before their battle had even reached its peak.

The sun was still hidden behind the mountains, yet it was getting bright enough for them to see their enemies.

From the numbers of Samurai it seemed like Hokuto and Shime had definitely the upper hand through combining their powers, but Yabu had taken them by surprise, making it an even battle.

“Watch out,” Sakuma shouted and drew his sword right in time to stop someone who lunged out for Taiga. Having no time to feel scared Taiga also drew his sword and used the moment the other one had to block Sakuma’s attack to go straight for an attack.

The other one hissed and pulled back after Taiga had hit him at the side of his ribs, but of course they were in armor as well and he would need to aim better if he wanted to actually cause more damage.

Sakuma though was fast enough to attack more direct this time and find one of the weak spots of the armor to get his sword through the thick fabric. Their enemy dropped dead to the ground and while Taiga hadn’t even thought about the fact that he needed to kill to stay alive it wasn’t the time to feel over challenged now.

“Do we actually have any plan?” Sakuma asked as they found themselves in the middle of the battle center.

“Survive?” Taiga asked as he jumped away from a horse without rider dashing through their middle.

Their conversation got cut short as two people attacked them simultaneous and when one soldier got a pretty good hit on Sakuma who jumped back in time to not get his arm cut off Taiga needed to back off as the other one aimed for him and didn’t let off him so that he needed to focus on himself for now.

The person he was up against seemed more like a sellsword instead of a Samurai which was good for him, because it was indeed easier to somehow fight against him than a trained Samurai like Tai-chan. Still it wasn’t easy to avoid getting hit and he had to deal with some cuts here and there, but in the end Taiga just threw his sword directly at the other one, startling him to have enough time for a surprise attack. With full force Taiga threw the other one to the ground, taking out the Shoto he had gotten from Shime and brought it down to the other one’s neck. He tried to not look too long, to just grab his sword and move on, but he just knew that this battle would give him a lot of haunting memories.

“Sakuma?” Taiga shouted as he couldn’t spot the other one. “Damn it, Sakuma, where are you?”

He dashed through the battlefield trying to see where Sakuma had been chased off to by the other person, but he couldn’t find him, which was a good sign for now, because Sakuma was fast in running and if he got away then at least it meant he was still alive, for now.

A Samurai on a horse dashed through the people around him and before he could react he had to deal with a cut over his shoulder as he got thrown to the ground.

“Damn it,” he hissed as his already hurt shoulder was now almost immobile and unfortunately the other one saw a good chance to get rid of him and he turned his horse around and dashed back towards him. Taiga lifted his sword as good as he could with his hurt shoulder, but the other one was faster and Taiga could barely protect his head when the other one lunged out for him. Once more he stumbled and fell, this time not enough time to get up as the other one seemed to aim to trample him to death. Taiga put all his weight to the front as the horse came closer and pierced it through the chest on which the horse reared and threw his rider off. Now even more pissed than before the man got up quickly and dashed over to Taiga with his sword raised in the air already, but at the same time Taiga lifted his sword to block, another sword got pierced through the body of the other one from behind.

“Ryohei…” Taiga said in relief of seeing the other one safe. He was indeed a good fighter as he didn’t even have any wounds so far.

“Get up,” he said and helped Taiga up before he had to pull him to the side immediately as another person jumped at them. This time Ryohei got a blow to the armor and Taiga held his breath, knowing that Ryohei was wounded from before as well, but the other one just kicked his attacker away, who fled when Ryohei lifted his green shimmering sword.

“Your sword is definitely pretty effective in matters of scaring people,” Taiga said.

“You should have maybe gotten a sword as well and not a bracelet,” Ryohei teased on which Taiga hurried to look at his wrist. Right, he hadn’t even had any time to take it off, yet it was luckily still safe on his wrist and it was shimmering bright, the pearls inside almost seeming to flow like water.

When he wanted to get it off to put it away safely he gasped as his headache came back worse than ever before. It was only a second, maybe less, but as if out of air he took a deep breath and let go of it again.

No it wasn’t a usual headache this time. It was a voice, a scream. What had changed? Was he unable to contain his memories in such a critical situation?

“TAIGA!”

That wasn’t the voice that had shouted his name before and he got pulled back into reality when Sakuma literally jumped on him to get him out of the reach of an almost fatal hit. Ryohei dashed to their rescue and attacked the other one, disappearing for a moment between all the other people around them.

“Are you crazy, how can you space out like that?”

“Sorry, I- I don’t know,” Taiga said trying to clear his head, but something was different. His bracelet felt heavy again and not just that it seemed like it wanted to pull him away from the battle. “Are you okay?” Taiga asked instead after Sakuma had shown up suddenly again.

“Yes, sorry I couldn’t actually stand a chance against the other one so I did what I do best, run.”

“Didn’t expect anything less,” Taiga said with a teasing smile.

“Oh damn, it’s Kei,” Sakuma said and pointed towards the Samurai they had faced in Yabu’s castle before. Ruthless he killed all the people getting in his way, but Taiga realized that he had no long sword as he had in the castle, he was using two short swords, not even as long as a usual Shoto. He was going for the closest combat he could do with his style, but he seemed pretty skilled in it and nothing like a usual Samurai.

“Let’s get away from here before he actually spots us,” Taiga said and turned just to gasp as Hikaru was standing right before him.

“Well I might indeed be the better choice, but even against me you have no chance,” Hikaru said and he lunged out for them, but right in time Ryohei’s now bright green shimmering sword stopped the other one’s attack.

“Oh, the escape genius. You should have run instead of facing us again, we won’t take prisoners two times,” Hikaru mocked him before he dashed to the front instead of getting on a safe distance and let his own sword drop to twist Ryohei’s out of his hand and with the next move Ryohei found himself thrown over the other one’s shoulder.

“What’s with their fighting styles, they all seem like some elite super fighters,” Sakuma said and that was when Taiga grabbed him by the sleeve. “What? What is it?”

“You are right, they are! They are the Shinobi who attacked us,” Taiga concluded after he remembered seeing the black suit under Hikaru’s Samurai armor in the castle.

“What a bright spark, but what a shame that this realization won’t help you anymore,” Hikaru said with an evil smirk.

“Don’t think we won’t put up a fight,” Sakuma said and raised his sword.

“Oh that would be pretty troublesome, because your brother ordered us not to hurt you, at least not too much.”

“Why would he care?” Sakuma shouted back, when Taiga stepped in front of him to his surprise.

“Because he ordered them to bring you back and I won’t let that happen,” Taiga said with a death glare towards Hikaru.

“Unfortunately you will die here.”

On Kei’s voice right behind them Sakuma turned to face him instead, so he was standing back to back with Sakuma and the next moment Ryohei was back on his feet as well a bit hesitating who he should attack first.

Taiga gave him a side glance and moved with his eyes towards Kei and Ryohei gave him a small nod. If Sakuma and Ryohei would attack Kei at the same time they should have a chance against him and Taiga would only need to somehow survive until they could help him.

Hikaru saw how Ryohei aimed for Kei instead and he wanted to stop him, but Taiga got in his way and from there on he had no chance to look at the other ones. He needed to trust their skills and his own to survive.

“Nice try,” Hikaru said as he hadn’t even bothered getting his sword up, but blocked Taiga’s attack with a metal plate on his lower arm.

“I am not done trying,” Taiga hissed back and lunged out again.

“Oh, you are.”

Hikaru’s words followed something Taiga hadn’t seen coming. An attack from behind. It had barely been seconds, this couldn’t be. The weakest part of his armor was around his shoulders and he had been stabbed right in the back of his shoulder, so deep that he could feel it almost coming back out at his chest. Unable to move, unable to turn around all he could do was looking straight at Hikaru who wasn’t even trying to do anything. Wasn’t he afraid he could get attacked? Did his reacting mean that Kei had succeeded in killing Ryohei in the matters of seconds and knocked out Sakuma?

“Guess you trusted the wrong person,” Hikaru said before the blade was pulled out from Taiga’s shoulder and he got kicked to the ground. He couldn’t move, he couldn’t breathe, he couldn’t even see. All he could do was hear how Hikaru walked away and then he was alone in the middle of the ongoing battle.

Even if they could somehow win he wouldn’t survive like this. He needed to get up. At least he needed to try to make it through this battle. Minutes seemed to turn into hours and the sound around him got less and less. Were they winning? Losing? Were his friends still alive?

While his body was shaking before with his blood turning the grass under him red, it now felt different. A warm feeling was filling his body and he couldn’t even feel the pain anymore. Was this how dying felt like? Was this really supposed to be the end of his story?

“Hokuto, Shime, Kochi…” He whispered with heavy breaths while he let their memories fill his head. If he was dying anyway he could let all his memories run free at last.

“Yoshiwara…” he whispered next. The word that had been written on Kento’s letter.

‘The song you sang along your Shamisen play is only played in Yoshiwara. I hope you can find your way back there if this is where you want to go’

This had been Kento’s message and it had created a mess in Taiga’s head. Screams, tears and fire had shown up in his memories, but now that he dared to let them take over him he could see so much more.

“Kentaro, Reo, Aran…” he whispered with his voice getting unsteady and tears filling his eyes. Friendship, laughter, trust, help...there had been so much more to his memories than pain and darkness.

This time he let the memories catch up all the way and then the fire took over again, with it the pain got more, but hope was there as well until a certain point, until all hope seemed lost and that was when he smiled in the middle of his misery he smiled, because he knew that he had done his best and yet it hadn’t been enough, but now he was finally allowed to see him again.

“Taiga…”

He remembered how he had said his name so often. In happy moments, in sad moments, in worried moments. They had been through so much and now they would finally be able to be back together.

“Taiga!” This time it was like the voice he heard didn’t come from his memories and Taiga dared to open his eyes just to find the battlefield in ashes. Corpses were lying around him. All life had been taken away from this place. So this was it, this was how dying felt like?

The pain seemed gone as well, yet his body felt still so heavy and all he wanted was to close his eyes and sleep, but then there it was again, his name being called, so desperate, so familiar that he just had to get up.

With a lot of effort he made it up to his knees, his vision still blurry and his body complaining about the movement. Then his look fell on his bracelet and he smiled at the way it was shimmering brighter than ever before, a flowing movement all over it. “So this is how you got reunited with your mum. Now I will also get reunited with the one I love,” Taiga whispered gratefully about always treasuring this bracelet.

Slowly Taiga got to his feet and while he almost fell down once more it felt like his bracelet was holding him up this time instead of feeling heavy.

“Show me the way,” he asked of the bracelet as if it could take his hand and guide him towards his endless happiness.

One step after the other he got closer to the person calling his name and when his blurry vision cleared as well he could do nothing else but smile. Smile as bright as he hadn’t smiled in months, maybe never before.

“Juri…” he let out filled with happiness. He hadn’t shouted, yet the person who was still far away from him turned with wide eyes, rooted to the spot when he saw the other one.

Taiga couldn’t explain why he was looking so desperate, so scared. They were going to be happy from now on, finally back together.

“TAIGA!” The other one finally shouted out for him and dashed towards him. Taiga stretched his arms out, wanting to hug him so desperately, yet all he could do was falling right into his arms.

“Hey, Taiga, talk to me,” Juri asked in a shaking voice, tears filling his eyes on which Taiga put his hand on the other one’s cheek to wipe away the overflowing tears.

“I made you wait so long, is that why you are crying?” Taiga asked with a faint smile.

“I am the one who made you wait, idiot,” Juri whimpered almost inaudible between his sobs.

“Don’t worry it will be okay,” Taiga said and searched for the latter’s hand and Juri took it immediately and squeezed it before kissing Taiga’s fingers, his tears nonstop dripping down on Taiga’s skin. “We’re back together, finally.”

The warm feeling from before seemed to take over even stronger now that Juri was holding on to him and Taiga closed his eyes with another smile. There was a whole eternity waiting for them from here, so why was Juri still shouting at him when he slowly drifted off in a long wished sleep?

Chapter Text

“So Taiga, welcome to Yoshiwara. I'm Juri.”

It had all began on that day back in Edo, in the Yoshiwara district.

“I will find you even without it on after all.”

“You better do if I ever get lost, you know?”

And it had also ended in Yoshiwara.

After that they hadn’t directly spoken to each other anymore and had never gotten the chance to do so ever again. Until their eternal reunion and that thought made Taiga feel so at peace, but then he heard voices disturbing his new found happiness.

“I can’t believe we were too late, even though we wouldn’t have made much difference.”

Shintaro...

"At least we could have kicked some ass."

Fuma…

"Are you checking up on him? Don’t wake him up.”

Reo…

“I just need to know that he is okay.”

As if taken away from his calm place Taiga opened his eyes and tried to sit up, but an incredible pain in his body made him stop trying immediately. With a groan he realized that this wasn’t how he had imagined eternal happiness, because pain shouldn’t be a part of it.

Next he realized that he was in a Jinbei with his left shoulder and chest being bandaged. This couldn’t be… he had been dying, he was already dead! He remembered seeing…

“Don’t you think you’re checking too much? He should be fine, I was too,” Reo said on which Taiga realized that the voices were coming from a room next to his. After getting used to the pain a bit more, Taiga finally succeeded in sitting up and even though he knew it was a stupid idea he tried to stand up and something slid from the back of his hand and in sheer disbelief he looked at the blue shimmering bracelet lying next to him on the ground, his own pink one still on his wrist.

“I lost him once. I won’t take the chances for it to happen again.”

His heart was hammering as if it wanted to jump straight out of his chest and move into the other room. His wound cost him still a lot of pain and he took the blue bracelet and put it on his wrist as well as he stood up on shaking legs and carefully tried to walk over to the door.

With shaking hands and another deep breath he finally dared to slide the door open, exactly at the same moment as someone from the other room wanted to do so as well.

The picture in front of him seemed so familiar yet so unreal. His friends sitting on the Tatami ground, now all looking at him. But he wasn't back at the house. This wasn’t Yoshiwara and none of them was dressed in work clothes either.

“Taiga…” the person in front of him spoke, this time in a calm voice, not the shouting from the battlefield and Taiga finally looked at him, looked at him as closely as never before.

It couldn’t be real, all of this seemed more like one of his nightmares and he would wake up screaming again he was sure of it, but nevertheless he dared to stretch his hand out to the other one’s face and he teared up the moment he felt the other ones body warmth, like a lifeline he had almost lost.

“Juri…” he let out in a shaking voice, his tears flowing over without him even trying to stop them. “Juri, you are- this can’t be real.”

Slowly shaking his head Taiga got ready to wake up from his nightmare, but what he hadn’t seen coming was the slap he received. A slap that made even his friends in the room flinch and Reo wanted to get up, but Fuma told him not to.

“Feels real enough now?” Juri asked back, but he didn’t sound angry, he sounded so lost, so scared and when he just couldn’t wait for a reply anymore he finally pulled Taiga into a hug.

Seconds later they both sank to the ground, Taiga in too much pain to stand for much longer and Juri not ready to let go of him just yet. He would definitely apologize later for causing him even more physical pain, but not now.

“I looked for you for months,” Juri mumbled against Taiga’s hair. “I had almost given up. I thought I had lost you forever.”

“And I thought I left nothing behind, because I had lost you,” Taiga whispered as his tears slowed down. Juri pushed the other one a bit back, trying to not get to close to his wounds and formed a scolding look this time.

“Trust me if you weren’t this badly hurt I would actually beat the shit out of you right now.”

Hearing Juri say something straight forward like this made Taiga stare back at him in disbelief before he looked over to Reo and pointed at Juri.

“A bit help here please?” Taiga asked on which Reo cracked a bright smiled.

“I will gladly help Juri beat you up,” Fuma added.

“You would totally deserve it,” Shintaro added with a smile.

“But I don’t remember doing anything bad,” Taiga said to his defense.

“Right you didn’t do anything, you didn’t even wait!” Juri scolded him. “Why didn’t you wait for me?”

Taiga couldn’t actually find a fitting reply immediately and when he seemed to lose his balance even though he was sitting, Shintaro and Fuma got up.

“Okay, enough of the celebration for now, you can be happy that you’re still alive so lie down for now and the rest has to wait for later,” Fuma scolded him and helped him with Shintaro back to his Futon.

“Are you staying with me?” Taiga asked while Juri was already sitting down next to him.

“Always,” Juri said with a smile.

“Let him sleep if he seems too exhausted,” Shintaro said before they left Juri and Taiga alone.

Juri reached out for Taiga’s hand and entwined their fingers while he kept staring at the other one lost in his thoughts.

“I don’t understand how I am still alive,” Taiga finally let out.

“The same way Reo survived,” Juri said and pointed at the bracelets. “As supernatural as it might sound I think the fact that you had your bracelet on when you got wounded kept you alive. I gave you mine, hoping it would maybe help and it did, because you were almost dying in my arms when I found you and now only two days later you are already able to get up.”

“I thought I had died,” Taiga said. “I thought I was finally allowed to be happy with you again.”

“You are talking nonsense, you know that?”

“I thought I’ve lost you. I thought all of you were gone,” Taiga finally let out, but this time he didn’t feel like crying. But he also didn’t feel relieved, at least not completely.

“And here the only reason you lost me is because you didn’t wait. Hiromitsu and Taisuke had searched for us as well, but we had ended up at another place, because so many people had to flee from Yoshiwara and had to be treated at hospitals. When they told us that you and Aran had been at our destroyed house we rushed over to you, but you were gone…”

“I was in shock and in denial,” Taiga explained. “That time is extremely blurry, but I remember begging for the pain to go away and then my memories were gone and I was just walking away from it all as if you had never existed.”

The pain about what he had just said was visible in Juri’s eyes, yet he wasn’t blaming Taiga.

“I should have never taken the bracelet off. I should have never made you feel this bad before the Shogunate meeting. We didn’t even talk before you left.”

“What was that all about by the way? Kentaro said- right Kentaro, he is not with you even though Fuma is here?” Taiga finally realized and slowly some of the panic came back, but Juri gave him a calm look.

“Don’t worry everyone from the house is safe,” Juri ensured him.

“But I found burned bodies, I clearly remember.”

“They were customers from the night before. They had been drunk and made a ruckus, so Kamenashi let them in and made them wait in a room for so long until they fell asleep. Unfortunately with the fire starting in the middle of the night and them still being asleep in that room, no one remembered in that hectic moment and we only made sure that all the boys were outside.”

“So everyone is safe?”

Juri should be nodding now, right? Yet he hesitated. “From our house, yes.”

“What do you mean?”

“The fire came so quick, the wind was so strong that some people got trapped in the district, they couldn’t escape. So many people died that day.”

“Are Tegoshi and Massu-?”

“They are fine,” Juri added with a nod to Taiga’s relief, but then his looked darkened.

“Myuto went to look for his house, is he okay?”

There it was, the hesitation. Reo had been at Nakamaru’s house at that time and because he was safe, Taiga knew that Nakamaru was safe too. But now he felt like not all of their friends had made it.

“Myuto is okay, yes. But while you still have all of us, he doesn’t…”

Taiga shook his head on hearing that. This couldn’t be possible. Their houses had been a few streets apart, how could their ending be so different. “So Hagiya, Takizawa, the others?”

Juri slowly shook his head, the sorrow so painfully visible.

“None of them made it.”

Taiga reached out for Juri’s hand which was now squeezing his tightly. With a soft touch he covered it so that the other one would look up at him and not drown in his memories.

“I know how you feel. I couldn’t help you at that time and Myuto couldn’t help them. We were both not there, but this is no one’s fault.”

“I know, it’s just, so unfair, you know? Hundreds of people all over Edo died through this fire and I always wondered for months if you had died too, maybe not in the flames, but somewhere else. Myuto had at least the chance to mourn, I just had this emptiness. When I found the blue bracelet on your pillow after Taisuke had shown us at which hospital he had dropped you off I was shocked, broken. But then I thought with the bracelet I could find you, because they always find back together, right?”

Taiga nodded, but also read in the other one’s eyes that this wasn’t the case. “You had taken it off before. You had lost faith in it already.”

“And I regretted it so much when I realized that I didn’t feel anything at all. It also made me wonder if you were still alive or if you had lost faith too.”

“I always somehow knew it was important, but because I had lost my memory I couldn’t actually understand why.”

“Yet the fact that you kept it made it possible for me to regain faith,” Juri said with a smile this time. “I looked for you over weeks, together with the others we asked so many people in Edo if anyone had seen you. The doctor at the hospital hadn’t seen you leaving either, Aran’s police men couldn’t track you down. In those weeks everyone started to rebuild Yoshiwara slowly, but I wouldn’t give up searching and trust me the others will tell you later that I wasn’t the most pleasant person to be around at that time. We had so many fights, I was so often close to giving up or to just run away and look all over the country for you.”

“But luckily you had the others to stop you from something that stupid,” Taiga concluded.

“Yes, until one day my bracelet reacted. I first thought I was hallucinating as I heard a voice in my head. Someone said something like ‘You really need to take good care of it’…”

“If you lose it you might lose yourself,” Taiga ended his sentence to the other one’s surprise. “Ryohei said that to me, I met him on the Nakasendo. It was the first time I felt something about the bracelet. That was when I was sure I need to treasure it.”

“And I am happy you did. My bracelet gave some weird impulses from time to time, as if it was trying to connect to you, but couldn’t clearly find you. But I had a direction, I just knew I was on the right way and of course I couldn’t just leave so I begged Kamenashi to let me go and find you and he agreed, making sure that Shintaro was with us and threatened us in his nice way to send Tatsuya after us if we wouldn’t report back to him.”

Taiga had to smile on that, because threatening in a nice way was Kamenashi’s way of being nice.

“That’s why Kentaro is not with us at the moment. Ryota, Shota and Kentaro were with us as well and we travelled the Nakasendo, looking for you. The first hint we got was from an older lady at a Ryokan who said a really handsome young boy came by with the bracelet we described.”

“Don’t look so teasing while saying that,” Taiga scolded the other one and hit him on the back of his hand.

“Why, do you not like to be called handsome?” Juri teased. “Anyway, as we realized we were on the right way we send one by one back to Edo to report. After one caught up to us again we send the next one. A girl at a restaurant gave us our next hint.”

“Aki, how is she?” Taiga asked knowing exactly who he meant.

“She is great and she asked a lot damn much of questions about you,” Juri asked skeptical.

“Well that is understandable,” Taiga said on which the other one gave him a scolding look.

“No, don’t get this wrong, she was interested in me as it seems, I didn’t even realize, but nothing ever happened.”

“Great to hear,” Juri said and kept talking as if this part of the conversation never happened.

“Our next hint was the last one we got for a while. A boy named Kento.”

Taiga held his breath on hearing that name and when he looked away awkwardly Juri squeezed his hand. “I heard and I am not angry.”

“He seriously told you?”

“He didn’t have to,” Juri said. “But Taiga even if you and Aki would have had any kind of relationship at that time how could I blame you? You had lost your memory. You thought I was dead so I wasn’t actually existing for you at that time.”

“Still I feel like I did something I shouldn’t have.”

“Well Kento told me not to be angry at you and he helped us a lot to find you, so I will be nice and do as he said. From there on we didn’t get many hints and got slowed down a bit, until we saw a rider with Hokuto’s prefecture emblem and we stopped him, asking where he was heading.”

“So you got the letter from him, explaining the situation about my lost memory.”

Juri nodded, but he still seemed shaken by what chaos they had marched into and who wouldn’t?

“You were all gone already when we made it to Hokuto’s place, then we even heard from a few of the remaining Samurai that you and some others had vanished the night before. Kentaro still hadn't returned, but we decided to send Ryota and Shota to report the situation back to everyone. We didn’t know what to expect, I didn’t even know if you were in that battlefield and if I was going to find you alive.”

The moment Juri’s hands started shaking Taiga pulled his hand out of his grip and pulled on his sleeve on which the other one gave him a questioning look, but Taiga only made a head movement to the futon on which Juri understood and lay down next to the other one. Taiga immediately pulled the latter closer, feeling so much more alive and safe with the other one so close to him again.

“I caused you so much trouble and made you go through so much to find an idiot like me, I am so sorry.”

“I bet you’ve gone through a lot as well over the past months,” Juri said while he reached out for the other one’s cheek, caressing it carefully.

“I have and I will tell you my story, but I need to know first what the situation is at the moment. What happened at the battle? Where are Hokuto and Shime?”

“They lost,” Juri said on which Taiga felt a tight pain in his chest. “But they are not dead at least we don’t think so. We are back at Hokuto’s castle for now with the remaining men. Shime, Hokuto and Kochi have vanished from the battlefield with two men the other soldiers called Taiga and Kaito, which was really confusing to be honest.”

“Call him Tai-chan, it makes things easier,” Taiga replied. “Did you hear anything about Ryohei or Sakuma?”

“No for now I didn’t hear their names from the remaining men, but they want to try and storm Yabu’s castle to see if they keep them as prisoners.”

“Bad idea,” Taiga said and shook his head. “I was their prisoner before and they also have skilled Shinobi. They lost once, a direct attack will just cause all of them to lose their lives.”

“Then what shall we tell them to do?”

“Not them, we!” Taiga said determined, but Juri’s look turned to worried. When he wanted to object Taiga shook his head and finally moved so close that he could feel the other one’s breath on his face. A feeling he had missed so much and it made his whole body tremble in the best way ever. “I told you I will tell you my story, but for now you have to trust me that I know what I am doing.”

“I hate trusting you,” Juri whispered, slowly moving closer as well. They had longed for each other for too long after all.

“I know,” Taiga replied before he kept the other one from replying and Juri met him halfway for a way overdo passionate and greedy kiss.

Maybe their eternity should really wait for longer, because this was what Taiga wasn’t willing to give up this easily while still being alive.

***

 “Hey there troublemaker.”

Taiga smiled at Reo as the latter carefully peered in his room after Juri had finally accepted that he needed to let Taiga rest at some point.

“Come in,” Taiga said as he put the food to the side.

“You should eat first,” Reo added, but Taiga shook his head.

“I am not really capable of eating a full meal yet, but thanks for worrying as so often.”

Reo sat down in front of the Futon with one of his bright smiles and it just made Taiga’s heart feel so heavy, how could he still smile at him like that after he had made them go through so much trouble?

“Reo, you know-”

“You are sorry, I know,” Reo said without any hesitation. “But I can’t blame you for wanting to run at that time and to be honest maybe the past months have been something for you which a lot of us would have liked to have as well.”

“Mh?”

“Not you half dying,” Reo added, but his smile returned immediately. “Juri actually talked to me about it when we finally had hints t where you had gone off to. He was so worried for you for weeks. He barely ate or slept, he was a mess.”

Now Taiga’s mood dropped even more, because how much had he made Juri suffer?

“But then he realized you were alive, not just that, you were traveling, you were safe and happy! Everyone we talked to who had met you, were all talking so nicely about you, all wishing you the best and wanting to meet you again. Juri was feeling jealous at some point, he even…”

“He even what?” Taiga asked when Reo drifted off with his thoughts for a moment and his smile got lost for a second.

“He once asked me for advice, because he wasn’t sure if you weren’t happier without us looking for you. Out of Yoshiwara, away from all the bad memories.”

Why couldn’t Taiga immediately say that he shouldn’t have thought that way? Was it that hard to accept that he was indeed happy at his travel and that he enjoyed life while he couldn’t remember any of his bad memories? He couldn’t even look back at Reo, instead he started pulling on the sheets and tried to find a reply that didn’t make him seem like a heartless asshole.

“There is nothing wrong with being honest,” Reo said soothing and put his hand on the older one’s leg, but Taiga shook his head with a sorrowful expression.

“If being honest means hurting others then I don’t want to be.”

“You two are so similar, yet you just never get it,” Reo said with his smile returning. “Let me make this easier to answer. Did you like your life while traveling? Don’t consider your lost memory for now.”

Slowly Taiga nodded, even though he felt so bad about it.

“Did you feel happy when you regained your memory?”

It was scary how Taiga couldn’t even stop the movement of his head as he shook it, now his eyes tearing up and his hands clawing the sheets. “I was scared.”

“And that is understandable. Juri feared the same that is why he considered not chasing after you. But tell me after seeing Juri again, after remembering again, would you choose your life without your memories?”

This time Taiga looked up at the other one with his tears flowing over and Reo seemed to not have expected his inner conflict.

“I don’t know…” Taiga replied, completely honestly, because Reo wanted to know, right?

Slowly Reo nodded, having to take that reply in as it was more than obvious that he had aimed for Taiga finding a clear response to his inner trouble. Taiga was grateful for him trying as he also wanted to just shake his head and shout out to the world that he wouldn’t even put anything over the time he had with Juri, but his demons were still haunting him and he couldn’t deny that for the first time in his life he had felt free over the past months.

“It’s okay not to know,” Fuma was heard.

Taiga hurried to wipe his tears away when he spotted Fuma in the open door, leaning against the frame. “Don’t be so dramatic about it.”

Reo shifted a bit to the side when Fuma sat down next to him and Taiga was between yelling at Fuma for taking this matter so lightly and thanking him for actually making it sound so easy.

“You know Kentaro and I had a lot of talks over the past years,” Fuma started. “Next year we will finally have what Hiromitsu and Taisuke got as well, a life away from Yoshiwara and let’s be honest except for our hyped Yoshiwara loving Kohai here, there is no one who wouldn’t want to get out of there.”

Reo pouted when Fuma pointed at him, but he couldn’t actually say that he wasn’t right.

“There was one talk in particular we had that I will never forget.”

It was the dark expression Fuma showed on saying that which had Taiga sat more to the front. Never had he seen such a serious expression on the other one’s face when it was about Kentaro.

“If I got the chance of a life in which I would have never been brought to Yoshiwara and even if it meant to have never met you, I would take it! That’s what Kentaro said to me that day.”

Silence followed that statement and even Reo seemed shocked as he had never thought Kentaro would ever say something like that.

“And you know what? I was furious!” Fuma admitted. “Yet I was relieved as well.”

“Why?” Taiga asked, even though he somehow knew the answer already.

“Because it made him human, not an object. I would give up Kentaro a thousand times if it meant to give him a happier life, but unfortunately I was never in the position to do so. Now all I can do is to be there for him when he finally leaves that place, so that we can heal his scars together.”

“And Juri wanted to give me the chance to heal even if it meant we would never meet again,” Taiga let out finally calmer than before. “And I would have taken the chance, because…”

“Because you are human too,” Fuma said on which Reo reached out for Taiga’s slightly trembling hand and squeezed it.

“Juri would do everything to see you happy. He tried so hard that he even put a gamble on your bracelets.”

“What do you mean?”

“Remember the fight he had with Kentaro after talking to Kamenashi right before the meeting? Kentaro visited me in the evening right before the fire and told me what had happened.”

Now Taiga was all ears, because he had never gotten a direct reply from Juri about what had been going on that day.

“Remember how he was so on edge for weeks even before that?”

Taiga nodded, because how could he forget. For all this time he had blamed himself for not being able to get the other one to talk about it.

“Juri had asked Kamenashi if you could leave together with him when his ten years were over.”

That realization hit Taiga hard, because why would he risk asking something like that? Kamenashi was a nice owner, but he could also punish Juri harshly for a foolish question like that.

“As you can imagine Kamenashi said no and since then he had started falling in his bad mood, trying to figure out a way to shorten your time at Yoshiwara,” Reo added.

“That’s where your bracelet story starts,” Fuma added, having heard the story from Kentaro as well.

“After he had seen how your bracelet had the power to heal me faster he wanted to see if it also had the power to convince people. You have gotten them to be connected, to become happy, so Juri gave it another try.”

“But again it failed?” Taiga asked.

“Indeed,” Reo said with a nod.

“But he had seen it coming, right? Why was he so extremely outraged about it?”

“Because he had another plan on that day and he couldn’t understand why Kamenashi didn’t take his offer,” Fuma explained.

“What offer?” Taiga asked worried now, because Juri wasn’t the type to do stupid things.

“Juri wanted to exchange two years with you so he would stay two years longer and you would only have to stay 8 years in total. So that you can leave together,” Reo explained.

“What?” Taiga asked in shock. How could he have ever come up with such an idea? “That’s stupid.”

“Well Kamenashi told him the same and you know the rest of the story,” Fuma said, shrugging his shoulders before he got up. “And before you start thinking about this the wrong way, it doesn’t matter who of you would go how far for the other one. I would jump of the edge of the world for Kentaro, he would choose a life without Yoshiwara over knowing me and while it left a scar on my heart it also made me realize that I decide myself who I show that scarred heart to and as long as Kentaro chooses to hold it for me I won’t walk away, but I will also not hesitate to take it back in case he finds happiness elsewhere.”

When the other two stared at him dumbfounded Fuma hawked awkwardly before he walked out the room before they could either make fun out of him for his words or praise him for finding such deep words.

“Wow that was poetic,” Reo said startled.

“I can hear you!” Fuma shouted from the other room on which Reo and Taiga exchanged a look and couldn’t stop from laughing.

Later Taiga definitely needed to thank Fuma for going so much out of his comfort zone to help him and he was definitely thinking differently about his own scarred heart now. Juri was holding his own out to him and Taiga would always accept it even if it had been different over the past months. It was a scar he had put on Juri’s heart, but that didn’t mean he wouldn’t treasure it once more.

Chapter Text

“No.”

“I disagree as well,” Reo added to Juri’s clear reply.

“I didn’t even explain any details yet,” Taiga complained on which Juri shook his head.

“You don’t have to, I know where they are and I have a plan is enough for us to know that this is a stupid idea.”

“He is kind of right,” Shintaro added, shrugging his shoulders when Taiga gave him a death glare.

“We are sitting around here for almost a week already! They are waiting for us to attack and if we take too long they will attack themselves. So we need a plan.”

“And let me guess this plan involves you in the middle of the chaos?” Juri asked.

It indeed did, but Taiga was the only one of the remaining men of Hokuto and Shime who had seen the inside of Yabu’s castle. Even if he didn’t know all the ways around, he at least had a chance to survive even when facing Yabu, at least if what he had thought of was going to work out and for that he needed to be sure of something he couldn’t actually be sure of, which made things complicated.

“I know you healed a lot faster though the help of the bracelets, but you almost died, it’s not like you are back to full strength just like this,” Reo interfered as well.

“And even your full strength is not that much of a help in a war anyway,” Juri said in a defeated voice on which Taiga had enough and got up.

“You don’t want to listen to me, fine, then let me challenge you and if I win you will go with my plan no matter if you like it or not.”

“What?” All of them asked at once, but Taiga was already heading to the door. He had been walking around for the last days and while Juri had been against him walking too much Taiga knew that he was already a lot better, even though he was maybe really not completely back to full strength yet, but it was time to find that out!

A few minutes later they were all gathered in the backyard of the castle and Taiga threw some wooden swords in front of his friends and stepped a bit to the back with his own. “You can all challenge me. You can have a one on one or all come at once, suit yourself.”

“Ehm, are you serious?” Shintaro asked a bit skeptical. “I mean I don’t really want to hurt you…”

“If none of you will challenge me I see this as my win and I will go through with my plan with or without your help,” Taiga shot back in a loud voice now so that the remaining Samurai guarding the castle were looking over to them.

His friends exchanged a few worried looks before Fuma growled and took one of the swords. “Fine, if you want it this way then I will do this. It’s for your own good after all.”

“I’m not fighting only for myself though,” Taiga said as he lifted his sword with a serious look. “Anyone else wants to join the challenge?”

The other three hesitated a bit before Juri stepped to the back. “I don’t want you to head back to the battlefield right after I almost lost you, but I won’t fight you to get what I want.”

Reo joined him as he stepped back as well. “I don’t think any of us belongs on a battlefield anyway, but exactly because of that I would only be in the way in this challenge.”

Taiga wasn’t surprised by their reaction so he looked at Shintaro who hesitated a bit. “If you think I can’t handle both of you, then you are greatly mistaking.”

“Well in that case,” Shintaro said and took a sword as well before stepping next to Fuma. “I guess I will join just to see what will happen.”

“If you hurt him I will kill you,” Juri shouted at both from the back. While Shintaro seemed a bit taken aback by Juri’s anger, Fuma seemed to have noticed that Taiga wasn’t doing this to show off.

“Then let’s see what you’ve learned after you have skipped mine and Aran’s lessons for so long,” Fuma said as he started to play around with his sword, moving in circles around Taiga, Shintaro joining him, but keeping the sword more steady.

“I learned how to survive,” Taiga said serious before it was him who dashed into the first attack, but to all of their surprise he turned around even though he had spoken to Fuma and aimed for Shintaro instead who seemed so startled that all he managed was to get his sword up in time to block Taiga’s attack. But Taiga could see more, move faster and react perfectly to his opponents by now, especially when it was people he knew.

The sword didn’t even matter anymore, one fast body movement and Shintaro’s sword was flying through the air before the boy found himself on the back with Taiga pointing the tip of his wooden sword right at his face with Shintaro gasping as he hadn’t even caught up to what had happened.

“One down,” Taiga said and turned towards Fuma.

Everyone had fallen silent, Shintaro still not moving in disbelief of what had happened and Reo and Juri not even able to explain what they had seen.

“Mh, you learned a few new tricks,” Fuma praised him.

“Not tricks, skills,” Taiga shot back serious and for the first time Fuma’s teasing expression fell. “You came all the way here to find me. You never gave up on me and I am more than grateful for that. But on my journey I found new companions, made new friends and now it’s my turn to not give up on them so I am not going to let you stop me.”

“Then I fear you have to level things up, because now I’ve seen that I have to go serious on you,” Fuma said and finally stopped playing around with his sword and went into a steady stance.

“Trust me I’ve not even started,” Taiga said and the tension between the two of them made Shintaro slowly retreat to the other two.

This time Taiga waited and didn’t dash into an attack, at least not right away, because it was obvious that Fuma wouldn’t run out of patience that easily either.

Taiga finally decided on a first move and stepped forward, but as he had already expected Fuma wouldn’t just dodge and wait for Taiga to overrun him. Fuma dashed right against his attack, but as he had seen it coming Taiga ducked away and used the fast moves he had learned from Sakuma over the time to spin behind Fuma and land the first hit right on the latter’s back.

“Not bad,” Fuma said, but didn’t seem as easily startled as Shintaro. “My turn.”

This time Fuma went for the offensive first, but Taiga could see all his moves and beyond. He couldn’t take him off guard and he kept dodging and spinning around until Fuma actually started cursing at him and his attacks ended up heavier than at first so that Taiga kept dodging more than he blocked.

“Are you just playing around?”

“If it looks like this to you then I am doing it right,” Taiga replied cold and used Fuma’s heated mood to jump straight through one of his attacks and bring him out of balance with his body ducking away from his sword and his shoulder crushing into the other one’s torso next.

Fuma stumbled to the back, but was fast enough to get back into balance before Taiga could actually beat him as easily as Shintaro.

“Playing dirty now?” Fuma complained holding a hand to his ribs.

“This is war, there is no space for fair play,” Taiga replied and lifted his sword again on which Fuma couldn’t hide a chuckle.

“I am not sure if I should actually be proud of you for having become so strong or if I should feel sad for what you had to go through to think this way.”

“Maybe do a bit of both,” Taiga said honestly and attacked first this time. He knew he had to be fast, as his stamina was everything but back to normal. All he needed was one good hit.

Fuma though had also finally caught up on the dirty play and tried to sweep Taiga’s legs or even kick up sand to distract him, but Taiga was more than used to it all.

“I know you think you can handle this all by yourself, but if you already have trouble with me, how are you going to stand against a whole army?” Fuma asked as their swords clashed with full power.

“I don’t have to stand against a whole army,” Taiga replied before he vanished so fast again that Fuma could only try and blindly lunge out for him before Taiga could attack him from behind once more.

When Fuma finally caught up with Taiga’s movement he had obviously waited for another round of fast running and attacks without his sword, but this time Taiga showed Fuma that he had learned more than just a few ‘tricks’ as he went for the full fair sword fight a true Samurai would show and Fuma got caught so off guard by the sharp and fast sword thrusts that he kept stepping back, unable to find any kind of opening to counter.

“I only have to prove to all of you that in the worst case,” Taiga said before he used one of his favorite skills he had learned from Tai-chan and had later combined it with one of Sakuma’s moves. Like an optical illusion he combined some fast body movements with a reverse sword thrust that made it possible to create an opening for a split second in which the opponent’s eyes were too slow to follow. That small opening was the final attack for Taiga to make sure he could go through with his plan and rescue his friends!

Fuma was still standing, his sword still in his hand, but his eyes wide open, his hands slightly shaking and right behind him the other three were looking in astonishment on the precise movement with which Taiga had combined the speed to break through Fuma’s defense yet stop the sword millimeters before reaching Fuma’s head. “That in the worst case I can protect you,” Taiga finally let out and stepped back on which Fuma took a deep breath as if he had held his breath for the last minutes before he put the sword down.

“That was pretty impressive,” Shintaro said with a nod while Fuma remained speechless for a moment.

Juri on the other hand moved up to Taiga and gave him a skeptical look. “You really want to go through with this, right?”

“Of course, Hokuto and Shime are your friends as well. Do you not want to rescue them?” Taiga asked, but had finally lost his serious look as he let the sword drop and stepped in front of Juri. “You came all the way here for me, but I won’t turn my back on the others now just so I can be safe.”

To his surprise Juri didn’t scold him. All he did was forming a faint smile before he lifted his hand and traced the scar over Taiga’s eye. “I know, you never do.”

The relief on Taiga’s face on hearing those words made the others finally smile as well, even though Fuma was still kind of pouting, but his revenge fight would need to wait for later.

“But you will give us until tomorrow to hear your plan out and see if we can make it somehow saver for all of us, okay?”

“We can discuss all of that today, we don’t have time,” Taiga protested.

When Juri’s hand fell from his eye to his shoulder and that with a pretty heavy slap Taiga jolted and pulled back with a groan, holding his shoulder.

“Yeah, sorry that won’t happen with that shoulder.” Juri said scolding this time. After all Taiga had known from the start that having such a fight now would cause his wound to open again no matter the power of his and Juri’s bracelets combined. “Just rest one more day, for me okay?”

First Taiga wanted to argue, but something about Juri’s look made him stop. Normally it was just the scolding, sometimes a bit of anger, but this time it was so much more he could see in Juri’s eyes. The pure fear of losing him for real this time. How hard must it have been? Thinking for months that he was dead? Then finding out he was alive, just to find him almost dying in his arms? And all that while Taiga had just forgotten, had just let go of all his memories to erase the pain he couldn’t handle for a single day, while Juri handled it for months?

“Fine, for you I will wait another day,” Taiga finally said, while he wanted to say so much more, but he knew he needed to wait.

***

“Normally I would say now how sexy you look in armor, but I know it’s not the time for that,” Juri teased when he stepped into the weapons room of the castle where Taiga was getting his gear together.

“You on the other hand look so unfamiliar in it,” Taiga replied as he got his very first view on Juri in armor. “You don’t have to come with us if you don’t want to. I told you all that this is my plan and I don’t want to risk any of your lives. The remaining soldiers are all up for it, so you can all stand behind if you want.”

“And let go of you again, won’t happen,” Juri said straight forward on which Taiga showed him a faint smile before he took one of the shorter Katana and handed it to Juri.

“This one is light and a bit shorter than the usual ones. I guess with all the time you spend searching for me you didn’t actually train, did you?”

“If it’s to protect you trust me I have the strength to beat a whole army.”

Taiga could only nod on hearing that, because he knew that all the big talking they usually did when trying to protect each other wouldn’t be of much use this time.

“Then let’s get going, we can’t waste any more time,” Taiga said after a weird silence had fallen between them. He realized how Juri didn’t actually reacted even as Taiga wanted to leave the room and passed by him.

He slowed down and stopped after Juri didn’t say anything to stop him. None of them was turning around to face the other one, but the tension in the room was almost visible to the eye.

“I can’t say that all of this travel was a good experience,” Taiga said. “But it has definitely changed me and if the person I am now is not the one you were looking for all this time then- then I understand if you turn your back.”

To an outsider this statement must have seem harsh and out of nowhere, but it wasn’t and Juri’s missing reaction was proof of that. They had both changed over the past months and while it wasn’t a bad change it also made them grew apart a bit. One forgetting about the other one to save his own sanity, the other one throwing his sanity almost overboard to find the other one. Their balance had been completely thrown off and now they had to find a way to find it again, if they both wanted to!

“There was a part of me that was so desperate to find you that I would have walked through hell to get you back,” Juri said calmly. “Then there was this part, growing in the back of my mind, trying to convince me that you’ve left me on purpose. That you didn’t want to be found and at some point...I believed that voice. I was wondering if you even needed me anymore. Maybe instead of a support I had grown a burden.”

Taiga had partly heard it from the others already, but hearing it from Juri made his heart feel even heavier, not that there wasn’t truth in his thoughts.

“I have run away from you,” Taiga said as if it was a confession he had carried with him all the time. “I thought I had lost you and all the others, so I ran. But I also had a voice, telling me that I should remember, that I shouldn’t keep running. But...I was afraid, I told myself that all the time. The nightmares made the voice disappear slowly, as if it was the proof I needed that I didn’t have to remember. But at some point there was something else,” Taiga stopped for a moment as he feared that he could start crying and he wasn’t allowed to, because he was aware of everything he had done the entire time. “I found new friends, I had fun. I felt safe and then a new voice told me to keep forgetting so I could become happy! I decided to not even give remembering another thought! When I finally remembered the voice still echoed in my head. I felt sad about remembering even after I had found you! Even after I was so happy that you and the others are safe I had and still have that annoying voice telling me that it would have been better to not remember and I hate it! I want to rip it out of my head, but I can’t.”

When silence followed again Taiga wasn’t sure anymore if he should have said anything in the first place. On the other hand, maybe there was no second chance to tell each other how they felt in this messed up situation.

It was when Taiga made his first step to finally leave that he was stopped. With slightly shaking hands Juri pulled Taiga in a hug, pressing the other one’s back against his chest.

“Thank you,” Juri said in an unsteady voice. “Thank you for telling me honestly how you feel.”

Slowly Taiga lifted one hand to the latter’s arm, but didn’t dare to actually turn around. “I am not sure if this conversation helped us or if it hurt us.”

“Both I fear,” Juri replied honestly, but squeezed the older one a bit tighter before he placed a kiss on his hair. “But I prefer to get hurt by you a hundred times over getting lied at by you once.”

Chapter Text

Nightfall. Everyone was in position and then the familiar sound of a firework exploding in the sky in bright red color made Taiga get out of his hiding place. Seconds later a second firework, then a third. Never had he thought they would use this childish distraction again, but here they were with just half an army left, against a Daimyo who was well aware of the fact that they would try to attack him again.

The upgrade to their plan this time was that they actually had soldiers all around the castle, split up in three groups so that they could actually take out the Samurai or Shinobi checking up on the ruckus outside their walls.

The only part a lot of them didn’t like was Taiga heading towards the castle all by himself, but even this part was well thought through, after all they wouldn’t be able to storm the castle and break the others out, it was impossible and Taiga was well aware of that, so he just sneaked inside as some of the soldiers made their way towards the woods in a hurry. He had somehow managed to make it inside the castle without getting stopped, not that it mattered.

First Taiga thought about actually trying to find his way down to the dungeons to see if Hokuto and the others were really down there, because if Yabu was playing them and had killed of them after all then there was no goal to their plan, but he would need to make his way through half of the castle without getting noticed and there were people everywhere. Some even seemed to have seen him, but didn’t actually notice that he wasn’t a part of their army as they dashed outside in a hurry.

At the end of the corridor he had to decide if he wanted to try and get downstairs or if he wanted to make it upstairs, but he was sure that a lot of soldiers would await him closer to Yabu. His decision was taken off him though when he heard someone approaching from behind.

“What a surprise. Do I have to question my skills, because you shouldn’t be alive,” Kei greeted him in his black Shinobi clothes this time, his short knives already in his hands. Taiga felt a slight shiver on seeing the weapon that had almost cost him his life once already and there was not a single good reason why Kei wouldn’t just kill him right here right now. That was the one uncertain point about his plan that made everyone so critical about it.

Getting into the castle, no problem. Staying alive, big problem. But the short time Taiga had met Yabu had made him believe that he could actually pull this off.

“You came to see your friends? You can join them in the dungeons,” Kei said as he raised one of his knives. So at least they were right, Yabu hadn’t killed them yet and that was exactly what he had hoped Yabu would do. He liked games! “But for now how about you say hello now that you are here already?” Kei asked and pointed at the staircase to the next floor. Another part that went as planned.

“Oh, still alive?” Again the same question and this time Taiga rolled his eyes, but didn’t comment on Hikaru’s statement. Juri had left his bracelet with him, because he wanted to make sure that in case he got hurt again he would have both bracelets with him, not that Taiga hadn’t tried to convince Juri to take it himself, because Juri and the others were outside with the other soldiers as back-up. To be sure not to lose it in the chaos though Taiga had them both in a small pouch inside of his clothes.

“Wait here a moment,” Hikaru said and vanished inside the room next to him. It took longer than Taiga had expected for him to call them inside and Taiga immediately noticed that this wasn’t a simple room, there was something like a front room and different doors from where people could enter or leave. Had Yabu talked to someone Taiga shouldn’t be seeing?

“And here I wondered what the entire ruckus is all about,” Yabu greeted him, but Taiga wasn’t even looking at him. The moment he had entered his eyes went to the second person in the room.

“Sakuma…”

It was the disbelief in Taiga’s voice that made Sakuma look up at him with wide eyes before he looked away immediately. He clawed his hands into his Hakama and kept staring to the ground instead of facing his friend. His friend...was he?

“Again I have you two together in my castle, what a coincidence,” Yabu said, but didn’t bother to get up from the pillow he was sitting on. “Please have a seat.”

The situation was awkward enough and as Hikaru had of course taken his sword away there wasn’t much Taiga could do so he sat down, looking over his shoulder once to see what the other two were doing. Hikaru went back outside while Kei stood close to Taiga.

“So now tell me what brings you here in the middle of the night?”

“You really need an answer to that?” Taiga asked with a raised eyebrow.

“Well you know I like listening to the reasons people have so yes please enlightened me.”

“I want you to let your prisoners go,” Taiga said without any outright, because why should he come up with some bad lie if it was obviously that Yabu knew exactly why he was here.

“Oh and why should I do that?”

“We lost anyway, we only have half of our men left and there is no threat from their side anymore, so you gain nothing from keeping them prisoner.”

“Wrong,” Yabu replied with a light smile. “There is a pretty good reason to keep them prisoner, maybe Daisuke wants to explain that?”

The sudden mention of his name had Sakuma jolt and look up at his brother with a begging look. When he wanted to say something his brother gave him a stern look, which Taiga didn’t miss of course. There were so many questions, but Taiga couldn’t ask anything in this situation. He wasn’t even sure if he wanted to know.

“The Shogunate will send more troops,” Sakuma said in a low voice as if he had been forced to study his words. “We keep them as leverage for the Shogunate to accept our prefecture as independent.”

“Oh and you think the Shogunate will do that?” Taiga addressed Sakuma directly, trying to ignore the presence of the other two. “Sorry to disappoint you, but they won’t even consider our lives when they will run over your prefecture.”

Taiga waited for a reply, but Sakuma kept looking to the ground, yet Taiga wanted him to look up. He needed to see what was happening in his eyes.

“Yet you came for them,” Yabu interfered, but Taiga didn’t face him, but kept his eyes on Sakuma and then he came up with a plan.

“I came to rescue my friends which has nothing to do with official Shogunate business, but one friend seems to have turned out as the enemy.”

His words had reached Sakuma. He could see how the other one tensed even more, but there wasn’t the reaction he had hoped for. Sakuma wasn’t looking at him, he wasn’t asking for help and it made things so much more difficult. Had he really read Sakuma’s intentions wrong? Had everything been a set up from the very start? Sakuma ‘accidentally’ stumbling over Shime and the others, joining their war so that he could betray them and go back to his brother?

“Tell me Taiga, why did you join this battle?” Yabu asked and for now he had to give up on trying understanding what was going on with Sakuma and he turned to the older brother instead.

“To protect my friends.”

“Mh, noble, aren’t you. Then what else would you do to protect your friends?”

Not a question Taiga could answer easily and Yabu realized that of course and with a small chuckle he leant to the front. “Then let me ask more directly, would you leave everything behind to save them?”

Now Yabu’s intentions were clearer, but didn’t actually make much sense. “Maybe, but I doubt I am important enough to save my friends with sacrificing anything.”

And of course Yabu seemed to have known that as well from the start, but then Taiga noticed the small side glance to Sakuma.

Taiga wished he could have a few minutes alone to organize his thoughts, because he started to finally put some things together, but he would need answers to be sure he wasn’t just trying to save someone who didn’t even want to get saved.

“Join me and I let your friends go,” Yabu offered out of the blue.

“What?”

It had been Sakuma who had spoken in disbelief, but he had bit his lip immediately.

“Of what use would I be to you? You have two Daimyo in your control, why would you let them go just to keep me?”

The right answer would be, because Yabu loved games, it was written all over his face. The excitement, the fun he had with Taiga’s confusion and inner struggle.

“It would be indeed an unfair trade, right?”

Yet he didn’t offer anything else so the question was still hanging in the air. Taiga used that moment to pretend that he was thinking about the offer, but instead he closed his eyes and tried to desperately connect some dots he had been thinking about for the past days. Some small incidences, something people around him have said and done and trying to bring everything in connection with Yabu and what he had just heard.

With a sigh Taiga opened his eyes again and tried to figure out what to do, but he was here to play out time, so why not try and see what would happen?

“Would you release all of them?”

“Mh, do I hear consideration there?” Yabu asked with a sudden excited shine in his eyes. “And yes I would release all of them.”

“Can I talk to them before you let them go in case I stay?”

There was a slight hesitation, but Yabu’s playful expression still didn’t fall. “Of course, I would gladly arrange a meeting for you.”

“What is the catch?”

“Oh, can’t I just be nice?”

“You’re trying to separate from the Shogunate and slaughtered half an army for it already, now you want to release your leverage in exchange for a worthless soldier, no I don’t think this is about being nice,” Taiga replied honestly.

“There is one more condition for letting your friends go,” Yabu finally admitted. So there was a catch after all and now he could see the excitement in Yabu’s eyes grow. “For them to be allowed to leave, one of them has to die.”

“Then it’s saver for them to actually remain prisoners,” Taiga replied.

“Yes, but not for you.”

On Yabu’s words Taiga sensed the movement behind him and he knew that Kei had his knives out and Sakuma was also finally looking up at him, ready to jump up, but his brother gave him an angry look again, but this time it seemed pretty hard for Sakuma to just sit down and pretend that he was okay with the situation.

“So either I die here or I have to kill one of my friends?”

“That would be too easy, don’t you think?” Yabu asked and it would be indeed not the kind of game he expected from Yabu. Taiga would never choose his own life over that of his friends.

“I will set up that meeting with you and your friends in the morning and if you decide not to join us then I will kill one by one in front of your eyes and well then kill you.”

An empty threat that was all Taiga could see in it, because never would Yabu actually kill them while they were his best shot to actually win this war. But letting them go if Taiga killed one of them? Would that also just be a lie? Would he then just kill Taiga and throw the others back into their cell? Something felt off about this game, but Taiga would need to learn the rules while playing it.

It wasn’t like Taiga could agree or refuse to what he had just been told. From a simple request of joining them, things have ended up much more complicated.

“You have a few more hours to think about it,” Yabu said as he nodded towards Kei who stepped next to Taiga to signal him to get up. Taiga didn’t see any need in making a scene and got up, but then he turned to Sakuma once more.

“Sakuma, do you want me to join you?”

The question came so abrupt that the other one seemed to have forgotten how to breathe for a few seconds before he looked at Yabu before he dared to face Taiga.

“If I said no then you would die, so yes I want you to join us.”

Taiga didn’t reply anything on hearing that before he turned around and followed Kei. A few hours alone in which he could think was the best thing that he could wish for at the moment!

***

They looked horrible. Starved over a whole week and still open wounds from the war yet they all gave Yabu and his men death glares when they got brought outside into the backyard of the castle.

“Happy about a bit of sunlight?” Hikaru asked mocking on which Tai-chan was about to lose his temper, but Kaito and Shime gave him a warning look. They all had their hands tied on the back so they couldn’t actually do anything but see what was coming as they hadn’t been told anything.

Kochi and Hokuto threw Sakuma a death glare when they were passing by, but with Kei standing next to him they wouldn’t bother trying anything.

Ryohei also just followed obediently, but his eyes were also on Sakuma and then on the soldiers around as if he still hadn’t given up on an escape. This time he didn’t seem as lucky as last time though.

Taiga had watched everything from the distance with Yabu, still out of sight from them and his stomach kept turning nonstop.

“Have you made a decision?” Yabu asked on which Taiga tried to not give him an angry stare, because he knew already that Yabu’s game would end with cheating one way or the other, but he could at least try and do something right for once. If what he had thought of the night before really made as much sense as he hoped. He had no proof, yet. To get proof he needed to play along and hopefully his intuition didn’t betray him, otherwise he’d lose a friend and not an enemy.

“You will see soon,” Taiga replied and Yabu obviously enjoyed the way Taiga at least pretended to be part of the game.

“So why are we here? Are you going to let us rot in the sun now instead of in a cell?” Hokuto asked annoyed, but then Yabu finally walked up to them and with him of course Taiga followed on which all of them looked between stunned and confused.

“Taiga, what are you doing here?” Kochi asked perplexed.

“He came to visit you,” Yabu let out with a smile on which Tai-chan was the first one to roll his eyes.

“I came to get you out,” Taiga said and stepped next to Yabu, his eyes also going towards the soldiers around and while Hikaru and Kei were close to Yabu and Sakuma the rest were blocking every possible escape route.

“Yeah right as if we are just free to go now,” Ryohei said with a judging look towards Yabu. “Did you tell him we’d be free to go if he sacrificed something for our freedom?”

Yabu chuckled on hearing that, but he couldn’t deny that it wasn’t true after all. “I guess Taiga will show you that ‘sacrifice’, won’t he?”

Yabu turned towards him and held out a Shoto to him and Taiga grabbed it without any hesitation. He tried to read everyone’s expressions, but he also realized that it was no use. Too many people around him were lying, too many of them being part of different kinds of games.

Yabu had warned him right away that he wasn’t allowed to tell them what he was up to or he would be the one going game over. On the other hand he was also allowed to ask all of them one question.

Yabu and Kei walked close to him when he approached Tai-chan first who stood at the left side. The boy gave him a doubting look as he had no idea what was going on.

“Taiga, what the hell are you doing?”

“He is asking the questions, not you,” Kei interrupted. “If any of you tries anything weird you know how that ends.” Kei had one of his knives out already while Yabu just kept observing everything with an amused expression.

“Tai-chan, did anyone hurt you or the others while you’ve been captured?” Taiga asked his first question. He wanted to ask something different, but if he asked too obvious then Yabu would definitely notice and if he was right, then Yabu would put him game over before he could even try and turn things around.

Tai-chan gave Yabu and Kei an annoyed look, but it didn’t seem like they would stop him from replying. “At least Shime, Kaito and I were fine, but we were in different cells from the others.”

It was that split second Taiga had to somehow make eye contact with someone of the others and luckily Hokuto had been staring back at him as if he had been waiting for it. They didn’t nod, they didn’t do anything. They just seemed to understand each other without words. If Tai-chan would have replied differently then maybe his whole plan wouldn’t have worked out at all.

“Shime, did you get any food?”

Shime raised his eyebrow on his question, but Taiga needed to come up with something that didn’t sound too random, but also not too suspicious and it wasn’t easy.

“Ehm, a bit yes,” Shime replied still a bit startled, but Taiga just went on to Kaito instead of giving any of them time to think too much.

“Kaito, will you promise me to protect the others when you get out of here?”

Another ridiculous question, but he just didn’t know what to ask, but luckily Yabu didn’t seem to mind after all he hadn’t understood in the first place why he wanted to talk to them if he wasn’t allowed to say what he was up to.

“Yes? I mean that’s obviously, isn’t it?”

Shime hawked warningly on Kaito’s weird reply, but Kei gave him a side glance on that on which he fell silent again and Kaito also zipped it.

“Hokuto,” Taiga went on, finally being at the one person who he needed to get the right answer from. His heart was hammering against his chest by now, because if he didn’t get the reply he needed then he didn’t know what to do. “Were you also not hurt?”

“No. Kochi and I are unhurt.”

Taiga just nodded, overplaying everything he was feeling through that reply before he went on to Kochi.

“Kochi, do you want to leave this place?” Taiga asked his friend and the boy nodded, because of course he wanted to, but his look also showed Taiga that he realized that something was off, that it couldn’t be that easy.

“Yes, with all of you.”

Another sting for Taiga, because that wasn’t part of the game and he could hear the small chuckle from Yabu in the back.

Taiga clenched the Shoto in his hand before he wanted to move on to Ryohei, but he tripped over his own feet and stumbled right into Ryohei who tried to catch him somehow, but of course his arms were tied to the back and Taiga reached out for his shirt and accidently pulled it half open before he got back up. “Sorry, I didn’t want to startle you.”

“Taiga, don’t apologies, whatever is going on here is not your fault.”

Of course it wasn’t and Taiga knew that and the others knew that and slowly Taiga nodded.

“No question for him?” Yabu asked as Taiga remained silent and looked to the ground for a moment.

“Why?” Taiga voiced out in a low voice on which the others looked at them in confusion and Ryohei also tried to find out what Taiga was thinking, but he couldn’t see his face as Taiga kept staring to the ground with his long strands covering his eyes.

“Why what, Taiga?” Ryohei asked.

With a shuddering breath Taiga looked back up, tears shining in his eyes and his hand holding the Shoto kept shaking.

“Why didn’t you take the path to the gods, but decided to follow the demons?”

Finally after all these months Taiga could see behind the facade when Ryohei caught up to what he had said, but it was too late. Taiga drew the Shoto and wanted to end it before he could actually try and back out. Ryohei wouldn’t get away fast enough, but what Taiga hadn’t seen coming was Kei tackling him to the side, ripping the Shoto out of his hand and putting the knife right to his neck.

“Stop it,” Hokuto shouted, but when he tried to move the soldiers around got ready to interfere as well and when Yabu started clapping his hands everyone stood down.

“What’s so funny?” Tai-chan hissed at him as Yabu started laughing while clapping in amusement.

“I’m impressed,” he said towards Taiga and ignored the others for now. “Tell me how did you notice?”

“Notice what, I can’t keep up,” Kaito whispered towards Shime, but he told him to shut up.

Kei didn’t remove the knife from his neck so Taiga had not much choice, but to tell them the truth.

“I had no proof until now, that’s why I wanted to talk to them.”

“You have to be more precisely I fear or your friends won’t be able to catch up,” Yabu said and waited patiently for Taiga to explain everything in detail, because he enjoyed Taiga’s failed plan too much.

“Ryohei is the traitor, not Sakuma,” Taiga let out on which everyone except Hokuto looked forth and back between Sakuma and Ryohei in confusion.

“Is he telling the truth?” Shime asked directed at Sakuma, but as before the boy could only look to the ground.

“He won’t reply to that, I bet Yabu threatened to kill you if he blew Ryohei’s cover,” Taiga said on which Sakuma teared up in shame of what he had actually done by staying silent. “At our battle I was standing back to back with Sakuma and Ryohei, facing Hikaru while they faced Kei. I found it weird right away that I got attacked from behind only seconds later, so I was sure that either Sakuma or Ryohei had betrayed me, but I needed proof.”

“And even though Sakuma was with me you were still doubting that he was the traitor?” Yabu asked amused, because he obviously had confidence in his twisted game.

“You are at fault for bursting Ryohei’s cover too,” Taiga said to the other one’s obvious surprise. “When you captured us the first time you threw him in the same cell with me, badly hurt, then later you told Sakuma and me that it was a bad idea to join the war, but how could you have known that we joined it? We were at the castle, but that was all. We had only decided at that day that we will join and Sakuma didn’t tell you about that, I asked him afterwards.”

“So you thought Ryohei was the spy?”

“I still wasn’t sure of course, but it was suspicious, also the fact that he got out of the cell at the perfect timing after we had told you the fake location? Then Ryohei made a mistake when he said Hikaru’s name without actually knowing him.”

Ryohei also finally realized that mistake, but he didn’t to feel bad about what he had done, but why would he? As a part of Yabu’s men his mind was definitely twisted as well.

“Interesting, what else did you notice?” Yabu asked and when Taiga didn’t reply Kei pressed the knife with more force against his skin, leaving a red line.

“Your surprise attack on our camp meant that even though Sakuma had given you the fake location Ryohei had told you the real one, so you could be there so early, making us believe we had more time to prepare and letting it seem like Sakuma was the traitor. Also the night when your Shinobi attacked us I remember three of them being there, but I only saw Hikaru and Kei as your really close men and skilled Shinobi until now, the one I couldn’t see on that day was Ryohei. He had made it easy for you to get inside and if I hadn’t accidently walked back into the room at that time you would have most likely make it look like they fought against Ryohei, left him behind and only took Sakuma.”

“Such a smart kid, I really like you! You should really rethink joining us, but for that you’ve to kill one of your real friends and not my spy.”

“What? That was what this was about?” Kaito asked shocked.

“Idiot, he wasn’t going to kill any of us from the start,” Hokuto said.

“Oh, your friend has seen through your plan, interesting. So how did this small round of stupid questions make you sure Ryohei was your enemy?”

“When Kei brought me to your room it took a bit too long for you to let me in so I had the feeling someone was in the room with you and Sakuma and knowing that Sakuma wouldn’t speak I needed to ask the others so I tried to make them speak about who was with them in the cell and luckily Tai-chan gave me exactly the reply I needed.”

“Oh and then Matsumura-dono realized what you were doing and made it clear that Ryohei wasn’t with any of them,” Yabu concluded and stepped closer to Hokuto, which made the others tense a bit. “You were always too intelligent for your own good.”

“Guess I have the extra part you are missing,” Hokuto shot back, but Yabu wasn’t the type to easily lose his calm so he walked back to Taiga instead. “But tell me would you have really stabbed him like this? Were you completely sure?”

“No I wasn’t, that’s why I stumbled on purpose,” Taiga explained and then Ryohei also seemed to have caught up as he pulled his shirt more open for everyone to see.

“Mh, I don’t see anything special,” Yabu said a bit disappointed.

“Exactly, yet he was supposed to have two heavy cuts on his abdomen.”

This time Yabu couldn’t stop from laughing in such an amusement that it could almost be called crazy. Who would make fun of himself for failing in his own plan?

“You made Ryohei kill your own men in front of my eyes at the battlefield so I wouldn’t doubt him, but you failed as you decided to fake his wounds and just put some blood on ripped clothes. I found it weird already that he bandaged the wounds when he came to rescue us, because in such a situation a swordsman like Ryohei would just endure it I thought. Then at the battle he took blows right to those fake cuts and there was no reaction at all, no pain visible. So he needed to bandage them, but the next day he wasn’t in pain even when hit against it? That was when I was sure that if he had no wounds he was indeed the traitor.”

“Mh, you got me here, I have to say that,” Yabu said and snapped his fingers at Kei who used his other knife to finally free Ryohei from his ropes and the boy stepped away from the other prisoners.

“But now I fear the game is over,” Yabu said a bit disappointed.

“Yabu-dono, would you mind if I am the one to put him game over?”

Ryohei’s question made a wide smile appear on the other one’s face and he ordered someone to bring Ryohei’s sword. Kei also stepped away from Taiga on a signal of his Daimyo and then Yabu walked up to him with a sword. “How about I give you a second chance? If you beat Ryohei you are allowed to go.”

“No, if I win then you let them all go, including Sakuma,” Taiga replied and the other one just got more and more impressed by his bold behavior.

“Mh, interesting. That won’t include you, you realize that, right?”

“Yes,” Taiga replied cold.

“Don’t make such a stupid deal,” Sakuma finally yelled, but Hikaru stepped in front of him before he could actually interfere.

“Don’t worry he won’t win anyway, so nothing for you to worry about,” Ryohei said as he got handed his white sheathed sword.

“Perfect, now this is a one on one I can’t wait for,” Yabu said and clapped his hands before he retreated with the others and made sure that the prisoners wouldn’t be able to interfere either.

Ryohei was only in light clothes while Taiga had his armor still on so maybe it would give him a small advantage, but it was Ryohei he was up against and now the boy wouldn’t hold back anymore.

“You asked me before why I chose the demons over the gods,” Ryohei said as he drew his green shimmering sword. “I didn’t choose them, they chose me.”

Ryohei’s speed was something completely new for Taiga to face and he had barely time to even draw his own sword. Without his armor he would have suffered a pretty heavy cut right from the start, but he had to worry for other things right away, like surviving in the first place.

“You have no chance, you know that, right?” Ryohei said and dashed from one attack in the other, making Taiga almost run away from him. He could barely dodge, not even block and soon he gasped as Ryohei went straight for the shoulder Kei had attack him before. “Still hurts, doesn’t it?” Ryohei asked with an almost crazy expression on his face as he used Taiga’s weak moment to bring him out of balance and stab the sword right into his shoulder after he had brought him to fall. Taiga screamed out, trying to get a hit on Ryohei, but the other one was faster and stepped on his hand so that he couldn’t use his sword.

“TAIGA,” Kochi shouted out for him, but soldiers were now surrounding them and they wouldn’t be able to do anything, but watch.

Taiga screamed out once more when Ryohei twisted the sword in his shoulder. The wound from before had healed enough for him to move and fight, but it had almost killed him and exactly that feeling from before was slowly overtaking, but he didn’t want to die. This time he knew there was nothing waiting for him on the other side.

“I enjoyed traveling with you by the way, that part was not a lie,” Ryohei said with a smile that immediately vanished when he pulled the sword out again and aimed for Taiga’s chest this time.

What absolutely no one had seen coming was a helmet from one of the soldiers getting thrown through the air, hitting Ryohei at the side of the head and startling him long enough for Taiga to bring the other one out of balance and kick him off him.

Hokuto and the others turned around in confusion when the soldiers behind them started to actually fight each other and even Yabu seemed confused for the first time.

Two of the soldiers dashed towards Taiga and first he thought he was in trouble, but then one stopped in front of him, pointing his sword towards Ryohei and the other one sat down next to him.

“Juri?” Taiga asked in the biggest astonishment of his life, because this hadn’t been in any way part of their plan.

“Surprised? We wanted to make sure to hide this part of the plan, just in case they forced you to spill anything, you know?”

“I would say I am mad, but this was a fantastic surprise attack, but how?”

“The army is so big that most soldiers don’t even know the others. We took some of the out on their patrol last night and sneaked in. Not even Yabu realized that we weren’t his men, stupid right?”

“Did you just call me stupid?” Yabu asked now his look darkening a lot, but for the time being he was outnumbered. Half of his men had been actually Hokuto’s and Shime’s men and they had freed them immediately and made sure they got weapons.

“And now what?” Kei asked as he and Hikaru prepared to enter the fight as well. “The moment you step out of these walls you will be surrounded by our army.”

“Are you sure?” Fuma, the one who stood in front of Taiga asked with a lopsided smile. But they hadn’t enough men to outnumber Yabu’s army, Taiga knew that, so was he bluffing?

“What are you guys doing here?” Kochi asked as Reo stepped next to them with a bright smile.

“Rescuing your ass? Oh and getting his ass home,” Reo added, pointing at Taiga.

“But he said he wouldn’t leave without you so here we are.”

“And you are?” Shime asked as Shintaro stepped next to Reo.

“Oh, right you don’t know me, I am-”

“No time for long introductions,” Hokuto interrupted on which Shintaro pouted. “Yabu, let us go and stand down until the Shogunate gives you further orders then you and your people will be safe.”

Yabu bursted out laughing on Hokuto’s words, but what else had they expected from him.

“That guy gives me the creeps,” Shintaro said.

“Not just you,” Kaito added.

“You should know by now, that I won’t just sit around, my father did that for too long already. If you want to leave then you have to fight your way out.”

“Fine with me,” Tai-chan said and lifted his sword towards the remaining Samurai around them.

Yabu shrugged his shoulders and lifted his hand. “Fine, your choice.”

With one hand movement his men attacked and they all had to prepare to fight their way out.

“Taiga, leave it to them, you are hurt,” Juri said as Taiga wanted to get up.

“I am going to leave it to them, but I need to get Sakuma.”

On the mention of his name Juri realized that Yabu had disappeared together with Ryohei and Sakuma, while Hikaru and Kei remained to fight.

“Let’s get him out and leave then,” Fuma said and wanted to head straight for the castle, but was stopped by Hikaru.

“Fuma, can we leave him to you?” Taiga asked on which Fuma gave him a confident look.

“Of course, it’s not like I would hold back like I held back with you.”

Taiga rolled his eyes on hearing that, but he knew he could trust Fuma with this fight.

They also spotted Hokuto going up against Kei and the others were all busy fighting off the rest so Juri and Taiga dashed towards the castle to lose no time.

“I know where they are heading,” Taiga said and made Juri follow towards one of the upper floors. As expected the room Yabu had been in before was empty, but Taiga signaled Juri to be careful when opening other doors leading towards smaller rooms all around.

Carefully they moved on from one door to the other, feeling it was a maze out of small rooms and sliding doors.

Taiga signaled Juri to open the door on the right while he went for the one on the left. He slid it open just to have a peek inside first, but that small opening was enough for a blade to be slashed down on him through the gap. At the last second he fell back, getting buried under the sliding door as is was kicked down on him.

“Taiga, watch out,” Juri was heard when he jumped over the door and attacked Ryohei who had shown up in front of him.

“So let me guess, you are one of those Taiga had forgotten about all this time?” Ryohei asked, but instead of replying, Juri tried to lunge out for him and make him go on distance so Taiga had time to get back on his feet.

Ryohei didn’t give them much time to recover though and Juri could barely block before he was kicked to the ground and Taiga had trouble even lifting his sword with his wound.

“You should have taken the opportunity and run,” Ryohei said as he kept attacking both, not even close to getting hit by any of them.

When Taiga ended up flat on the ground, right next to Juri he pulled the other one closer and whispered something before he got up and attacked Ryohei again.

Juri remained on the floor for a moment longer, but Taiga could only hope that Juri trusted him enough to actually do what he had just asked for.

Not having the strength to block all the sword thrusts anymore, Taiga let his sword drop and tackled Ryohei with such a force that he fell over.

“Now, Juri!”

Ryohei got ready to actually go up against both if they thought they could overpower him, but to his surprise Juri dashed out of the room.

“Oh, did he just abandon you?” Ryohei asked mocking, but Taiga didn’t take the bait to get distracted and tried to get in control of Ryohei’s sword hand instead. They started struggling over the sword, but then Ryohei punched him against his hurt shoulder and Taiga was forced to let go and back off if he didn’t want to get stabbed.

When they heard fighting noises from a few rooms away Ryohei chuckled. “That was your plan? Sending your friend to get Sakuma? You really think he stands a chance against Yabu?”

“Actually, yes,” Taiga said confident on which Ryohei’s teasing expression fell. “Come on, we are not that stupid. We know that Yabu controls everyone and everything with money. He is not a fighter.”

And he knew he was right on the way Ryohei seemed so pissed at his own Daimyo for actually not being as tough as they all wanted him to be. In the moment they stood still they could hear fighting noises from the outside, but why didn’t it seem like only the small troop inside the walls? Taiga had no time to actually go and have a look as Ryohei went straight for a next attack.

“You know, even though I said I enjoyed traveling with you, I don’t enjoy your company at the moment at all! That is why I will make sure to get rid of you here and now!”

“Good luck with that,” Taiga said and ran for his sword, but instead of attacking he took a dash through another door, making Ryohei follow him.

“Taiga, where are you?”

Juri’s voice made him slow down, but not because he was looking for him, but because he wanted to make sure that Ryohei wouldn’t go for Juri instead. When the other one had caught up to him and didn’t waste any time to go for another attack, Taiga blocked it with the last strength he could bring up from his shoulder.

“Juri, get Sakuma out! I’ll come after you,” Taiga shouted, but got once more brought out of balance and this time he hit his head quite heavy on a wooden shelf in the corner.

“Oh are you really? I doubt that,” Ryohei mocked him, but Taiga had reached the goal he had aimed for. As long as Ryohei was busy with him, Sakuma and Juri would get outside and if the situation was under control outside they could send someone to help him, if not...then he was done for.

With the next attack Taiga’s armor was damaged on the shoulder part so that it kept slipping from his shoulder. In the end Taiga had to rip it off or it would slow him down more than it would actually be of any help.

Their fight continued for several minutes, but Taiga had already overstepped his limits. The blood loss made him feel dizzy, that had cost him a few more cuts, especially one heavy one on his neck, which was definitely going to take him out soon if he didn’t get any treatment.

“I told you I will get rid of you,” Ryohei said as he lunged out again, but while he had indeed the upper hand he had used a lot of stamina to keep hunting Taiga down in the maze of doors. Once more Taiga succeeded in somehow bringing the other one out of balance and for the first time he got a grip on the sword and sat on top of Ryohei.

“I would have really liked to meet you in a world where you were chosen by the gods instead,” Taiga said and lunged out, ready to end things here and now, but then the blade dropped from his hands. He hadn’t even screamed, nor had he felt the pain, everything just felt numb after he had been slashed over the back with a sword.

“You little arrogant bastard. I won’t let you and your friends destroy what I’ve built up over all those years,” Yabu hissed behind him and while Taiga’s body had started shaking already he somehow managed to turn towards the other one and if the situation wouldn’t be that serious he would have definitely laughed at Yabu’s bruised face. Juri hadn’t hold back at all.

As if Yabu’s attack hadn’t been bad enough Taiga gasped as his distraction cost him the heaviest injury so far as Ryohei had taken back his sword and stabbed it right into Taiga’s upper body. There was a resistance Taiga could feel, like something was trying to hold the sword away from entering even deeper and when Ryohei tried to put more pressure on it to actually impale Taiga on his sword there was the sound of glass shattering.

As if struck by lightning, Ryohei jolted and let go of his sword, falling back on the ground unconsciously.

“What the hell?” Yabu asked as he stepped a bit back from Taiga who was barely conscious by now. His chest was burning like fire and he put his hand up to his clothes where Ryohei's blade had stabbed him. His hand was immediately blood stained, but when he pulled it back there was something else. Small glass fragments mixed with his blood. The bracelets!

“He always said so proudly how he was chosen by the demons. Seems like you are the same kind of monster,” Yabu said and lunged out for him again, but Taiga was faster this time and grabbed Ryohei’s sword to block Yabu’s attack. Once more the sword seemed to send something like an impulse and it took Yabu off his feed.

Had the sword been purified by the bracelets? Whatever it was he could analyze it later, because he wanted was to get out and he tried to get on his feet before Yabu or Ryohei could, but as he failed several times he started crawling away from them for now until he reached the staircase.

“You’re not going to die here,” he scolded himself as he forced his legs to somehow bring him down the stairs.

“COME BACK HERE YOU BASTARD!”

Of course Yabu was the one to catch up to him and while he wasn’t a good fighter it wouldn’t take more than a child with a knife right now to kill Taiga in his condition so he screamed at his legs to move and he hurried for the gates.

Not just his legs, also his vision was going to give up on him and when he reached the backyard and when he couldn’t hear any fighting noises he was sure that his hearing was also no good anymore.

He could hear Yabu’s cursing close to him as he headed for the main gate which was wide open. There was no way that after everything his friends had gone through because of him that he would die here now.

“Juri,” Taiga whispered, remembering the last time he had desperately whispered his name like that.

Right in the center of the main gate he finally broke down and gave up trying to get up again. He still had Ryohei’s sword, so he turned towards Yabu who was walking towards him like an insane beast.

“You ruined everything! I won’t let you get away,” Yabu cursed at him and raised his sword right in front of him. Too exhausted to even try and lift his sword Taiga sat on the ground, closing his eyes. He didn’t want to die, but if it meant his friends were safe from now on then he would do whatever it took to save them.

“Yabu-dono, I strongly advise you to put your sword down.”

A familiar voice, yet not one he had heard over the past few days.

When Taiga dared to open his eyes, Yabu was looking past him, through the gate out to the field where his army was supposed to be ready to march out. But Yabu wasn’t looking proudly at an army. His look was of a person who had just been ripped into thousand pieces by only words and with his last strength Taiga crawled on his knees to turn around to find someone standing right behind him, in full armor and with a whole army behind him. Not just a normal armor, the most magnificent armor he had ever seen and not just any army, but the biggest army of the country, all Samurai proudly wearing the emblem of the Shogunate.

“Domoto-dono…” Taiga whispered in sheer disbelief.

Some men passed him and tackled Yabu down while others headed for the castle to get Ryohei and other soldiers who were maybe still hiding inside.

Domoto went down on one knee right in front of Taiga with a light yet sad smile as he reached out for his face.

“Sorry that my men and I are so late, but now you are safe, as are your friends.”

On a movement with his head, Taiga tried to clear his vision and he saw his friends with Domoto’s men, their wounds getting treated. While his hearing was slowly giving up on him he could still see how Juri was shouting his name as he dashed towards him, followed by Sakuma. Right behind them Taiga spotted Ryota and Shota, and even Kentaro was with them.

So this time it was them who had surprised Yabu! He had thought it would take weeks for another army to mobilize after Hokuto and Shime lost, but he hadn’t known of Kentaro heading back to Edo to report about the situation with Taiga. But who would have thought that even though they didn’t know if Hokuto and Shime would lose or not that Domoto would send a whole army to help out. He hadn’t sent a whole army to rescue Taiga after all, right? Ryota and Shota must have ran into them on their way back to report about the lost battle and they had headed straight for Yabu’s castle. So many coincidences, yet they have not only rescued his life.

Domoto stood up when Juri had reached them and the boy threw his arms around Taiga, but he knew that there was not much time and that Taiga needed immediate treatment.

“Taiga, please hold on just a bit longer,” Sakuma said as he sat next to them on which Taiga grabbed his arm.

“Sakuma, I am sorry for doubting you,” Taiga let out in a weak voice. Because while he hadn’t doubted Sakuma for long, there had indeed been a time he wasn’t sure if Sakuma had betrayed them or not.

“Idiot, that is too damn unimportant at the moment.”

“I know. I just wanted to make sure that you know it.”

“Get used to it, Taiga loves talking dramatically when he is wounded,” Juri said, trying to calm himself down, but truth was that this was the second time already he held Taiga in his arms not knowing if he was going to die or not.

“Juri, our bracelets,” Taiga started and pointed at his chest and Juri hurried to carefully try and get the pouch out from the side. The pouch had gotten stabbed by the sword and was stained with blood and when Juri opened his hand to let what was inside of it drop on his hands there were only blue and pink glass fragments falling into his palm.

“Oh no,” Sakuma let out in shock, but Juri looked calm and that expression was what Taiga wanted to see.

“I guess we have gotten them for a reason after all,” Juri said with a sad yet encouraging smile as he closed his hand around the leftovers of the bracelets and pulled Taiga into a tight hug. “From now on we have to look out for each other without them again.”

Taiga lifted his arms as good as he could to return the hug and this time he didn’t feel like he was going to let go from this life. He had found a new path, new friends and new adventures, but he left behind this! All of it! And there was no way he would give it up again. He had made up his mind.

“I will never make you worry for me again, I promise,” Taiga let out with a light smile as he let himself drift off into the rest he needed. He didn’t need to feel afraid. Because even without the bracelets, he had Juri taking care of him and that was all he needed to know.

Chapter Text

The gates of Yoshiwara, bright red in the light of the setting sun. People were walking all over Nakanocho. There were a lot of people Taiga recognized, but also a lot of new faces as a lot of customers found their way to their entertainment district each day.

This time Taiga could somehow tell that this wasn’t reality as he clearly remembered the red gates of Yoshiwara burning down.

With a weird feeling inside of him he kept walking. On one hand he wanted to head back, see how everyone was doing, on the other hand he wanted to turn and run.

When he arrived at their house a nostalgic feeling took over him as he realized that he would never see their house again as it was before. It had already been the second house they had lost, yet both carried a lot of good and bad memories.

His expression lost a bit of excitement when he realized that their new house would also have new challenges and experiences for him, good ones and definitely also bad ones and he wasn’t sure if he was ready to go back.

Then again a small smile found its way on his face when he realized that all his friends were waiting for him to return and he would always have them at his side.

When he turned away from the house he stopped as he found something lying on the street. A bracelet. With a smile he picked it up and turned around.

“You lost this again?” Taiga asked the little girl standing close to him. With an outstretched hand she waited for him to give it back and just for a moment Taiga hesitated.

“Thank you for bringing it back,” the girl said with a bright smile. “Did it help you?”

Realizing that their bracelets had been borrowed in the first place Taiga finally put the bracelet in the girl’s hand and crouched down in front of her, closing his hands around hers. “It helped us a lot and I will be forever grateful for your help.”

“So did you find your path?” She asked excited.

Taiga needed to think about it a moment and he got up, taking another look at their house before he nodded. “I realized that there might be a lot of paths out there for me, but I decide myself which one I want to take. And who knows maybe I will take a new turn at the next crossing if I get the chance.”

The girl nodded in excitement on hearing that and when Taiga wanted to thank her again his surroundings seemed to slowly fade away, but he wasn’t feeling sad or scared, he was completely aware of this being everything but a sad farewell, it was the chance for a new beginning.

It had been a very long time since Taiga had woken up feeling this at ease. It was just a feeling of being safe for the first time in months. And the fact that Juri was lying right next to him with his face hidden under his long strands falling into his eyes while holding Taiga’s hand over the whole night was the biggest factor for Taiga to be able to wake up with a smile.

Taiga tried to turn a bit to touch Juri’s face, but only the try of lifting his arm made him twist his face in pain and with a long breath he fell back on his back.

“If he makes it uncomfortable for you I can drag him away for you.”

The sound of a familiar voice he had missed a lot made Taiga smile again and he looked over to a futon a bit towards the middle of the room.

“Always the caring senpai,” Taiga said on which Kentaro flashed a smile as well.

They weren’t the only people in the room as it was a bit complicated to find space for all the people who had come back to Hokuto’s castle with them. But Taiga didn’t mind at all, because the calm sleeping faces he could see all over the room, were all of his friends. Fuma sleeping calmly behind Kentaro, Ryota and Shota being weirdly between hugging and kicking each other in their sleep while Reo was completely rolled up in his futon and Shintaro was hugging his pillow way too tight.

“How are you feeling?” Kentaro asked in a low voice to not wake the others up. Daylight was slowly piercing through the thin paper walls, but they were all exhausted and needed as much rest as they could get.

“Good would be a lie, but maybe relieved is a good description?”

“Trust me that’s the same for me, because to be honest it was pretty hard to be the last one to head back to report while we were so close to finding you. When Domoto decided to just head westwards in case Hokuto needed assistance I kept praying that you and the others were safe. Didn’t make it any easier when Ryota and Shota met us halfway just to tell us that you were literally dying.”

“Almost dying two times in only a few days, I would say I have enough of that for the rest of my life,” Taiga said with a teasing expression, but he could see in Kentaro’s eyes that he knew that Taiga just tried to hide how scary it actually was. After all Kentaro had once also almost died and there were no magical bracelets helping him at that time. He had to fight for his life all by himself.

“Who would have thought that one day I can tell a tale this crazy?”

“And never forget that one of the highest ranked Daimyo under the shogunate came to your rescue,” Kentaro added on which Taiga shook his head.

“Yeah, as if I was that important.”

Kentaro understood Taiga’s doubts, but he immediately shook his head. “That Juri kept looking for you is natural, that we as your friends joined him is also a must, but while you might think Domoto would only move out of political reasons you have to understand that I have seen his expression change the moment Shota told us that you were so hurt that you might die. He wasn’t only riding for the Shogunate, he was riding for you as well and THAT is truly a tale worth telling!”

 It was the second time already that Domoto had come to his rescue while the first time back at Yamashita’s place had been only passive he hadn’t even tried to stand at the sideline this time and it made Taiga feel somehow proud. Domoto had been the one person who had given him one of the worst haunting memories in Yoshiwara, yet he had also helped him out so often and even rescued his life, knowing he would never actually be able to own Taiga in the way he was maybe somehow deep down longing for.

“Kentaro, can I ask you something?”

“Sure,” the other one said, playing with a strand of Fuma’s hair on which the other one groaned, but didn’t wake up.

“I am not sure if Fuma was allowed to tell me, but we had a talk about something connected to my thoughts while I had lost my memory and Fuma told me…”

“That I would choose a life without Yoshiwara over having met him?” Kentaro said with a smile. “I heard from Fuma and no worries I stand behind what I said and he knows that.”

“I’m jealous of your confidence,” Taiga admitted and looked down at Juri who was still deeply asleep.

“But there is one difference between our stories, that’s why I have the confidence in saying it out loud while you can’t.”

Taiga tilted his head on hearing that, because he didn’t get his senpais point, but Kentaro nodded understanding before he explained.

“What I am saying with confidence is an impossible outcome of a story that will never happen, because I cannot go back to the past and if I was living in an alternative world without being part of Yoshiwara I would have never met Fuma so none of us would miss the other one, right?”

Taiga nodded because that made of course sense. “But the thoughts you and Juri had over the past months have a completely different start point, because your story was in the middle of being written. What you wished for the other one or yourself would indeed affect the other one and was something possible. You didn’t wish for something in the past or something impossible, you wished for something in the future and that makes it so scary. Because it is real!”

Taiga immediately felt how his expression darkened and how he wanted to curl up in his futon, realizing how true his senpai’s words were.

“But that doesn’t mean it’s something to feel ashamed of,” Kentaro continued. “All of us think about a ‘what if’ from time to time and we are not bad people for doing so, it’s what humans do! And it’s also okay to try out some of those ‘what if’ because you only have one life and why waste it?”

“But I didn’t waste it until now,” Taiga replied as if he tried to defend his own ‘what if’ thinking, but realizing that there was no need for it he bit his lip.

“And that is exactly a realization that we are all aware of, Juri as well. That is why he would be able to actually let you go and not feel as if he had thrown a part of his life away. Even if your ways part someday in the future you will still treasure the time you spent together, right?”

Of course, it was so obvious that Taiga didn’t even feel the need to reply and instead he looked down at Juri and flashed a smile.

“Just always make sure you keep being honest to each other then you will follow each other through heaven and hell, and if it’s what one of you desires then one day your paths will part and you will still be able to face it with a smile!”

“And now Taiga will thank you for being the most amazing senpai in his life, can I have you back for a round of cuddling then?” Fuma was heard, half muffled in his pillow as he pulled on Kentaro’s yukata sleeve.

Taiga had to watch out not to laugh and wake everyone up, but Fuma had already said what he was about to say so he only flashed another smile at Kentaro before the latter let himself get dragged under the blanket by Fuma.

Taiga fell back on his back and looked up at the ceiling in silence until he started crying not even knowing why. Maybe it was the pressure finally falling from his shoulders, maybe it was the relief of everything being over or it was the fact that he could finally show emotions again with all his friends around without actually feeling weak.

“You’re beautiful even while crying.”

“Shut up,” Taiga said half laughing, still half crying when Juri squeezed his hand a bit more. “Can’t you get better in pretending to be still asleep?”

“Mh, maybe next time,” Juri replied and put his forehead carefully against Taiga’s unhurt shoulder. “But I have to tell you something important before we can try and sleep some more.”

For a moment Taiga felt a bit restless hearing that, because he was already crying he didn’t need any more emotional talk now.

“What is it?” He asked carefully on which Juri looked up at him.

“I love you,” Juri said with such a calm expression that it made Taiga feel like crying even more. “And I will love you no matter what the future brings.”

“You know that I have to reply with a cheesy I love you too now, right?” Taiga said on which Juri formed a teasing smile. “And now I can’t even hit you for being a pain in the ass.”

“Oh I guess I should take advantage of that,” Juri said and got up on his elbows to lean a bit over to the other one and give him a short kiss which Taiga would have loved to deepen, but he had to be more patient for the next opportunity.

“I love you too,” Taiga finally said on which Juri chuckled and pressed his lips against the other one’s forehead.

“I know.”

***

Two weeks of political talks and not so nice ‘cleaning work’ had finally come to an end and while Taiga and his friends had been allowed to rest over that time Taiga felt pretty restless. He knew that there would be a day when they had to head back to Yoshiwara, because even though Domoto had made sure to send a few people back to Edo to not only report to the Shogunate, but also to Kamenashi so that he knew his boys would be heading back after Taiga was capable of traveling again, they were still part of that district and now that he regained his memory not returning could actually end up with him getting chased by the police for running away.

“Aren’t you getting tired of sitting here?”

With a smile Taiga turned around to his friend and shook his head. “This spot has something pretty calming.”

Hokuto seemed to think that as well, after all he had been the one to tell Taiga that if he needed a bit time away from people he should come to this watchtower. It had something like an open veranda part at the top, which was usually used to look out for enemies approaching. Taiga could see over Hokuto’s whole domain from this spot and he had used it several times over the past weeks.

“You and Shime are really good Daimyos, I am happy that you found such an important path after leaving Yoshiwara,” Taiga said as Hokuto sat down next to him.

“Jealous?” Hokuto teased on which Taiga chuckled.

“Not of your responsibilities to be honest. I can imagine how difficult it is to keep the peace and everyone happy.”

“It’s an endless and mostly impossible task, but someone has to try at least.”

“Do you think people like you and Sakuma are still out there waiting for help?” Taiga asked on which Hokuto’s look darkened a bit.

“While the Shogunate helped establishing a peaceful era it definitely has a lot of ongoing dark sides as well, so yes I think there are still a lot of people out there who haven’t found the happy ending we did.”

“Do you think they are waiting to get rescued?”

“Mh, do I hear some motivation there to change the world?” Hokuto asked, but it didn’t sound as stupid as he thought it would.

“The world might be a bit too much of a challenge, but maybe there is something I could do to help? Well, maybe someday…”

The sudden shadow over Taiga’s face didn’t go unnoticed and Hokuto hit him with his elbow against the arm on which the other one looked up at him.

“Yoshiwara is not the end of the world. You know that as well as I do! If you really want to take on a difficult task in the future then you are always welcome to contact me as soon as you are free to go! I know your time there is still not over and it might feel even longer from now on, but you’ve so many amazing people around you, supporting you, don’t you think that is worth it to keep going?”

His friends were indeed his lifeline no matter what chaos was breaking loose in Yoshiwara. Not to forget that yes maybe his remaining time in Yoshiwara would feel longer now, but it would end! There was a finish line for him, a restart into a new life and it finally made him smile a bit. “I guess a few more years won’t be too bad,” he finally replied on which Hokuto smiled, but turned away from Taiga for a moment, getting something he had brought with him.

“And just in case you get into trouble again, and you will, because you always do, I will give you something that you can use in your free time when Kamenashi gives you off and you feel bored, like you also always do.”

“Do you think insulting me is a good opening for handing me a present?” Taiga asked, more teasing than angry.

“I was way too nice to you recently anyway,” Hokuto replied with a lopsided smile before he handed something to Taiga.

“A writing set?” Taiga asked as he looked through the utensils he had been handed.

“I wrote our part of Yoshiwara and it helped you remember in the end, right?” Hokuto asked and Taiga nodded. “Then this time it’s your turn. Write your story! Who knows maybe one day it will be of help to someone else?”

First Taiga wanted to shake his head. He wasn’t that good with writing and would his story even be worth telling, who would even be interested in his chaotic travel? But after giving it another thought maybe it was indeed worth a try? After all he had changed the lives of some people on his journey while others have changed his life too. Suddenly feeling excited about the idea of writing his story down he lifted the Fude up with a light smile.

“Don’t forget to send me a copy! I will get angry if I am not one of the first ones to get to read it,” Hokuto let out on which Taiga had to laugh, but promised to send one immediately after finishing.

“Oh and one other thing,” Hokuto said when he was already getting up on which Taiga gave him a questioning look. “Before all of you leave back to Edo, Domoto came to me with a request and I wanted to ask you if you feel comfortable with it or not.”

There was a slight panic inside Taiga, but there was also some excitement so he nodded for now. “Then let me hear that request, because I actually think I will love it, even though I won’t admit that.”

Hearing confident words from Taiga again made Hokuto’s look turn to proud, because he just knew that Taiga would be fine from now on as well. His journey had made him grow and no matter if it felt like a step back going back to Yoshiwara he would keep fighting this time, knowing that a new path was waiting for him in the end, so why not enjoy the life he had for now instead of wasting the time? 

***

“So is this a farewell party or something?” Sakuma asked a bit confused when he sat down with the others in one of the biggest rooms in Hokuto’s castle.

In front of all of them were small tables with food and Sake prepared and Sakuma also spotted a Shamisen, Koto and Shakuhachi in the corner on which he suddenly got excited.

“Did they invite Oiran or Geisha?” Sakuma asked Kaito who shrugged his shoulders, but he wasn’t that excited and Tai-chan was the only one who understood that, because even if Geisha were coming it wasn’t going to entertain him much.

Domoto sat with Hokuto and Shime at the end of the room while the others were sitting on the right and left. When the door opened again Fuma and Shintaro entered and Sakuma raised an eyebrow when they sat next to him. “Are the others not coming? Is Taiga still feeling too bad?”

While Taiga had rested over the past weeks Sakuma had only twice checked up on him. He didn’t want to bother him too much and even though he was dying to actually ask Taiga more about his past and his friends who have come to get him he had stayed patient until now, not even bothering his friends with any questions.

“Oh don’t worry they are coming,” Fuma said with a knowing look towards Shintaro who formed an excited smile on which Sakuma was getting even more confused.

The next one to open the door was Kochi and he walked up to Domoto, whispering something on which he nodded and Hokuto and Shime exchanged a smile.

“Is it just me or does this all feel a bit weird?” Sakuma asked everyone around him, but while Tai-chan and Kaito seemed as clueless as him, Fuma and Shintaro were weirdly quiet about it.

“Shall we begin then,” Domoto asked on which everyone turned towards him.

“The others are not here yet,” Sakuma whispered towards Fuma who shook his head.

“It’s okay, they will come later.”

Sakuma still felt bad for starting without them, but he couldn’t just get out and look for them. Domoto bowed to everyone and thanked them for their hard work over the past weeks on which everyone returned the words and made sure to bow as well.

“Now that things are mostly back in order I will leave with my army back to Edo in a few days and Shimekake-dono will also leave soon, so I wanted to take the chance to have an entertaining farewell event for everyone, so please enjoy tonight! We have special guests and I wish that you pay them all the greatest respect for giving us the honor to get entertained by them tonight.”

Sakuma felt more and more excited about who was going to join them, but he was also a bit confused about Domoto’s choice of words. But Kochi was already on his way to the door and he talked to someone outside before he went back inside and then two people kneeling outside the door came into everyone’s sight when they opened the door in their colorful Kimono.

“What the hell,” Tai-chan was the first one to be heard, while Kaito’s expression changed from bored to absolutely excited in the tenth of a second.

“What, but why? What’s going on?” Sakuma asked confused as he saw Ryota and Shota next the door, but Fuma lifted his finger to his own lips, signaling him to stay quiet, but it was obvious how much Shintaro and Fuma enjoyed their confusion. After all none of them had found the time to actually talk about where they had come from. Just because they had fought with them didn’t mean they were Samurai after all.

Juri, Reo and Kentaro were the first to enter the room and they bowed towards everyone and Sakuma just kept staring open mouthed at all of them.

Domoto had made sure to get some Kimono for all of them and also ask them if they were okay to participate in the first place, after all this wasn’t Yoshiwara and they could refuse, but somehow they all were more than excited about actually holding this small private party.

“Thank you everyone for joining us tonight for this event,” Kentaro spoke and gave his friends a teasing look.

“Wait are we the only ones who didn’t know about this?” Sakuma asked pointing at Kaito and Tai-chan.

“Seems like it,” Tai-chan replied, also a bit astonished about what was going on. Kaito on the other hand wanted them to shut up, because he was already trying to find out who he was the most excited about.   

“On Domoto’s request we have decided to show you our skills and entertain you with our art for the night,” Reo added before Juri spoke next. “We are Oiran from Edo, from the Yoshiwara district and hope you will enjoy your time tonight.”

“Yoshiwara!?” Kaito and Sakuma yelled in union on which Fuma and Shintaro almost started laughing. After all Yoshiwara was famous all over Japan.

“We also have the special honor to announce that the Tayū of this year’s Yoshiwara parade is also with us today,” Kentaro announced.

“Wow, that is indeed a party only Domoto can organize,” Kaito said in excitement, while Tai-chan’s expression had changed from startled to shocked and rested on slightly self-mocking over not realizing until now. Yet the other two still craned their necks, trying to see who would enter the room.

When Juri, Reo and Kentaro stepped to the side the last Oiran finally walked inside the room. Instead of the one layered colorful Kimono he was wearing a three layered Kimono. The first white layer making his skin appear even paler, the next red layer had been a choice by himself, as a symbol for the war they have just won and in respect to the fallen soldiers. The last layer had been on request of Domoto and it was black, such an unusual color for Oiran yet his choice was understandable, because he knew how stunning he looked in black! Over the whole upper layer golden embroidery told the story of Yoshiwara and everyone’s eyes were on the beautiful pattern before they looked up at his face. The unusual black eyeliner making his eyes appear sharper and dangerous, while he carried a faint smile when he finally stopped in the middle of the room, bowing towards everyone.

“No shouting?” Shintaro asked towards Sakuma, but the boy was more than out of words. He stared at the person in front of him dumbfounded and with wide eyes until he jumped up as if struck by lighting and pointed his finger at the other one.

“HOW? LIKE SERIOUSLY HOW?” Sakuma yelled at Taiga with an outstretched arm, but no one was angry at him for that reaction, most of them were actually laughing at his shocked expression.

Taiga moved closer to the other one on which Sakuma took his arm down, but was still unable to voice out something logical. When Taiga stretched his arm out and touched Sakuma’s cheek the other one flinched and Kaito pouted next to him, already jealous.

“I can tell you,” Taiga said and let his hand travel down to the other one’s chin and he leant dangerously close, “or I can show you.”

Sakuma almost squealed when Taiga blew some air into his face before he released him again with a small chuckle while Fuma and Shintaro actually laughed big time at Sakuma’s startled expression.

Kaito pulled Sakuma back down into a sitting position before Taiga faced Domoto and the other Daimyo instead. Once more he bowed and also gave Tai-chan a side glance, but he realized that the latter was better in hiding his surprise, but he definitely wanted to ask a few questions as well.

“Domoto-dono, I want to thank you for this opportunity and also thank Matsumura-dono and Shimekake-dono for helping me and my friends out over the past weeks. I am glad that the chaos finally came to an end and I am sorry to cause a lot of you this much trouble over the past months.”

Everyone had their own part in Taiga’s apology and they all knew that, so they all only nodded. Taiga moved over to the corner and Juri handed him the Shamisen with a bright smile.

“You’re still having the aura to get them all excited,” Juri teased him on which Taiga wanted to hit him, but that had to wait for later, so he only rolled his eyes at him while the others couldn’t see it.

“Then you better work on yours, because I will gladly share the attention with you.”

 Taiga went back into the middle of the room with his Shamisen, while the others joined in with Juri on the Shakuhachi and Reo went to the Koto, while Kentaro took two beautiful golden fans out.

Ryota and Shota proceeded to join the others next to their tables instead and hand out some sake to them.

It felt so familiar yet so weird to Taiga when he lifted his Bachi up to the strings. Before he started playing he turned to look at his friends and he was happy to see their encouraging smiles. Things wouldn’t easily go back to normal, but at least he had his friends at his side, that part wouldn’t change.

***

“Wait, slow down! So you were the Tayū before and this year it was you?” Sakuma asked and Taiga pointed at Kentaro.

“He cheated though! It’s his last year and he wanted to pass the torch so he lost on purpose,” Taiga scolded his senpai on which Kentaro only laughed, because he couldn’t deny that it was true.

Things had calmed down after a while and now they were all sitting in groups talking and drinking. But of course Sakuma had grabbed Taiga immediately and thrown questions at him.

“So it was at that big Yoshiwara fire that we heard about that you lost your memories?” Tai-chan who sat with them asked and Taiga nodded.

Kaito was the only one who didn’t seem in an urgent need to get details. He had ended up between Shota and Ryota, feeling a bit intimidated by them yet he also seemed to enjoy the night to the fullest!

“I was at the Shogunate meeting at that time, so things got a bit chaotic when I heard about the fire.”

“Wait, so you are one of Domoto’s, well you know, boys?” Sakuma asked in a low voice while Reo was sitting next to Domoto handing him a cigarette.

“Reo, a friend of ours and I are with him at those meetings, yes,” Taiga said holding at least a bit of pride over that fact.

“Wow no miracle he came with a whole army when he heard you were in trouble,” Sakuma teased. “But wait, does that mean the day we went to the entertainment district you went to- you know..?”

Instead of replying, Taiga looked over to Juri with a guilty expression, but the boy was talking to Hokuto and couldn’t hear them. “Yes I went to another kind of house.”

“Damn, if I had known I would have never made you come with me, I feel so stupid now!”

“Not everyone is mister super detective Tai-chan, so don’t worry,” Taiga soothed.

“Wait you knew?” Sakuma asked Tai-chan who shook his head.

“I had my doubts about some parts here and there so I knew more than you at least?”

Sakuma fell back a bit pouting on hearing that, but then he shrugged his shoulders and ask for another drink, which made Taiga smile, because he had feared that Sakuma could end up being angry at him for not telling him about this over the past weeks.

"And I actually also think there is someone here not that happy about you dragging him to an entertainment district in the first place," Tai-chan added, looking over at Juri who had also looked over to them the same moment, but pretended as if it wasn't on purpose.

Sakuma raised an eyebrow on hearing that before Taiga gave Juri a small sheepish look over his shoulder. On that move Sakuma started yelling and pointing forth and back between Juri and Taiga. Tai-chan immediately hit him on the back of the head so he would calm down and don't make the Daimyo angry.

"Wait so you are spoken for?" Sakuma asked in a lower voice this time and fell back with a stunned expression when Taiga nodded.

“But wait, how do you know Hokuto and Shime, I didn’t catch up on that part,” Tai-chan said.

“Kochi helped out at our house before and Hokuto…” Taiga wasn’t sure if the other one wanted them to talk about it, so he looked over to him, but he was still in a conversation.

“Hokuto looks stunning in a Kimono, but he was pretty grumpy with customers, so the owner kicked him out,” Fuma replied straight forward on which Sakuma almost spit out his drink and Taiga hurried to pad his back when he started coughing.

“Wait what? Hokuto was one of you?” Sakuma asked in disbelief.

“Special circumstances made him join, yes, but he and Kochi left after…” Taiga started before his look turned to gloomy before he could actually smile about it and pointed at his eye. “After some unfortunate incident with the Yamashita clan.”

“You were involved in the Yamashita clan incidence?” Tai-chan asked.

“All of us actually,” Kentaro said. “That’s how we all know Shime as well.”

“And I wasn’t there for the fun, I should have come to join you earlier,” Shintaro said pouting.

“Trust me now that Taiga is back you will have enough time to get dragged into trouble,” Kentaro assured him.

“So you are really going back?” Sakuma asked on which all the boys exchanged a look.

“It’s not like I have a choice. Running away from Yoshiwara is a death sentence and I can call myself lucky that our house owner is an amazing person and can hope that he won’t punish me for the past months over which I had lost my memories.”

“But you seem to have amazing people around you, so if you ask me it’s definitely a place that fits you way better than the battlefield,” Tai-chan said serious on which Taiga formed a thankful smile, because he was right. He had fought for his friends and he would always do it again, but if he had to choose between war and Yoshiwara his choice was clear!

“Sorry to interrupt you, but I want to make an announcement,” Hokuto said on which everyone turned towards him and Juri walked up to Taiga and the others to sit down there. “Sakuma would you please come over here.”

This time it was Taiga’s turn to look a bit confused, but Sakuma gave him a lopsided smile as if he was the one with a surprise up his sleeve this time.

“In a few days most of you will leave and head back to Edo, but for us things will remain a bit unstable around mine and Yabu’s chaotic domain so I had a talk with the other Daimyoy and Sakuma. To help us build up the trust between the two domains Sakuma has taken on the challenge to take over the domain from his brother.”

“Wow that’s a surprise,” Fuma said, after he had heard about all the chaos the boy had to go through thanks to his crazy brother.

“Are you really sure?” Taiga asked a bit worried, after all that meant he had to take full responsibility over his family’s domain, without the people even knowing about him, but Sakuma flashed Taiga a bright smile.

“Matsumura-dono, told me he will make sure to send some trusted advisers with me and always support me if I need his help, so I will put my trust in him and the Shogunate and help the people of my family’s domain to regain their trust into my family as well!”

While it seemed a bit sad that a cheerful and active person like Sakuma who would definitely enjoy traveling the whole country was going into politics, it was also making Taiga feel proud of him to choose such a difficult yet important path and wasn’t he the same? He could have a calm life in Edo after leaving Yoshiwara, yet his thoughts were already on a completely different path.

“Congratulations then,” Tai-chan said and lifted his cup on which the others followed and celebrated Sakuma’s new responsibility.

Chapter Text

Domoto was the first one to leave after he had to take care of a lot of reports about what had happened and how the domain would be under Hokuto’s and Sakuma’s protection from now on.

The Kimonos Domoto had especially prepared for them had eventually ended up being a present to all of them, on which Reo was pouting a lot, because Taiga had gotten a three layered Kimono while he didn’t. But Taiga knew already that this Kimono hadn’t been made just in two weeks, Domoto had it made way before that and it had been the perfect opportunity for him to hand it to Taiga. That also meant that he had definitely made similar ones for Reo and Myuto he was sure of that, so back in Yoshiwara Reo would hopefully stop pouting after receiving his one at some point.

The next one to prepare to leave was Shime and Taiga made his way to the fields in front of the castle where his men were waiting.

“Oh look we get a proper send off,” Kaito said as he spotted Taiga.

“There is no way I let you leave without saying good-bye,” Taiga replied and Kaito walked up to him, but then he stopped with an embarrassed expression. “Don’t get me wrong, I was just wondering if it’s okay for me to hug you or if that comes off as weird?”

Taiga had to laugh at Kaito’s sudden change of behavior around him. “Nothing has changed you idiot.”

When Taiga spread his arms Kaito walked up to him to give him a tight farewell hug, because even though they haven’t been on this journey together for long they have fought together and that was something that will forge an endless friendship, at least if they believed Tai-chan’s words.

“Take care of yourself and make sure to visit us if you get the chance,” Kaito said as he hit the other one carefully against the arm.

“I’ll make sure that your place will be on my vacation list,” Taiga laughed.

“But please don’t bring any trouble with you when you come by,” Shime was heard as he came closer already on his horse. Kaito bowed to his Daimyo and gave Taiga another smile before he excused himself back to his preparations.

“You know that I can’t promise that,” Taiga said with his hands raised in apology on which Shime laughed before his expression turned a bit more serious.

“After everything you have done for me and also for Hokuto I was pretty shocked about finding you in the middle of the Nakasendo, not to forget to have you joining our war. But I was also happy about the way you easily became friends with so many people around you and ended up to be the one person to rescue us all, again.”

“Without all of you I would have never come this far though,” Taiga replied gratefully, because if it wasn’t for Shime and Hokuto helping him out this time he would maybe still wander around without his memories.

“May our next encounter be under better circumstances then,” Shime said and Taiga nodded, looking after him with a proud feeling. It was still so weird to see his friend as a Daimyo, yet he knew that Shime was one of the most suited people to get into that position after everything he had gone through in his life.

Taiga turned around looking for one more person he wanted to bid farewell to before they left. After asking a few of Shime’s men he finally found the one in question. Different from the others Tai-chan was standing a bit away from everyone, looking over Hokuto’s domain with an absent minded look.

“Are you not preparing to leave?” Taiga asked as he stepped next to him. Tai-chan gave him a scanning look on which Taiga looked over his clothes as if he was wearing something he shouldn’t.

“You look better in your Kimono,” Tai-chan finally voiced out now that Taiga was back in a Hakama. “And the worst in an armor.”

“Means as much as go back to Yoshiwara and never enter any war again,” Taiga replied, knowing exactly what Tai-chan tried to tell him under that played angry expression.

“From the day I met you I knew that you were in one way or the other a fighter, but I was also sure you weren’t a Samurai. Your fight happens in a completely different environment, yet exactly that different kind of fighting experience is what rescued us all.”

“Now you’re talking like Shime,” Taiga said a bit teasing, knowing it was hard for Tai-chan to speak this honest in the first place. “We’re heading back in a few days as well, I will make sure to thank the people who helped me on my way. Want me to give a message to Aki?”

On that question Tai-chan fell silent for a moment, but then he nodded. “Tell her to take time for herself as well. It’s important to take care of your family, but you have to think about your own happiness sometimes too.”

“Oh she won’t like that,” Taiga said on which they both exchanged a look before they had to chuckle. “I wish we could just go back to that time and pretend as if there had never been a war.”

“No need to go back for that, just keep on moving and you will be able to overcome the bad memories,” Tai-chan said seriously before he turned to his army as more and more people got ready to leave.

“Let me help you get ready,” Taiga said as they walked back to Tai-chan’s horse. When one of the men shouted that they were going to leave now everyone got on their horses and suddenly it felt so weirdly real for Taiga that he let out a long breath. When he got hit against the shoulder he looked back at Tai-chan who held his hand out to him. “Take care of yourself and if you ever need help you know where to find me.”

It took Taiga a lot of effort not to tear up on that statement, but he didn’t want the other one to make fun out of him so he just lifted his hand as well and squeezed the other one’s hand with a tight grip. “Same for you, I might not have an army to help you out, but trust me a few Oirans can be pretty scary as well.”

“I believe you that,” Tai-chan said with a small chuckle before he hurried to get on his horse. Taiga stepped back and waved as Tai-chan wanted to leave with the others. Kaito waited for him a few meters away, but then he stopped and came back once more on which Taiga tilted his head and lifted his hands right in time when Tai-chan threw something at him without a warning.

“You know, as much as I hope you won’t get into trouble again I think you should have it. But make sure to take good care of it!”

“Are you sure?” Taiga asked perplex as he held Tai-chan’s sword in his hands. Not just a random Shoto, but Tai-chan’s precious Katana and yet the other one nodded with a light smile.

“Take care, Taiga!”

“You too,” Taiga voiced out when the other one had already turned his horse around and cantered after the others. With a tight grip he lifted the sword up against his chest. He had indeed found some amazing new friends on his journey!

***

“It was shimmering in green before, wasn’t it?” Kochi asked as he, Hokuto and Taiga took a closer look at Ryohei’s sword.

“I think the same way our bracelets have lost its magic, Ryohei’s sword also lost it,” Taiga concluded.

“But why? It wasn’t damaged and Ryohei is still alive, which makes it pretty dangerous to have this sword. What if he comes for it?” Kochi asked worried.

Hokuto on the other hand shook his head. “He must have realized it as well or he wouldn’t have run away without taking his sword back from Taiga.”

The fact that Ryohei had been the only one from Yabu’s inner circle to actually get away alive made it a bit tricky to assure the peace under Sakuma’s lead, because no one could tell if Ryohei was going to come back for revenge or if he was also just paid enough by Yabu to go along with the plan and now he would just search for a new place.

“I hope that with the loss of the magic the demons have left as well.”

Taiga’s words made the other two look at him skeptical, but Taiga knew that he couldn’t be sure of course, but something about the way Ryohei had told his story made him believe that he might really be able to start over. He hadn’t chosen the demons, the demons have chosen him after all and now he was finally free of them!

“That would be definitely safer for us as well, not that he gets the idea stuck in his head that he has to come back to free Yabu,” Hokuto said and took the sword from the table and put it back in the sheath. “So I doubt you want to keep this?”

“Me? Why would I?” Taiga asked a bit perplex.

“Well you are the one who won against Ryohei on that day, if you said you want to keep it then it’s yours.”

“Thank you, but I have a way more precious sword since yesterday,” Taiga said with a bright smile after he had gotten Tai-chan’s sword to take care of from now.

Hokuto put the sword away for now, keeping it safe in his castle for the time being. Then he excused himself as he had to talk to Sakuma when they wanted to make their first trip to his new castle.

“You had to say goodbye to a lot of people over the past days, how are you feeling?” Kochi asked when he remained alone with Taiga.

“I feel better than I thought actually,” Taiga said with a faint smile. “The first time you two and Shime left from Yoshiwara was worse to be honest.”

“Maybe because you now realized that it’s not forever?”

“Maybe. Even though I would have liked our next meeting after so long to be more of a happy event.”

Kochi nodded on that, because it was the same for him as well of course. “In my worst nightmares I would have never thought that something that happened to me could actually happen to one of my friends. Having you around with your lost memory made me realize for the first time how much I made Hokuto suffer back then.”

“Idiot you made no one suffer,” Taiga complained and shoved the other one a bit to the side on which Kochi showed a small embarrassed smile. “You never wanted to lose your memory, for me it was different. I actually begged to forget, I didn’t think at that time that it could actually happen like that, but I know how you feel. It makes people around us feel helpless and it’s definitely nothing I want to make them go through again.”

“I hope with us two this kind of problem will forever vanish from Yoshiwara, two people in the same group losing their memories is already way too much!”

“Definitely something not many people would believe us if we told our tales together,” Taiga said with a laugh.

Kochi agreed on that as he also moved over to the door, as he had to take care of a lot of duties in the castle as well, but then he turned back to Taiga again. “By the way I want to read that book of yours as well.”

Taiga rolled his eyes on hearing that, but of course Hokuto would tell him, but Taiga had already promised to write it so once more he nodded.

“Don’t get jealous that my memory loss story might be a bit more interesting than yours,” Taiga teased on which they both had to laugh.

***

Their time for another goodbye had finally arrived when it was the Yoshiwara boys who finally decided to head back as Taiga’s wounds had healed enough so that he was sure he could ride for a couple of days.

“Thank you for the horses and the provisions,” Kentaro thanked Hokuto.

“Please make sure you don’t get into trouble on the way back,” Kochi asked of them on which Shintaro laughed.

“They have me, don’t worry!”

“Right...who were you again?”

Everyone had to laugh on Shintaro’s following pouting expression.

“At least our troublemaker himself has learned now how to get himself out of trouble, so that I call progress,” Fuma said on which Taiga was the next to pout.

“Just imagine Aran’s stunned face when you challenge him again, I wonder if you could actually win?” Reo asked excited while he put the last provisions on his horse.

“You should worry about yourself, you are now officially the worst in sword fighting in the group, even Juri is better than you,” Ryota teased back.

“What do you mean by ‘even Juri’?” Juri asked with a dangerous look towards Ryota who was luckily already on his horse so he didn’t need to run away, but he still went over to hide behind Shota and his horse.

“Taiga, are you ready to go?” Juri asked after he got his horse ready as well.

“Just a moment,” he said and Kochi went to hold his horse while Hokuto gave something to him. Taiga thanked him and hurried away from everyone, towards the one person who kept standing a bit in the back.

“Did you really plan on just waving from afar?” Taiga asked and Sakuma looked a bit embarrassed to the ground.

“I just don’t feel like I should be in the way of you and your friends. I have caused so much trouble for you already.”

Taiga stepped closer and hit him with the object he had just received on the head on which the other one squealed and rubbed his head.

“Here,” Taiga said and held the book out to the other one.

“Is that the one you were reading before?”

“Yes I got it from Hokuto and he said it’s okay to give it to you. If you feel like it read it. After I lied to you about so much and we didn’t have the time to actually exchange much about each other’s lives I feel like this is the best I can do,” Taiga said with a calm smile on which Sakuma looked with wide eyes at the book and then at him.

“Wait, are you telling me that this book is about you?”

“Mh, not me alone, but all of us. But you have to find out yourself which character is which, good luck.”

“Well Hokuto will be easy to find, search for the grumpy one,” Sakuma concluded, but when he looked over to the others Hokuto was looking at him even though he shouldn’t be able to hear them on which he clenched the book against his chest and Taiga started laughing.

“Please write me a few letters if you have the time? Hokuto also kept us updated a lot over the years, but it would be great to hear from you too,” Taiga said on which the other one nodded.

“I will do my best to somehow build a domain that can live in peace with everyone. I hope you and your friends will also head back to a peaceful time.”

“I hope so as well,” Taiga said with a quick look over to his friends who were already waiting for him, but didn’t seem to want to rush him. “So I guess I have to leave now then.”

Sakuma nodded in silence on that and when he didn’t say anything else Taiga gave him another smile before he turned around.

“Taiga, wait,” the other one was suddenly heard on which Taiga turned back to him and got almost thrown of balance when Sakuma walked up to him and pulled him in a tight hug.

“I will miss you,” he finally said honestly and Taiga felt relieved that he was showing this reaction, because he had wondered if it was easier for Sakuma to say goodbye then the other way around. Taiga hurried to hug the other one back and rest his head on the other one’s shoulder for a moment.

“I am happy to hear that, because I will miss you too and I am so grateful for your company over the past months, it was great time. Well if we take the last few weeks out of it.”

 Sakuma chuckled on hearing that and finally pulled back, hurrying to put his sleeve over his eyes, but Taiga had teared up as well so there was nothing bad about getting emotional.

“If I get the chance I will come and visit you, I never made it to Edo until now,” Sakuma promised.

“If the Shogunate approves you as the new Daimyo of your domain then you will have the chance to travel there to the Shogunate meeting next year and who knows maybe I will meet you there?”

Sakuma’s eyes started sparkling on hearing that as he had forgotten that Taiga was usually at that meeting. “Then I have to work hard to get the Shogunate’s approval.”

“And one day I will be able to come and visit you at your castle,” Taiga said confident on which Sakuma almost teared up again.

“I will make sure to read this as soon as I can, I bet you have a lot of chapters in which you cause trouble,” Sakuma teased on which Taiga hit him against the shoulder before he pulled the other one in a last hug.

“Thank you for everything!”

Chapter Text

Their way back had been pretty emotional especially for Taiga, because he wanted to make sure to take his time and visit the people who had helped him and later had helped his friends finding him.

It had been quite awkward to talk to Kento again, because even though Juri said he was okay with what had happened between them he wasn’t willing to talk to Kento together with him, which actually proved that he was indeed kind of jealous. But that reaction had Taiga smile a bit, because even if he wouldn’t admit it he liked it when Juri reacted jealous, but pretended to be fine. It just showed how much he cared for Taiga and that he wasn’t willing to easily hand him to someone else.

Exactly that calm attitude of his boyfriend had been challenged a lot when they had made it to the restaurant where Aki was working. The girl had thrown herself at Taiga without any hesitation. As expected she pouted at Tai-chan’s message, but was also happy to hear that he was okay. When Aki kept nagging about his past and his companions she was shocked to hear that Taiga was actually already taken and since that moment she and Juri had given each other death glares until Taiga finally decided that it was time to move on.

The hardest challenge began three days later when they finally arrived in Edo. While Taiga had accepted his fate of having to return to Yoshiwara, it didn’t mean that he wouldn’t feel weird about it, but the first to notice was Juri of course and he rode up to him, giving him an encouraging smile, after all everyone would be more than happy to see him safe.

“I know that today will be tough for you, because everyone will throw tons of questions at you, scold you and well maybe even hit you for disappearing like this, but remember that everyone is also really happy about having you back,” Juri encouraged him.

“I can feel pretty happy about having so many people missing me,” Taiga said a bit teasingly. “And you even got better at riding horses just to make your way faster to me that is also pretty impressive, especially as bad as you were when we headed to the Yamashita clan.”

“Don’t remind me, I couldn’t walk for a whole week after that,” Juri let out with a shiver, remembering how embarrassed he had felt at that time.

Taiga was happy that they could laugh about it now, while it wasn’t a chapter of their life that had been easy on any of them. Now they had to learn to laugh about the current happenings as well, but it would take time, but he was willing to try and see the positive sides of the past months.

When Juri suddenly stopped his horse Taiga looked at him questioning on which the other one smiled and pointed to the front. Their friends were behind them and they had also stopped, waiting for Taiga as he looked ahead, finding someone standing in the middle of the road, looking at them or more like him.

The other one’s look was stuck between relieved and scolding yet Taiga could only smile back at the other one before he made his horse move closer. He could imagine how weird it must seem for his friends back in Edo to see him coming back with his hair back in a high ponytail now that it had grown for months, in a Hakama instead of a Kimono and even carrying a sword.

In silence he got off his horse and stepped in front of the other one with a careful smile, not knowing how he would react.

“Out on patrol?”

A stupid question, because the other one was in uniform so he was indeed on patrol and for a moment Taiga thought he had made him angry as his look became a bit darker.

“Sorry, I should have started with an apology I guess,” Taiga said honestly. “Aran, I’m-”

Aran grabbed the other one by the sleeve and pulled him to the front before he could end his sentence. The next moment he found himself pulled in a tight hug.

“I know that you are sorry you idiot, you always are,” Aran let out and while he was good in keeping his voice steady, Taiga could always see it in his eyes when Aran got emotional and when he pulled back his eyes told him how much he had worried over the past months, how much he would have loved to leave with the others to look for him.

“Are you angry?” Taiga asked on which Aran hit him with the flat hand against the forehead on which their friends laughed in the back.

“Of course I am! You worried me so much on that day and I was looking so forward to seeing you happy about getting the news that the others are safe, yet you were gone! You caused all of us a lot of pain over the past months!”

Aran’s honesty made Taiga look to the ground with an apologizing look, but Aran put his hand on his shoulder finally forming a smile. “But now you are back and trust me I am so happy about seeing that you are okay that I will be nice and forget about my anger. But you have to tell me your story later, especially about that one,” Aran said and pointed at Taiga’s sword on which he moved his hand to the hilt with a nostalgic smile.

“He should show you instead of telling you,” Fuma shouted from the back on which Aran seemed excited.

“Then I am definitely going to find you in a few days when things have calmed down, but now you should keep going, a lot of people are waiting for your arrival.”

Taiga gave him another hug before they moved on, Taiga wanting to walk from here, but Shota told him to get back up, because it would look way better if they all entered Yoshiwara on their horses and Taiga rolled his eyes on the way they wanted to make this big entrance, but even Kentaro told him to get back up so he gave up and did how he was told.

What he hadn’t expected though was destruction still visible months after the fire.

“Edo burned for 9 days,” Juri said while they were riding through a district that hadn’t been rebuilt yet. “Yoshiwara and districts with a lot of shops tried to rebuild as fast as possible, but the damage is still visible at a lot of places. It was a tough time.”

“And I just ran away,” Taiga let out lost in his thoughts on which Juri gave him a judging look, but Taiga shook his head. “I am not saying I did it on purpose, but it’s a fact after all, no matter the circumstances.”

“But now you came back and that is the important part for all of us,” Juri replied.

Taiga nodded before he looked ahead and stopped on the sight of the rebuilt red gates of Yoshiwara.

“I would say welcome home, but I am not sure if you want to hear that,” Reo said carefully as he rode next to Taiga with a faint smile.

It was indeed not clear to Taiga if he wanted to hear something like that or not as the red gates gave him a lot of feelings and not all of them were good, but not all of them were bad either so he turned towards his friends who were all giving him encouraging looks.

“Guess it’s time to welcome your worst troublemaker back in Yoshiwara,” Taiga let out making the others laughed.

“I am looking forward to it,” Kentaro teased him.

“Especially because your trouble means trouble for us and we like trouble,” Ryota said honestly and Shota could only agree.

Taiga turned back to Reo and Juri who both nodded at him before he finally took another deep breath and dared to enter the place he had left behind.

“THEY ARE BACK! GUYS, TAIGA IS BACK!”

They weren’t even close to the house yet and still they could hear Reia’s shouting. A lot of people turned towards them which made Taiga feel even more uncomfortable. It was bad enough that they looked all high and mighty on their horses, but now a lot of people were whispering and pointing, because everyone knew Taiga of course. It had just been a few months that he had been gone and he was still officially the highest ranked male Oiran in Yoshiwara.

One thing Taiga felt happy about was that they were rebuilding the district the way it had been before. So their house was at exactly the same spot and also looked the same way, but of course constructions were still ongoing.

“That I call an entrance,” Ren said as he stepped out of the house with his arms crossed to his chest, yet he was smiling at Taiga’s arrival.

The next people to step out of the house were Kamenashi and Tatsuya on which Taiga thought that they should really not have come on their horses, because they didn’t look that impressed. So the moment they stopped in front of the house Taiga hurried to get off his horse and the others did so as well, Reo reaching out for his horse and telling him to go first. Which he of course had to anyway, because he would get the scolding of his life now after all.

Before he could walk up to Kamenashi though Reia jumped at him and pulled him in such a tight hug that Taiga was left without air for a few seconds.

“It’s so unreal to have you back,” Reia let out with a wide smile as he pulled back and his hand collided with Taiga’s sword hilt making Reia’s eyes seemed to sparkle. “Where did you get such a sword? What happened while you were gone?”

Taiga needed to calm the other one a bit down before he would stand there the whole day and explain.

“Nice hairstyle, maybe you should go for a Chonmage next?” Ren was heard teasing next to him on which Taiga couldn’t hide a chuckle, but he also dared to put his hand around the hilt and stepped closer to Ren making the other one show slight panic in his eyes.

“If you finally show more respect then maybe I should consider it?”

Reia stepped back to Ren and pinched him on his behavior, but Taiga could only smile at them after all he was also happy to see them being well.

“Would you mind helping the others with the horses, I think Reo wants to bring them to Fu to take care of them,” Taiga asked and both boys immediately helped the other boys with the horses, but it was obvious how they didn’t want to leave immediately after all his talk with Kamenashi was something everyone wanted to see.

“Don’t stand around there like rooted trees, your horses carried you all so mighty people until here now it’s time you take care of them,” Tatsuya yelled at them as he passed by Taiga. Before he walked up to them though he stopped next to the boy who looked up at him with a slightly unsure expression of how to greet him after such a long time.

“Remember when I told you that you can always talk to us no matter what it is?” Tatsuya asked suddenly on which Taiga nodded hesitantly. “Good, because that hasn’t changed.”

Tatsuya clapped him on the shoulder before he walked over to the others and Taiga had to smile at him, because that was exactly what he needed to hear right now, because he was indeed pretty nervous about talking to Kamenashi about everything, but as Tatsuya just said nothing had changed and he had to believe that he was still important to the owner and the members of this house.

“Reia you take Taiga’s horse, Ren you take Kentaro’s and you also stay here,” Tatsuya said as he took Juri’s horse which meant Kentaro and Juri were allowed to stay which made Ryota and Shota pout, but they knew better than to complain. Fuma also waved his good-bye for now and followed Shintaro and the others while Taiga finally walked up to the owner.

First Taiga wasn’t sure if he was even allowed to talk first, because no matter if he looked all high and mighty in his Hakama and with his sword, now he was back and he was nothing more but a boy in Yoshiwara, owned by this house. Alone that thought made a shadow pass over his face, but he knew what would await him the moment he decided to go back, not that he had a choice. So he did was he was supposed to do and he took a deep apologizing bow in front of the owner.

“You’ve lost weight,” Kamenashi finally said with a scanning look when Taiga straightened his back again, but could only nod after all it was true. “Any new scars?”

Before answering, Taiga looked around, but there were not too many people at the moment and Kentaro and Juri also kept their distance, yet Taiga wished they would at least go inside.

“Taiga, I asked you something.”

Until a week ago Taiga had been living a free life, able to give people who spoke impolitely to him an angry glance and even sit on the same level with the Daimyo of different provinces, yet all that was in the past already and he finally let his built facade crumble a bit as he bowed towards Kamenashi on his absent minded behavior.

“A few sword wounds, yes,” Taiga replied.

“Show me.”

Again Taiga looked over to the doors like a silent request to be allowed to go inside, but he knew he didn’t have that status to ask something like that.

Carefully he pulled his arm out of his Haori to show his shoulder on which Kamenashi got closer and took the bandage off to take a look. “That’s a pretty bad one, does it still hurt?”

Taiga’s first thought of a reply was if he wanted to ask if he could work right away again, but he knew that even if that was the case he couldn’t be angry about it. Work meant money and that was what he was owned for at this house.

“It’s getting better, in a few days it shouldn’t hurt too much anymore.”

“Anything else?” Kamenashi asked neutral on which Taiga showed his wound on his chest first, but that one hadn’t been too bad thanks to the bracelets. Then he proceeded to turn around and lower his clothes a bit so that the owner could see the wound on his back.

Taiga looked up at Juri and Kentaro at that move, but he felt a bit calmer seeing how Juri gave him a calm smile and Kentaro had his half supportive half scolding senpai expression on. It reminded him that things were okay! He was used to all of this, he had been used to all of this for years now and there was nothing to feel scared about.

When Kamenashi touched the wound on his back Taiga flinched on which the owner withdrew his hand. “When did you get this one?”

“About a month ago,” Taiga replied as he dared to turn around again and pull his clothes back up.

“That kind of stab wound could have killed you and it’s only a month old?” Kamenashi said, the first time in this conversation showing a troubled expression.

“It actually almost did kill me,” Taiga let out in a low voice, remembering how he had actually longed for the peace he would receive after dying, when he still thought there was nothing left for him in this world.

There was a long silence from Kamenashi on which Taiga tried to read his expression, but it was as always pretty difficult.

“Tell me Taiga, how does it feel to be back in Yoshiwara?”

There it was the one question he didn’t want to be asked this directly. His hesitation to reply was proof enough for everyone around how troubled he actually was about getting asked something personal like that.

“Taiga,” realizing that he had been impolite again through not replying and just looking to the ground he straightened his back again and took another deep breath before he dared to reply.

“It’s a slightly unfamiliar feeling,” Taiga said, trying to express his feelings as neutral as possible. “But I am sure that in a few days I will be able to go back to the usual routine.”

As if this hadn’t been the reply he wanted at all Kamenashi let out a sigh and crossed his arms to his chest.

“Try again.”

“What?” Taiga asked a bit confused, even daring a look over to the others, but they couldn’t actually help him and seemed a confused as well.

“I want you to reply to that question again, but this time, try it with the truth.”

Taiga wanted to reply something immediately which resulted in Kamenashi taking his fan out of his Obi on which Taiga intuitively made a step back, but luckily the other one only pointed at him with it so far, too often had he been hit with it. “The truth Taiga, you know that I can see when you are lying.”

Of course he knew that, but wasn’t what he had just said what the owner wanted to hear from him? A fast recovery, no problem to get back to work? But then he just let his emotions fill his thoughts for a moment until he realized that he had maybe made a wrong step back into Yoshiwara. This wasn’t how he had felt about his house, about the members and about the owner. Realizing that, he finally dared to reply honestly.

“I thought about not coming back,” Taiga said straight forward. A truth the others were already aware of. “I regret running away like this, even though it hadn’t been like I planned on it. I caused a lot of trouble to you and the others, yet I wouldn’t give that time back. I made amazing friends, I had an unforgettable journey and yes I got hurt and betrayed and even almost killed as well, but while we are not fighting with swords in Yoshiwara I had my fair part of fights and challenges here as well and I wasn’t sure if I wanted to exchange my sword for a Kimono ever again!”

The moment Taiga had spoken the truth he was shocked about hearing his own words. He hadn’t denied any of these feelings, but he also hadn’t planned on actually speaking them out loud like this and the realization of that made him start shaking a bit.

“And do you think now that you are here again you can go back to work?” Kamenashi said with a still straight expression.

“I don’t know,” Taiga replied immediately, this time not going for any outrights and while he felt like a lot of weight was lifted off his shoulders he could also feel how he was slowly tearing up. “I missed everyone and I am of course happy to see everyone safe, but I won’t be able to shake the jealousy off which I feel towards people who are free. Nevertheless I do want to try and go back to work,” Taiga said now even his voice giving up on him as his bottom lip started shaking and he had to lift his sleeve for the first time to get the annoying falling tears out of the way. “And I am not only going back to work because I have to, but also because I realized that Yoshiwara is not the end for me. I have a future in front of me I can look forward to so I don’t want to waste any time complaining and use the time to grow stronger instead.”

It felt a little bit ridiculous to stand in the middle of the street, crying loudly, but there was no way he could stop now and he also didn’t want to, because for the first time he was feeling so relieved about saying out loud what he was feeling.

When Kamenashi moved he was sure that the owner would just head back to the house, accepting his outburst and hoping he could pull off his work as usual. But things went completely different when Kamenashi moved towards him and pulled him in a gentle hug. Taiga’s tears seemed to stop in an instead as he went into a kind of shock on that reaction of the owner. But it only took a few seconds until he had to laugh at himself, because hadn’t Tatsuya told him before that nothing had changed? Hadn’t he experienced it before that Kamenashi showed all of them how much he actually treasured them as people and not as goods?

“It’s good to have you back,” Kamenashi let out soothing on which Taiga was close to crying again, but he was able to suppress at least a few tears when the other one let go of him. “Your emotions have always been your strong point, don’t lock them up, it won’t do any good for neither yourself nor the people who care for you.”

Taiga bowed deeply on hearing the owner’s supportive words before Kamenashi retreated back inside the house without another word. Taiga kept his upper body lowered for a moment until he was sure that he had his emotions back under control.

Juri and Kentaro stood at his side immediately and Taiga wanted to hit them for their teasing expressions, but while he had only seen bad scenarios about coming back to Yoshiwara they had obviously already seen the owner’s reaction coming.

“If you tell the others that I cried I will make you pay for it later,” Taiga warned them on which Kentaro laughed and pointed at Taiga’s sword.

“You know that officially you are not even allowed to carry this here, right?”

Taiga put his hand around the hilt and turned towards his Senpai, but made the latter flinch when he used his free hand to put a finger under his chin. “I never said in which way I would make you pay.”

A tiny bit proud of the way Kentaro looked startled Taiga turned away from them and headed straight for the house.

Yes maybe he could pull this off again as he did before and maybe, just maybe he could also learn again how to enjoy his life in Yoshiwara!

Chapter Text

Even though the location was the same and they had tried to build the house with the same image as before with the pond in the middle, it all felt weirdly strange to Taiga when he made his way to the back of the house.

When he stepped into the room that had been his and Juri's before he realized something even worse when he found it empty except for two unused futons in the cupboard.

"Juri, how much were you able to get out of the house?"

With a gloomy look Juri shook his head. "Nothing actually. Things have gone out of hand too fast and Kamenashi urged us to run before we could actually get trapped in the flames."

Juri went to his clothes, unknown Yukata folded together and then he pulled his red and blue Kimono out. "I was wearing this at work when it happened so it's the only belonging I could save. The bracelet was also in my room after Kentaro had put it there."

"So… our Kimonos?"

"Are gone," Juri confirmed with a bitter expression.

Sure they could always ask Tegoshi to make new ones, but somehow Taiga didn't feel the need to do so. After all they could be happy that they all have survived in the first place.

Juri didn't close the door for now, having talked to Taiga before that they should take a bath after their long journey for now, but Taiga walked up to the table in the corner and pulled Tai-chan's sword out, putting it carefully aside before he sat down and looked at his reflexion in the mirror.

He had indeed lost weight. He was almost skinnier than Juri, but he also looked older, not necessarily in a bad way though.

Juri walked up to him and sat down behind him before he reached out for Taiga's ponytail and let the other one's hair down.

"It reaches over your shoulders already," Juri said as he pulled out a comb from the desk and carefully brushed it. He could wait until after taking a bath, but somehow neither of them was in a hurry to get up anyway.

"Would you cut it for me?"

That question had Juri a bit surprised and he gave the other one a small smile. "Are you sure? It fits you quite well."

"I look like Kamenashi."

"Is that a bad thing?" Juri laughed.

Well not really, but Taiga wasn't sure if he liked his hair long or not. Somehow he felt like he needed a change.

Juri took out the knife they usually used to cut their hair a bit shorter on their own. "How short do you want it?"

"I leave that to you," Taiga said with a soft expression towards Juri who seemed happy about being trusted that much.

Carefully Juri kept brushing Taiga’s hair until he was sure he could cut it without trouble. When he put the knife up to the first strand they heard a gasp and the next second someone squealed and three people stumbled into the room, one falling over the other one.

"What are you doing?" Juri asked half scolding half amused on Reo, Ren and Reia lying entangled on the ground.

"Don't cut it!" Reia said and finally got up just to sit down next to Taiga who gave him an amused look.

"Why not?"

"Because it looks so damn good, isn't that obvious?" Reo interfered and took the knife from Juri. "And if you really need to cut it then leave it to someone who can do it."

"Excuse me?" Juri said pouting, but Reo had made Juri sit back already and he and Reia started discussing what to do with Taiga's new haircut.

"Do I have any saying in this?" Taiga asked skeptical.

"No," Reo and Reia said in union, Reo already cutting the first strand off, but not too short of course.

Giving up on arguing, Taiga just let them do whatever they wanted with his hair after all he could still cut it later.

"Wait a second," Reo said as he was done and took Taiga's hair band and used it to get the longer strands back into a small ponytail, but he left the lower half out of it on which Taiga tilted his head in confusion.

"What kind of hairstyle is this?" Taiga asked.

"A good one! You should try this with your customers. They'll love it," Reo said proud of his work and Reia nodded.

"I've to agree that Reo sometimes has weird yet fascinating ideas."

"Yes like your eyeliner?" Juri added.

"That one is still amazing and you know it!" Reo defended himself.

Taiga kept looking at his new haircut, but wasn't too sure about the half up ponytail so he turned to Ren who had looked at everything in silence. "What do you think?"

"I don't really care."

"That's exactly why I want you to tell me if you find it weird or not," Taiga said and turned towards the boy who had sat down a bit more in the middle of the room.

He let out a sigh on the annoying question before he shrugged his shoulders. "Just try it out? It doesn't look too bad, but how about you ask Tatsuya to help you to dye it blonde?"

Silence followed that statement before Reia and Reo exchanged an excited look.

"Don't even think about it," Taiga said on which they both wanted to argue and Reia pulled on Taiga's sleeve, pouting when he suddenly fell silent.

"What is it?" Taiga asked.

"Your bracelet is gone? Both of them?" Reia asked in realization on which Juri and Taiga exchanged a calm smile.

"We returned them," Taiga said.

"Well more like Taiga did that," Juri added.

"Why do I know already that we'll get a super weird story telling later about this?" Ren asked skeptical as he wasn't that convinced about the backstory of the bracelets in the first place.

"The part about Taiga fighting against a crazy Daimyo and a demon sword owner is way better though," Reo said on which Reia's eyes started shining and Taiga rolled his eyes.

"Later though, we just came back. Would you mind giving us some time to actually settle back in?"

Juri's request made them realize that not just Taiga and Juri, but also Reo were still in their hakama and should really take some time to rest.

"By the way do we have any new members in the house?" Taiga asked when he was left alone with Juri.

What he hadn't expected though was a gloomy look on the question before Juri nodded. "You could say we have one new boy yes."

***

The road looked so different with all the new buildings even though they had of course tried to rebuild it the same way.

Taiga already spotted the river in front of him and on the bench where they had met the first time the other one was sitting. A spot he was found at often Juri had explained.

Before approaching him directly, Taiga stopped at the rebuild dango store which Reo loved so much and he decided to buy some first. Another nostalgic moment even though it was also a memory of his first fight after his ceremony.

Without hesitation he approached the other one and sat down next to him on the bench. Both of them were in a Yukata which had been newly made by Tegoshi for the house as they had lost everything.

Taiga had chosen a simple light blue one with a white obi while the other one was wearing a dark green one with a black obi, a dark choice compared to his usual bright yellow ones.

The other one didn't even seem to have noticed Taiga's presents as he looked absentmindedly towards the river until Taiga lifted one of the dango right in front of the other one's face.

"Not sure if food will help with the gloomy mood, but maybe it's worth a try?" Taiga said while the other one flinched and looked completely startled back at him.

It seemed like he hadn't even realized it was Taiga at first, which was understandable with his lost weight and new hairstyle.

"How've you been Myuto?" Taiga asked when the other one seemed still so confused and speechless.

Slowly Taiga pulled the dango back as he realized that he wouldn't take it and he formed an apologizing smile for his sudden approach. "Sorry, I should have maybe approached you a bit less awkward," Taiga apologized, but the next moment Myuto grabbed Taiga by the arm with such a tight grip that he feared he had actually made the other one angry, but it came different when Myuto pulled him into a way too tight hug.

"Please tell me that this is real?" Myuto asked and his shaking voice made Taiga feel like the worst person existing. How much had Myuto suffered over the past months after losing all his friends? How had Taiga just left him behind like that?

Somehow managing to rescue the dango first, Taiga hugged the other one back and gave him a tight squeeze. "It's real! I'm back and I'm so sorry for what you had to go through! I'm so sorry for your loss!"

Everything Taiga had thought he had lost over the past months had actually happened to Myuto and here the boy was still in Yoshiwara, working at Kamenashi's house for now and it made Taiga feel so stupid and weak over his own way of dealing with things.

"I thought I've lost you too," Myuto admitted in a shaking voice and it almost made Taiga cry how the other one was shivering.

"I've caused you and the others so much trouble through disappearing and I wish I could somehow change it, but now I can only keep apologizing."

Myuto squeezed him once more before he pushed him a bit back on his arms with tears shining in his eyes, but finally there was also a faint smile visible. "You apologized once that's enough, now you only have to promise to stay this time and get ready for my scolding depending on what you will tell me about what has happened over the past months."

Taiga let out a chuckle on hearing that before he nodded. "I'll let you know my story, but I also want to hear how you've been."

"He's been better that's for sure."

Another familiar voice made them both turn, spotting Hikaru standing behind them.

"But he still has you so I'm sure he'll be fine," Taiga said with a bright smile, happy to see that Hikaru was still there to take care of Myuto.

Taiga held out the dango once more to the others and this time both of them took one before their afternoon would be occupied with storytelling.

***

At the fourth try to make the Ikebana in front of him somehow look good Taiga sighed and put the red flower in his hand down on the floor.

"Want some help?"

On the question Taiga spotted Shota in the door frame with a teasing smile.

"The master of Ikebana is willing to help me?" Taiga teased and made an inviting hand movement so Shota joined him in the practice room.

Taiga had gotten a week to get back into the routine before he needed to work again so he used the time to actually dust off his skills, but he had always been bad with Ikebana in the first place.

In silence Shota took care of Taiga's mess and the way he put the flowers together in an elegant looking way made Taiga realize that he really had to relearn some skills after all.

"Nice Kimono choice by the way," Shota said without looking away from the flowers. "You're still not working though?"

Taiga nodded and looked at his bright pink and violent kimono. It reminded him of the one he had seen on Kentaro when he had entered the house. "You can say it's a nostalgic choice and knowing that I've to wear one almost every day again from now on made me realize I should maybe get used to them again before going to work once more."

"Understandable choice," Shota said and finally presented the redesigned Ikebana. Taiga looked at it with an acknowledging smile.

"A masterpiece as always," Taiga congratulated him. Shota on the other hand didn't seem too much into talking about his Ikebana and he turned to Taiga instead.

“Can I ask you something?” Shota asked serious on which Taiga nodded. “Do you think after our ten years in Yoshiwara there is a life waiting for us outside this district?”

“Of course, look at Taisuke,” Taiga replied immediately, but that example didn’t seem to take the boy’s worries away.

“Taisuke had Hiromitsu, so he had someone to go to, someone to rely on. Kentaro will have Fuma, Myuto has Iwamoto and even though I doubt Reo will ever really want to quit here, Fu will always take him in with open arms. But we are different,” Shota said addressing Taiga as well and that was when his look darkened a bit as well.

“You fear that we will be stuck here afterwards with no place to go, with no one to give us a chance to start a new life, because of our time here,” Taiga said, knowing that this was indeed a fate a lot of people in Yoshiwara have. They keep working even after their ten years are over, not to forget that they are here sometimes already for 20 years, because they started as kids, but were only allowed to be assistance until adulthood and their 10 years officially started when they were taking customers.

Most owners of the houses in Yoshiwara had been boys like them as well, Takizawa and Kamenashi were the best example for that, but it wasn’t necessarily what they saw as a new life, because again they would be stuck in Yoshiwara. Reo was maybe the only one suited for such a path.

“Ryota and I met in the illegal brothel when we were still kids. We had been sold to that place about the same time and we had always talked about how we would make it through all of this together to start our new life, but then we were forced to come here and that after we had already been at that place since childhood and when Kamenashi told us that our 10 years would start from the moment we entered Yoshiwara we lost all our will to even think about a future.”

Shota hadn’t spoken to him that honest until now, even after he and Ryota had befriended Taiga and the others after their rough start they had always had this wall between them, but hearing about his worries this directly made Taiga smile.

“I met people on my journey who helped me a lot without even knowing who I was. Of course I didn’t even know myself who I was at that time and I can’t say if I would have told them immediately that I was from Yoshiwara, but I also think it wouldn’t be bad to keep it a secret.”

Taiga’s explanation seemed to have hit one of the points Shota was worrying about. Was he allowed to lie if he tried to start over? Wouldn’t the truth come out at some point?

“I lied to a lot of people about my lost memory and while that caused a lot of trouble at some point and I almost lost a precious friendship through it, everything worked out after I told the truth and we worked it out,” Taiga explained with a nostalgic smile. “If I had to choose if I wanted to tell every stranger about my past in Yoshiwara after getting out of here or if I want to lie, I would honestly choose lying.”

“Even though you experienced people getting angry at you after they discovered the lie?” Shota asked a bit stunned.

“To be honest I think if they are becoming close friends with you and you consider them important enough to tell them the truth there are only two things that can happen. One is that they might get angry, but then will accept your apology, because they understand why you had to lie. The second one is that they won’t understand and they will walk away, but that means they weren’t true friends after all so you shouldn’t feel guilty.”

There was a mixed expression on Shota’s face while he slowly nodded and then gave Taiga a kind of teasing expression on which the younger one tilted his head. “You matured a lot on your journey.”

Taiga couldn’t even deny that and he formed a sheepish smile before he let out a small chuckle. “And unfortunately it’s not necessarily to my advantage after returning here.”

“Then turn it to your advantage,” someone was heard from the corridor and they found Ryota leaning against the doorframe. “You were always good in finding the good things among all the shit that was thrown at you.”

“As direct as always,” Taiga replied with a laugh. “But you are right I should be able to somehow get this to work again.”

“And if not we are always here to help,” Ryota said.

“Or to beat up whoever gets in your way,” Shota added on which Taiga shook his head.

“You really should have joined us in the war sooner. You have so much energy I would have loved to let you handle my fighting.”

“About that, you know that we will challenge you after you’ve settled back in, right?” Ryota asked with an excited shine in his eyes, but he definitely hadn’t seen it coming how Taiga formed a lopsided and confident smile on that.

“Come at me whenever you like, but remember that I warned you, so don’t complain later if you get hurt!”

Chapter Text

Noon time, the humidity was finally bearable now that the summer was coming to an end and some trees already started to change color. On his journey Taiga hadn’t even counted days or bothered with seasons, after all he had a lot of other stuff to take care of.

Now that he was sitting in the window sill of their house for the very first time in months he had finally time to look at everything in a calm way.

Instead of putting Taiga out for teahouse bookings right away, Kamenashi had given him a one week house only duty, which Taiga gratefully accepted. Not that it was easy to sit behind the red bars again and stare outside at the people walking by. Not to forget that he was still the most expensive male Oiran in the district at the moment and while it could of course help to get customers right away his absence would definitely make some people skeptical as well and refrain from asking for him.

After their new system had taken away the part of customers choosing over the windowsill, they had added it again with the new rules for the teahouses so that after Yoshiwara had been restored, it was easier for the houses to make money again.

“We could just call Aran over if that makes it easier for you?” Reo asked while he was half lying on his pillow as so often.

That thought had crossed Taiga’s mind as well. Fuma had even offered to come by today so he could join him and Kentaro instead of maybe getting a new customer, but somehow Taiga felt as if that would make him even more insecure.

“I guess I will just wait and see what will happen,” Taiga finally said, but still didn’t actually dare to look outside looking for someone.

“I can lend you my boyfriend for some time if you want?”

Before Taiga could even look up to see who had approached them from outside the house, the same person squealed as he was hit by exactly that boyfriend with a pouting expression.

“Are you selling me off?”

“Massu! Tegoshi!” Taiga let out with such an excited voice that both of them looked back at him with a bright smile.

“Sorry that we didn’t come by to properly welcome you back,” Massu apologized rubbing his head after Tegoshi had hit him.

“We were kind of busy getting new material for our Kimonos and instruments so we were out of town. When we came back yesterday we heard that you were back so we wanted to come by,” Tegoshi said, but then gave Massu another threatening look. “But not for that purpose!”

Massu just rolled his eyes before he faced Taiga instead. The boy had crawled up to the bars, more than happy to see them and Reo had also joined their conversation for now instead of looking for customers. After all it wasn’t crowded on the streets.

“We heard some wild stories about your journey,” Massu said on which Taiga gave Reo a side glance.

“I wonder from whom…” Taiga let out on which Reo looked away, knowing of nothing of course.

“Are you sure you are okay with going back to work already?” Tegoshi asked serious on which Taiga needed a moment before he could decide if he wanted to nod or not. But in the end he nodded.

“I don’t know until I am trying after all.”

“That is indeed true,” Massu said with a supportive smile before he leant closer to the bars and whispered. “But seriously, if you feel better having a customer you know you should ask Yuya, I am sure he wouldn’t mind and neither do I.”

This time Tegoshi kicked Massu so that he stumbled to the front. “I can hear you!”

When Tegoshi wanted to run after Massu who had made some steps away from him out of safety reasons, Taiga moved his arm through the bars and grabbed Tegoshi by the sleeve to the latter’s obvious surprise.

“What would you say?” Taiga asked with a direct stare back at Tegoshi on which the older one seemed a bit startled. An expression he didn’t see often on his face.

“About what?”

“If I asked you to be my first customer after all these months, what would you say?”

In the corner of his eye Taiga could see how Massu and Reo were exchanging an excited look, but kept quiet while Tegoshi seemed to be out of words for the first time.

“I am not sure- I think, ehm….” Tegoshi looked back at Massu instead, but the latter wouldn’t be much of a help, because he had already said he wouldn’t mind and he and Reo had that stupid teasing excited smile on their lips, so Tegoshi just sighed and looked back at Taiga who gave him a pretty eager look on which Tegoshi bit his lip.

“I would say yes,” He finally said on which Massu and Reo started cheering, high fiving each other through the bars.

Taiga gave the other one a calm smile on hearing that. “It’s good to know that I have friends to rely on after all these months.”

“Of course you do,” Tegoshi said, because that wasn’t why he hesitated with his reply. After all, things have changed and he wasn’t actually sure if he should offer something like this or not.

“So are you coming in?”

“Eh?” Tegoshi’s super confused expression on Taiga’s request made Taiga burst out laughing so much that even people from the street were looking over to them.

Of course it had been a theoretical question, but putting Tegoshi into the direct challenge of coming in and really being his first customer had thrown the older one so off balance that Taiga was almost crying of laughter.

“No, seriously thank you so much for saying you would do it, but I am fine, I promise,” Taiga finally said after he had calmed down a bit, but Massu would definitely keep teasing Tegoshi the whole day with his reaction.

“Our playboy is getting too old for such games,” Massu teased, but stood far away enough to only receive a death glare.

“I will show you tonight who is getting old!”

“That’s already more than we want to know,” another person outside the house was heard next on which Reo jumped up with a bright smile.

“Fu! You didn’t tell me you would come today,” he yelled, but already ran to the entrance.

“Mh, you two also definitely have a lot going on we don’t want to know about,” Tegoshi teased back before he faced Taiga once more.

“Take care, Taiga. Don’t push yourself too much.”

“And come by our new shop when you have time,” Massu added before they waved and headed back for now.

“Everyone is throwing a lot of questions at you at the moment I guess?” Fu asked right before Reo dashed towards him and gave him a back hug, while he was talking to Taiga.

“Indeed, but I am pretty good in giving summaries by now,” Taiga replied.

“Oh, you have short one for me then?”

“Really short please, because otherwise I take you right here,” Reo threatened him.

“An idiot who couldn’t wait, lost his memory of something that never happened, traveled to an unknown destination while making new friends, find old friends and defeat new enemies, just to end up where he had started.”

“Mh, that was indeed short,” Fu said while he tried to stop Reo from pulling him towards the entrance. “Next time you can tell me a longer version.”

“I can tell you, let’s go,” Reo begged and pulled on the latter’s arm on which Fu finally gave up and followed the latter into the house.

It felt so good seeing that all the chaos around the house remained the same and Taiga sat back on his pillow, looking outside with a bit more confidence this time.

The weather wasn’t the greatest and soon it started raining on which almost all people vanished from the street so Taiga fell back with a sigh. Maybe it was better not to have a customer on his first day after all.

“Taiga?” Reia asked from behind the windowsill on which he turned to the boy with a nod. “A customer just asked for you. Are you okay with taking him?”

First Taiga wanted to ask who it was, because he hadn’t even realized that someone had approached the house or had looked at him in the first place, but then he realized that there was no need to ask. No matter the customer he was a boy of Yoshiwara and he couldn’t refuse anyway.

“Sure, show me his room,” Taiga said and got up.

Reia seemed quite nervous when he guided him through the corridors, but what else did he expect? Reia was always worrying for him after all.

Taiga kept playing with the seam of his kimono sleeve while following him and he also realized soon that this movement was also happening out of tension.

He had chosen a bright colored kimono for his first workday, with a lot of white and pink in it. The pattern was a mix out of a lot of lines and some circles. While he had felt uncomfortable in such bright colors before it ironically gave him a confidence boost now instead. Also his hair in his half up ponytail made something inside of him switch back into his play mood. Something he needed desperately now to not seem impolite or insecure in front of a new customer.

“He is waiting inside already,” Reia said as he pointed at a door before he kneeled down and ask Taiga in silence if it was okay to open the door. Taiga took another deep breath before he nodded and Reia slid the door open, telling the customer that Taiga had arrived.

The person was sitting on the futon with his back towards Taiga and there was only one lamp lid in the corner so Taiga couldn’t actually tell much from the dark silhouette.

When he stepped inside, Reia slid the door shut again, leaving the room even darker than before.

The customer didn’t stand up or turn around so Taiga just sat down at the door for now and bowed to the customers back. “Thank you for your visit and choosing me for your time in the house.”

When the person in front of him finally moved and turned around, Taiga slowly sat up again, his heartbeat getting a bit faster when he finally looked up at the other one.

What he hadn’t expected was all his nervousness getting replied by confusion before his look turned to slightly annoyed and amused at the same time.

“Okay what the hell is going on?” Taiga asked, now crossing his arms to his chest and raising one eyebrow. “First the boyfriend of someone else offers himself as my first customer and now my own boyfriend is my first customer?”

Instead of a reply, Juri gave him a teasing yet apologizing smile. He was wearing a dark grey yukata and had dimmed the light enough for Taiga to not get suspicious right from the start.

“Reia knows about this too, right?”

“Actually…”

Juri didn’t have to say more and Taiga rolled his eyes. The whole house knew of course.

“We wanted to let you try for a bit, but if you seemed too stressed out or wouldn’t get any customer we wanted to have this as our plan B.”

After all these months in which Taiga had learned how to take on so many challenges by himself it felt like a huge step into the wrong direction to accept help from his friends where he should actually be the most experienced one, after all he was on the ranking’s top!

But on the other hand…

“Well then I guess I’ve to entertain you now,” Taiga let out as he crawled up to Juri with a playful expression and Juri seemed relieved that the other one didn’t seem mad.

“I am looking forward to all the service I will get,” Juri teased while Taiga made him sit back and crawled on his lap.

“Did you pay enough to ask for any service?” Taiga asked as he let one hand vanish inside the other one’s Yukata collar.

“I would have paid the highest price if we still had that system, but not out of the same reason others would,” Juri replied while his look turned greedier as Taiga let his long fingers stroke over the latter’s chest and pulled his Yukata slowly off his shoulders with that move.

It suddenly all came too easy, too natural. But somehow Taiga didn’t feel like he needed to slow things down. It felt like coming back to a safe harbor after all these months and maybe Juri offering to be his first customer was really for the best. Not to forget that they also hadn’t had time to take it this far yet after their reunion.

“Then I will make sure you will get the best service I can offer,” Taiga whispered into the other one’s ear on which Juri finally took action as well and lifted his arms around Taiga’s hips before he lowered them a bit to let them vanish inside Taiga’s Kimono right up to his butt on which the latter flinched on the cold touch of the younger one’s hands.

“Are we a bit impatient?” Taiga teased back, but grabbed the latter’s Obi at the same time to slowly pull it away.

“I wonder who of us will lose his patience first?” Juri challenged on which Taiga raised an eyebrow at him.

“Are you sure you want to find out?”

Instead of a reply, Juri pulled the other one more onto his lap and took the older one by full surprise when he trapped his bottom lip between his teeth and used Taiga’s favorite move against him as he bit down. He was still gentle, yet it aroused Taiga enough to move his hands greedily around the other one’s neck.

Before Juri could make any stupid comment when he pulled back, Taiga made sure to shut him up with a greedy kiss, rolling his hips over the other one’s lap on which Juri seemed to get ready to throw Taiga back on the futon, but just for a bit longer he enjoyed Taiga’s deep kiss before he reached out for his knees and made him fall back.

“I like your new Kimono by the way,” Juri said when he pulled it away under the other one.

“Then make sure to not break it on my first day already,” Taiga teased, using his toes to pull Juri’s Yukata down as it was hanging open around his hips already.

“The only thing I will break today is you,” Juri let out with such dark eyes that a shiver went down Taiga’s spine, but it was none of the bad kind, not at all.

He had missed all the challenges, all the games and all the attention, he couldn’t deny that!

“I dare you then,” Taiga replied before he closed his legs around the other one with a challenging look, but there was something in Juri’s eyes that wasn’t quite right. Taiga couldn’t put his finger on it, but Juri was up to something else.

“Mh, I guess I should be the one saying that instead,” Juri said before his movements got a bit softer as he brushed his fingers over the other one’s cheek before he gave him a passionate kiss.

The next thing to happen left Taiga a tiny bit insecure as Juri sat back and freed himself out of Taiga’s demanding grip. It was when Taiga couldn’t read the atmosphere that he got insecure, but Juri gave him a lopsided smile when he sat back on the futon and waved him up to join him.

Taiga did as he was told, after all Juri was his customer for now, so even though he didn’t know what kind of game he was playing, he was willing to find out.

When he was up in a sitting position again, Juri closed his arms around him once more and gave him another kiss, but this time more demanding and Taiga wanted to surrender in it as he did so often, just enjoying the other one’s lead, but here the problem started.

Juri fell back slowly, pulling Taiga down with him.

It was when they had completely changed positions that it slowly dawned on Taiga what was going on and Juri gave him a teasing look when the other one stabilized himself with his hand right next to Juri’s head.

“I dare you,” Juri repeated and was the one to close his legs around the older one’s back this time and Taiga froze in his movements for a second. “Don’t give me that insecure look, I know you better than that!”

Juri’s scolding words after his moment of absence made Taiga shake his head with a self-scolding look before he moved one hand to Juri’s face, stroking a strand of hair out of the other one’s eyes. “You know me so well indeed and here I am still getting surprised by you.”

“Remember when I told you the same thing years ago?” Juri said when he demanded a closer contact and pulled on Taiga’s hair on which the older one leant in for another passionate kiss with a low chuckle, of course remembering the beginning of their relationship.

They had been so greedy at first, so thirsty for each other, yet things went slower than they thought they would, but none of them minded. Maybe this was what they actually needed instead.

Taiga took his time preparing Juri, there was no rush after all and he couldn’t deny that he liked it how the other one gave him low moans with each inch he stretched him more with his fingers.

“Never thought you could be such a tease,” Juri scolded the boy and pulled a bit on his hair when Taiga took too much time on purpose.

“Well you are an impatient customer,” Taiga teased back before he pulled out, but he didn’t even get the chance to change positions much before Juri pulled him down into another kiss. But Taiga pushed in even with Juri demanding way too much attention on all fronts, making Juri arch his back for a moment before Taiga put one hand to his hips, helping him adjust.

“If I didn’t know better I’d say you are really a customer,” Taiga said as he kept moving slowly, but truth was that Juri was indeed always bad at adjusting, not that he would talk about it much with the other boys, but Taiga knew him well enough by now.

“I’d be your loyal regular customer that is for sure,” Juri teased while he started rocking his hips up, asking for a faster pace as he finally fell back on the futon, unable to demand more attention, but that was when Taiga used his chance and lowered his lips to the latter’s collarbone and kept teasing him with his tongue and teeth while keeping a slow pace.

Everyone always told Taiga not to hide his sweet moans, but for Taiga there was nothing sweeter than Juri’s low moans and the latter was unable to hide them no matter how much he tried.

“Could you stop teasing?” Juri asked a bit demanding after Taiga seemed to enjoy himself way too much while leaving Juri behind.

“Oh so I guess we found out who is running out of patience first?” Taiga replied while he kept biting his way up to the other one’s jawline, but when he had finally reached Juri’s lips he got trapped by Juri’s arms around the back of his neck and he finally demanded a faster pace.

“For once I think I can lose a challenge,” Juri said with a dangerous undertone on which Taiga formed a smile against the other one’s lips.

“As you wish,” he whispered against his lips before he put his hands to the younger one’s hips and finally thrusted faster and more demanding.

Their teasing battle got replaced by low moans and Taiga’s try to get enough space to actually move the way Juri had asked him to, but therefore Juri had to let go of him and he was always a bit too clingy when he was getting close.

“Taiga please…” Juri whispered, unable to even look up at the other one, instead he just pulled himself up against Taiga’s shoulder on which the older one formed a teasing smile before he took Juri’s member in his hand.

It took not more than a few strokes before Juri clawed his nails in the latter’s back and let out another deep and low moan before he found release.

Juri held on to him until Taiga also finally followed and slowly put his elbows down next to the other one so that he could lay back on the futon and they could both slowly come down from their climax.

“Don’t get up,” Juri demanded when Taiga moved after a moment and he let himself get dragged down to the futon next to Juri.

The other one had his eyes still closed, but his breathing pace had already slowed down. With a calm smile Taiga reached out for Juri’s chest and he moved his fingers in slow circles over it, a move he had done so often over the past years and Juri shivered slightly under the light touch.

“You always did that when I kicked you at night,” Juri let out, now finally looking back at the other one.

“First I was only holding your hand, but then I just couldn’t keep my hands to myself, not that it wasn’t your fault in the first place. After all you are sleeping so chaotic that your night Yukata is always a mess and reveals your chest,” Taiga said in defense and shrugged his shoulders.

“I missed that touch a lot,” Juri said honestly on which Taiga’s look turned slightly darker. The other one moved a bit closer and reached out for Taiga’s face knowing that Taiga was about to drown in his bad thoughts again. “That wasn’t an accusation.”

“I know,” Taiga said with an apologizing expression on which Juri gave him a short kiss on the forehead. “So is my customer satisfied with the boy he chose?”

“I’d give you eight out of ten points?”

Taiga pouted on not getting full points, but the next moment they were both laughing.

“Thank you,” he finally let out on which Juri only replied with a smile.

It was good to be back at a place where people knew him well enough to help him through his tough times. To be back at a place he had called home for so long and where he could trust people and rely on them. A place where he had a family to look after him!

“Welcome back Taiga,” Juri said with an encouraging smile. They all knew that Taiga’s real challenge had been going back to work and not just arriving back in Yoshiwara and now he was sure that he could indeed go back!

“Guess I am back to defeat my position for next year’s festival,” Taiga replied confident and Juri seemed more than happy to see that fire back in the other one’s eyes.

Chapter Text

“Stop looking at me as if you did something bad,” Taiga complained on Aran’s scanning look after his first visit since he had come back to Yoshiwara.

“Let me be worried for once, okay? You caused so much trouble that I have the right to worry for you,” Aran said while he waited for Taiga to escort him back to the door after Reia had told them that it was morning and time for the customers to leave.

“And here I thought you’d demand the right to be angry at me,” Taiga let out with a small chuckle while he walked next to Aran in the corridor with a teasing smile. “But feel free to worry for me, because I like the attention.”

“Maybe I shouldn’t worry after all, you seem back to your routine faster than I thought,” Aran tried to tease, but his worries were still written all over his face.

“Fast? You took a month to show up here,” Taiga said pouting and stopped next to the entrance door. “Make sure not to take so long with your next visit.”

“Mh, are you in need for more customers?”

“I am in need for customers like you,” Taiga said as he stepped closer and put his hand on Aran’s chest before he pushed him out of the house with a challenging expression. “If you worry so much, be sure to book me as often as you can so no one else can get me.”

It was clear that Aran was going to come by sooner this time as he just hadn’t know when he should actually check up on Taiga after this long time. Now that he had realized that Taiga could handle his job again he would spend more time visiting and if he didn’t, then Taiga had to challenge him a bit more!

“Enjoying yourself?” Kentaro teased as he came back from his break and spotted Taiga waving after Aran.

“With my regular customers, always,” Taiga replied with a brief smile. “Isn’t Fuma coming today?”

“He is out of town.”

“Oh, that is rare,” Taiga replied a bit stunned, because Fuma was a blacksmith after all he was usually always around.

“He is up to something,” Kentaro said with an absent minded look, but Taiga could only smile on hearing that and bumped his shoulder slightly against his senpais.

“Whatever it is I am sure you will be part of it next year.”

“Don’t make me nervous,” Kentaro replied a bit sheepish. It was weird to see his senpai a bit insecure, but being in his last year was definitely in a weird way challenging and restless. That talk made Taiga remember something else he had postponed way too long already and he excused himself while his senpai went back into the window sill.

With a light knock on the door he asked for permission to enter the owner’s room and Kamenashi allowed him to come in. The older one didn’t even look up at him as he slowly closed the door again and sat in front of his table. Kamenashi was writing some papers, while he had his cigarette balanced in his left hand.

“What is it?” he asked, still not looking up.

“I would like to ask for the permission to leave the district for a day,” Taiga requested, on which the owner put his cigarette down and gave Taiga a serious look.

“For what?”

“To pay someone a visit,” Taiga let out a bit more hesitant, but Kamenashi just turned away from him and looked through some papers on the ground before he held out a paper towards Taiga.

“Don’t you mean to apologize to someone for all the trouble?”

Taiga tilted his head in confusion as he took the paper, but then he couldn’t hide a smile when he saw what was written on it.

“Thank you,” Taiga said and bowed to the owner before he prepared for his leave the next day.

***

Taiga could have chosen a Hakama to get around Edo and a few months ago he would have definitely chosen it over a Yukata, but now things were different. Even though he had gone alone, making sure Juri would know where he was going and why he wanted to go alone, he wasn’t feeling insecure in the bright red Yukata, which had black bamboo as a pattern.

It took him good an hour of walking until he reached his destination and he was more than grateful for Kamenashi giving him the address of the place he was looking for, otherwise he would have needed to ask around a lot before he would have even found out where he had to go.

The district he had entered had a lot of beautiful houses and a calm river running through it. A lot of Samurai crossed his way and he had to stop himself from trying to reach out for a sword he wasn’t carrying anymore. Kamenashi had allowed him to keep Tai-chan’s sword, but it had to stay hidden in the house as it wasn’t allowed to carry it around Yoshiwara.

A lot of people were giving Taiga interested looks and while his Yukata was definitely one reason he was sure his hair was another one. The half up ponytail was something he had become used to, but in the end everyone had tried to convince him so hard to dye his hair blonde that he had allowed Tatsuya to dye it a light brown for now.

When he stopped at a two story wooden house with a wide veranda and a small garden visible behind the open front gate he took a closer look at the name plate at the gate, but he seemed to have reached his destination.

“Is anyone home?” Taiga asked, looking around the entrance of the house and daring to make a step through the front gate, but no one was answering him. He decided to wait next to the front gate for a few minutes. Maybe they would be back soon. It wasn’t like he had told them that he was coming by.

“How could you fail that question?” Someone was heard around the corner of the house on which Taiga stepped away from the gate a bit.

“Oh come on, you know I am not good with all the theoretical stuff, but I passed all physical tests with the highest scores, so what’s the problem?”

When the two arguing people came around the corner Taiga formed a bright smile, but he hadn’t been spotted by the other two as they were way too invested in their lovers’ quarrel.

“If you want to become a Bugyo₁, you have to pass the theoretical test too, and you failed it twice already,” the shorter one scolded the person walking next to him towards Taiga.

“Let’s just skip all that writing stuff. Isn’t there a shortcut to all of this?” The taller man asked, ruffling to his longer wavy hair and Taiga had to smile on seeing him in a grey hakama with two swords on the left side. It suited him so well.

“What shortcut? You want to offer the officials to sleep with them to get your certificate?”

The other one rolled his eyes on hearing that, but the idea didn’t come out of nowhere after all.

Both men turned towards the main gate without even realizing Taiga was standing right next to it and that made the boy laugh instead of getting angry. On his laughter though the two men stopped immediately and turned around after stepping through the gate.

“Mh, I am not sure if this picture is of a happy ever after or not,” Taiga teased them, but for another moment the other two seemed to have trouble to even recognize Taiga or more like believe that it’s him.

“Oh come on, I didn’t change that much!” Taiga said pouting.

The taller one stepped closer to Taiga on which the boy felt kind of thrown back into his first year in Yoshiwara on the annoyed look he got before the other one lifted his finger under his chin before he snapped his fingers under it with a lopsided smile. “Yes it’s Taiga, he is a brat like always.”

Taiga couldn’t even pout at his Senpai’s words, because he was indeed right. “It’s good to see that you are well too Taisuke-Senpai,” Taiga teased on which Taisuke’s look finally got a bit softer and he ruffled through his Kohai’s hair.

“I wondered when you’d visit us,” Hiromitsu said and walked up to the boy with wide spread arms and Taiga welcomed the hug.

“Sorry that I took so long, I wanted to come by earlier.”

“But let me guess you’re busy with work?” Taisuke asked.

“Still the number one male Oiran after all, you know?” Taiga teased on which Hiromitsu let his hands wander through Taiga’s bright and long hair.

“And with your new look you will definitely keep that title.”

“I will keep way more with my new skills,” Taiga said with a challenging look. “Maybe I could take that Bugyo exam faster than my Senpai.”

“Excuse me?” Taisuke said with a raised eyebrow on which Hiromitsu laughed.

“Well, Taiga definitely has more chances in the theoretical part,” he admitted.

“Not just in that part,” Taiga said challenging. He was feeling weirdly excited now that he was out of Yoshiwara again and in the presents of a Samurai and seeing his Senpai trying to achieve exactly that rank now that he had left their district behind.

“Mh, do I hear some overconfidence there?” Hiromitsu asked on which Taiga gave him a challenging look.

“If you lend me a sword we can find out?”

First both men laughed it off, but then they realized that Taiga wasn’t laughing with them.

“Are you serious?” Hiromitsu asked again and Taiga nodded.

“If you will allow me then yes,” Taiga let out politely and alone the way he talked and bowed to the other one made Hiromitsu refrain from making fun out of him again. He exchanged a look with Taisuke, but the latter just shrugged his shoulders.

“Why not? But if he wants to fight with someone it will be you.”

“Why? You don’t want to be beaten by your Kohai?” Hiromitsu’s question was exactly what Taiga would have loved to voice out, but now it had been said already and he tried hard to not form a teasing smile.

“I guess then I will test you first before I decide if you are worthy of getting a cup of tea in my house,” Hiromitsu said with an inviting hand movement towards his backyard where his house had a small private dojo.

Taking Taisuke’s advice Taiga borrowed a hakama from Hiromitsu so that Kamenashi wouldn’t scold him for ripping the Yukata. After all Taisuke thought Taiga wouldn’t stand a chance against Hiromitsu.

“If you tell me that you want a real sword then I unfortunately have to deny that request,” Hiromitsu said as he handed Taiga a wooden sword.

“No worries, I am used to both and I can bring my own sword if you want to have a rematch later with a real one,” Taiga teased while he got used to the weight of the wooden sword in his hand again after not using it for a month. 

“Guess there will be a lot to talk about later when we have tea,” Taisuke said as he stood at the wall of the dojo.

“Hey, are you cheering for your Kohai?” Hiromitsu scolded him.

“Well I couldn’t beat you until now, but while I don’t want to risk getting beaten by my own Kohai in case his confidence has a real fundament, I will totally enjoy seeing you get beaten.”

“If I break up with him later, it’s your fault,” Hiromitsu said, pointing his sword at Taiga.

Something that would never happen, Taiga was sure of it. When he got in a defense stance, Hiromitsu also finally put a serious expression on.

“One hit wins,” Hiromitsu said and Taiga nodded.

All Taiga did was trying to remember all the training he had with Tai-chan and Sakuma, but alone that seemed to be enough to make Hiromitsu aware of the chance Taiga had to actually win in case Hiromitsu didn’t watch out.

The biggest advantage on Taiga’s side was that he had seen Hiromitsu fight and had trained with him before, yet Hiromitsu didn’t know at all what was awaiting him.

Instead of overthinking too much, Taiga just went intuitively for his first attack. Direct attacks, moves he had learned from his Samurai training and as expected Hiromitsu knew how to dodge them easily and for a split second Taiga feared he was too slow to block a hit coming from the right downside after Hiromitsu had span around and took him by surprise.

But while he hadn’t trained for a while his body was still reacting intuitively and he managed to block and get on distance.

“Impressive,” Hiromitsu let out approving.

“You’ve not even seen half of it yet,” Taiga said with a playful expression, but he kept his focus. Hiromitsu went for the offensive this time and soon Taiga had to change his style a bit to be able to get away from Hiromitsu’s precise attacks. But Sakuma’s training was exactly what had made it possible to be swift enough to do exactly that.

“Mh, I see, you are full of surprises,” Hiromitsu said approving of his skills. “But I think there is still a lot you can learn.”

The same as with Tai-chan when he went serious in their training, Hiromitsu suddenly turned faster and more unpredictable, making it hard for Taiga to focus on a next move as all he could think about was how to block and dodge.

Driven to a corner he slightly panicked and once more he used one of Sakuma’s moves to get away right before Hiromitsu could finally land a hit. “Now I wonder if you were training to be a Samurai or a Shinobi,” Hiromitsu asked after Taiga had used the wall to get himself out of the corner.

“Neither yet I fear, just a training that would help me to survive,” Taiga let out, not missing Taisuke’s look from the side. He was obviously trying to hide his astonishment, but there was also a bit of pride visible in his look which made Taiga smile. Taisuke had always hoped for Taiga to get stronger in a lot of ways, so this was definitely something he could proudly show his Senpai.

“Then let me show you your limits,” Hiromitsu said before he took a deep calm breath and once more he seemed to have sped up.

This time Taiga had another problem, his stamina. He wasn’t used to long fights from the very beginning and without recent training, this kind of a sudden fight was exhausting him a lot.

And that disadvantage costed him a lot when he lost sight of Hiromitsu without any warning. What he hadn’t seen coming though was his body’s reaction. It wasn’t pleasant how his mind haunted him with horrible images from the battlefield in a split second, leaving him in sheer panic. But exactly that panic was what forced his body to move, to save himself from a mistake he wouldn’t repeat twice. Hikaru’s face showed up in his mind. The pain of the sword sinking in the back of his shoulder, piercing through half of his upper body made him scream inside.

The room fell silent, only Taiga’s erratic breathing was audible while both of them had frozen to their spots. Hiromitsu had aimed for Taiga’s shoulder and it would have been the hit to decide the match, but while his sword was placed to where his shoulder had been a second ago, Taiga was now crouching down, his sword high up right in front of Hiromitsu’s face. The latter seemed more than astonished that Taiga had been able to make such a sudden and fast twist in such a risky situation, but all Taiga could feel was relieved that he had gained the control to actually stop his sword, because he could have caused a lot of damage even with the wooden sword.

With another heavy breath and his hands shaking, Taiga finally lowered the sword and fell to his knees. Hiromitsu joined him seconds later, putting one hand to his shoulder on which Taiga flinched without wanting to.

“Developing the skills to protect yourself is astonishing enough, but living to tell the tale of how you had to actually put it to the test is something not a lot of people can do.”

As so often Hiromitsu had of course put all the pieces together immediately and soon Taisuke was standing next to them as well, his teasing expression replaced by a serious one now.

“While I am not proud of a lot of things you did back at the house, not to forget that you turned your back on everyone so easily,” Taisuke started and Taiga had actually waited for the scolding. “I also have to say that for the first time I feel really proud as your Senpai.”

Not giving Taiga or Hiromitsu the chance to reply anything stupid he walked toward the door and waved his hand. “Get changed or the tea will get cold.”

***

“He looked so uncomfortable,” Reo laughed on their way back from the Shogunate meeting.

“It was his first Shogunate meeting, don’t be so hard on him,” Taiga complained.

“Tell that Myuto! He was the one who took advantage of it.”

“Oh and you wouldn’t have if I didn’t have the idea first?” Myuto pouted.

Taiga only laughed on the attention fight of their friends, but it had been the calmest Shogunate meeting so far and with Sakuma finally being officially a Daimyo and attending the meeting it felt so much more at home for the boys to join the meeting. Hokuto, Kochi, Shime and Sakuma had come, but while Taiga had hoped he could also meet Tai-chan and Kaito after almost half a year had past and the cold months have taken over Edo, Shime had told him that they were unfortunately busy and couldn’t come with him.

“You seem absent minded?”

Aran’s words made Taiga look up at the boy who escorted them back to Yoshiwara with his men. With a brief smile he shook his head. “I guess I am just relieved that it all went so smooth this year.”

“There is more to it, right?” Aran asked on which Taiga sighed.

“Could you stop being this good at reading my expression?”

“Never,” Aran teased while Reo had suddenly snatched away the bag from Myuto he had received earlier from Domoto.

“I can’t believe you got a three layered kimono from Domoto as well, where is mine?” Reo pouted after having another look at the bright gold top layer. The embroideries on the layer were detailed scenes of dance and kabuki and since the moment Domoto had presented it to Myuto earlier at the meeting, Reo had been jealous. Taiga had also shown up in the third layered kimono he had gotten a few months ago which had added a lot of oil to Reo’s jealousy flames.

“He didn’t realize yet that Myuto got it as a goodbye present, right?” Aran asked, reading the atmosphere way better than Reo and Taiga laughed.

“Maybe in spring before the Matsuri when Myuto and Kentaro will leave he might understand that he will get his Kimono most likely next year. I doubt Domoto will make him wait longer,” Taiga teased.

“You’re trying to change the topic by the way,” Aran said and Taiga raised an eyebrow.

“You are the one who talked about Reo first,” Taiga opposed, but then his look went up to the sky. “I overheard Domoto talking to some officials about a special unit they wanted to form to make sure that uproar from Daimyo will be detected earlier. After what happened at the place Sakuma was staying for so long without anyone noticing how much of a dictatorship that Daimyo brought up on his people and after Yabu tried to actually go against the Shogunate itself, they feel like they need to have more control over the different provinces.”

“Not to forget that cases like Hokuto’s or Sakuma’s are still going to be discovered. A lot of the children who were given to other provinces to keep the peace after Sekigahara, are only becoming adults now, they might have no chance to even call for help, some of them might be lost without the Shogunate realizing it yet,” Aran added with a dark expression.

“I really hope Domoto can find enough trusted men to get things under control soon. After witnessing all the chaos first hand I really hope all the boys can soon get back to their provinces and families,” Taiga said with a sad expression and Aran clapped him on the shoulder.

“I am sure Domoto knows exactly who he can trust,” Aran said encouraging before he pointed to the front. “But now I think we have to hurry up or those two will chase each other back to the house before we can catch up.”

Taiga was between scolding his friends and laughing at them while Myuto was chasing Reo down the street after he had ran off with his new Kimono. The chaos seriously always remained the same, but as long as they could all smile at it Taiga would be fine no matter what!

Chapter Text

It was the first day Taiga realized that the Sakura trees in Nakanocho were changing colors to pink. Almost one year after the darkest week of Yoshiwara, things were almost back to normal and some things hadn’t changed, like Taiga still being first in the ranking while Reo had finally caught up to the second place. Taiga was more than willing to hand the first place to Reo, but he unfortunately had to wait another year, because the lineup for the Matsuri was already decided and once more he would need to walk in front.

“I know that look, you’re daydreaming about the past,” Juri said as he walked next to Taiga on their way home after some early errands.

“Is that a bad thing?” Taiga asked with a light smile on which Juri reached out for his hand and squeezed it with a gentle touch.

“Not at all, but we should also sometimes dream about the future.”

Juri’s words turned Taiga’s emotions upside down again, but not necessarily in a bad way, but he couldn’t deny that talking about the future always made him kind of nervous and they still had time to think about everything.

“But not today,” Taiga finally replied as they made it back to their house. “Today it’s their day after all.”

It was a day to celebrate, yet it was also a bit sad to have to say goodbye to Kentaro and Myuto.

As they wouldn’t get off just for some of the boys leaving, they had to prepare everything early in the morning and Myuto and Kentaro had to leave before the noon hours started. Reia and Ren tried to get done with their duties as fast as possible so they could also be there when Kamenashi would hand them their free letters, the proof that they were allowed to leave Yoshiwara.

Taiga also hurried to put all their errands into place before they changed into their work Kimono. It was tradition for them to wear their work Kimono while Myuto and Kentaro would leave in a pale grey yukata, which was like a last present from the owner of the house and would strip them from all the colorful patterns in Yoshiwara and turned them into citizens which didn’t have to fear to be looked at as members of a red light district anymore.

“This is so emotional,” Shintaro said while overacting a sad expression on which Juri hit him against the back of the head when he stepped out of the house.

“If you want to cry I can make you,” Juri warned him on which Shintaro made a way too big step away from Juri and hid behind Ren and Reia, making the boys roll their eyes and they just walked away, leaving Shintaro panicked where to run off next to, but luckily Juri only laughed before he turned back to the entrance where Taiga and Reo also came to join him.

When all boys were finally outside the house Kamenashi and Tatsuya joined them. Taiga’s look fell immediately on the free letters Tatsuya was carrying. A simple rolled up letter with a red ribbon, yet it was so powerful and something all of them wanted to receive.

“Wow, that’s so not suiting them,” Shota was heard next to him on which Taiga looked up in confusion, but realized that the others were looking towards the door where Kentaro and Myuto had stepped out next.

It was indeed a weird picture. Both of them in simple grey Yukatas with a dark grey obi. For a second Taiga wished Hikaru and Fuma could have been here, but the rules didn’t allow it. Not that the boys wouldn’t head to meet them afterwards anyway.

Kentaro gave Taiga the happiest smile he had ever seen on the boy when he walked passed him towards Kamenashi and for a moment Taiga feared he’d start crying. Of course he was jealous, all of them were feeling that way, but that wasn’t why he got emotional. Kentaro had helped him through a lot and it had already been a weird feeling to say goodbye to Taisuke, but Kentaro was a whole new level of sadness for Taiga.

To his surprise Juri reached out for his hand immediately, realizing how emotional he was and his other hand was squeezed by Reo the next moment and both boys gave him a knowing smile. Taiga was grateful for having been dropped off at this amazing house when he had come to Yoshiwara and he gave both a brief smile before they looked back at Myuto and Kentaro who had stopped in front of Kamenashi had bowed.

“Both of you have fulfilled your ten years in Yoshiwara,” Kamenashi said with a serious expression. “Both of you have faced a lot of hardship, yet you’ve given a lot of help and knowledge to your Kohais and they will now take over and teach the new boys in Yoshiwara.”

Myuto’s look darkened a bit on Kamenashi’s words and everyone still mourned the death of Myuto’s friends.

Kamenashi turned towards Tatsuya and took one of the free letters and handed one to Kentaro and one to Myuto. “Congratulations, you are free to leave Yoshiwara.”

Both boys bowed deeply before they took the letters and turned back towards all the boys who tried to form a happy smile between their sad expressions.

Kentaro looked at Myuto and waved his hand to signal him to go first and the boy stepped in front of all the others with a slightly unsure expression.

“I know I was only in this house for a few months, but I still want to thank all of you for your support and your help, without you I would have fallen into a very dark place,” Myuto said honestly. “I know that with this letter I can go wherever I want to and start over, but I have realized that I want to choose another path.”

The boys exchanged a confused look on hearing that while Kentaro only smiled. As his friend he had definitely already known of the boy’s decision.

“I will remain in Yoshiwara as a teacher for the younger boys. I will teach them dance and turn the fan dance into a skill all of the younger boys can learn in Yoshiwara from now on.”

It was such a fitting choice and while it also felt a bit weird to have someone stay behind in Yoshiwara while their ten years were over it wasn’t like they couldn’t become happy. Kamenashi was the best example for that. Takizawa had also decided to become an owner of a house and a lot of other owners and teachers in Yoshiwara had a past in this district.

“Thank you all so much for your help and support. But remember that you are now Senpais as well and I will come to you and scold you directly if your Kohais cause trouble in my lessons,” Myuto added and gave all of them a warning look on which another round of laughter followed. With a more serious expression Myuto gave one by one a direct look, resting on Taiga a bit longer and the boy gave him an encouraging smile.

“Thank you all for your help and support over the past ten years,” Myuto finally closed his speech and bowed on which all of the boys bowed as well.

When he stepped back Kentaro was the next one to step forward and he gave a bright smile to everyone before he started speaking.

“I’ve taught a lot of you,” Kentaro started with a steady voice. “Some of you were difficult cases.” A side glance to Ryota and Shota made the two boys give him a light apologizing bow on which Kentaro formed a lopsided smile.

“Some of you were troublemakers,” Kentaro added, looking at the three boys who immediately laughed, because who else than Juri, Reo and Taiga could he mean?

“Some of you have taught me instead,” he let out in a lower voice and first his look remained on Taiga before he turned and looked at Myuto who gave his friend a bright smile.

“What all of you have in common though is that you have all grown to be my friends. No matter if boys of the house, assistants or guards.”

Shintaro finally dared to step a bit closer to the others on hearing that and Reia patted his shoulder with a small smile while Ren tried to play things cool, but he was obviously also getting slightly emotional.

“I thought a lot about the future over the past months, but I realized that my path from here is something I have to walk on my own. I have to walk into the unknown and find out for myself what is going to happen. I am sure even outside Yoshiwara a lot of challenges will await me, but we all saw that we boys of Yoshiwara can overcome even the darkest times and the toughest challenges.”

Now Taiga felt even more uncomfortable as not just Kentaro, but all of the boys looked at him. Luckily Kentaro ended his speech with stepping forward to all of them so the attention was back on him.

“I wish all of you calm years in Yoshiwara and the best for your future when your time has come as well. Thank you for everything.”

When Kentaro bowed everyone first bowed in silence again, which was how things usually went, but Taiga just felt like it wasn’t enough and he broke the tradition as he started clapping his hands to everyone’s surprise.

Kamenashi gave him a confused look, but then he only formed a calm smile and when it were Kamenashi and Tatsuya who joined the clapping first all of the others joined as well on which Kentaro teared up and bit his lip, trying so hard not to cry after he had managed his farewell speech so well, but when Myuto threw one arm around his shoulder all his effort was good for nothing as his tears finally fell.

“You’re all so unbelievable,” Kentaro scolded them between his sobs on which everyone started laughing.

Both boys turned back to Kamenashi after things have calmed down again and they thanked the owner and bowed once more.

“You are free to go now, I hope you will find happiness,” Kamenashi said, knowing that he will at least see Myuto a lot from now on as well.

Both boys were a bit hesitant to actually leave, which was understandable, because while they could of course just come back to Yoshiwara and talk to the boys of the house, Kentaro was definitely not sure if he was even going to remain in Edo or not. His future was more undecided than Myuto’s so he felt a bit more reluctant to just leave.

But there was something else, something Taiga noticed when Kentaro gave Kamenashi a weird look and the owner only sighed before he turned to Tatsuya who suddenly went back into the house for a moment.

“Well, as we are all already here, I want to make another announcement,” Kamenashi said to everyone’s surprise and Kentaro smiled and stepped aside with Myuto.

“He knows something we don’t,” Reo whispered towards the others, but Taiga suddenly felt nauseous without even knowing why.

“This announcement was planned to be held after the Matsuri as I didn’t want things to get too chaotic, but I guess as a last request of your leaving Senpai I will make an exception,” Kamenashi said and the boys confusion just got bigger when Tatsuya stepped out again with one more letter in his hand. But it wasn’t a free letter and everyone started whispering on the letter with the golden ribbon.

“A buyer? Someone got bought free?” Reia asked around him, but everyone could only shrug their shoulders, while Shintaro turned to Ren for an explanation of the letter they have just brought.

“A free letter has a red ribbon and you will get it after your ten years, a buy off letter as you can call it has a golden ribbon and it means that someone has bought someone free from Yoshiwara before their ten years,” Ren whispered back while Tatsuya handed the letter to Kamenashi.

“But I heard it’s super expensive to buy someone free from Yoshiwara, only really rich people can do that,” Ryota whispered on which Shota nodded.

“You’ve to pay the years off they won’t be working anymore, so the sooner you buy someone off the more it costs and you will also have to pay for the person himself, so if it’s an Oiran high in the ranking it will cost even more money,” Shota added.

“And you are not really free,” Juri said with a dark expression on which Shintaro tilted his head in confusion. “You are just getting sold to another person that’s all.”

“If you are lucky that person is nice and will make it possible for you to have a new life, but you are their possession from that moment on, so it could also end up in a nightmare,” Reo whispered before they all fell silent as Kamenashi stepped forward.

“You all know what this is and while it is not a free letter it is an honor to be bought free from Yoshiwara. Remember that someone spend a lot of money on you to do this. It’s thanks to that person that you will be able to leave early and I hope you will be able to be grateful to that person and see it as a new chance,” Kamenashi said while he walked into the middle of the boys. Ren, Reia and Shintaro stepped back as they knew they weren’t part of this while all the other boys seemed to have fallen into a state of shock.

It wasn’t clear who had given the letter to Kamenashi, so they didn’t know if it was a good or a bad buyer. They also didn’t know who would be bought off, so they all exchanged the same worried looks when Kamenashi walked up to them.

As if in a game where you didn’t want to be the one caught by a chaser they all looked to the ground, not able to face Kamenashi as if they could avoid getting bought off like that.

Juri’s hand started shaking in Taiga’s so the boy squeezed it even more, knowing that they all worried for each other.

“Remember that this letter won’t be valid before the end of the Matsuri. Don’t get excited yet and don’t ask for the buyer or any details. This is only because Kentaro requested it to be revealed early as a preparation for your leave. You’ve once month more in which you have to work as normal and take part in the Matsuri.”

Maybe it was indeed better to know a bit earlier about getting bought off, but behaving for a whole month as if nothing had happened and as if things were like normal was also a tough challenge.

“Congratulations, you got bought off from Yoshiwara,” Kamenashi finally let out and everyone fell silent while they realized that the owner had held out the letter towards one of them. Taiga squeezed Juri’s hand once more and they both dared to finally look up just to find all looks on them.

It was a moment of shock and denial. Something Taiga had never seen coming and he couldn’t stop some tears from falling in silence as he looked at the letter right in front of him.

No one dared to speak, but Ren pulled Reia into a hug when the boy started crying immediately.

It wasn’t like the end of the world, they all knew that. It was a chance, a new beginning and if the person who bought him off was really caring for him then it was as good as a free letter, but now he had to live in the dark for a whole month, not knowing who he would belong to after the Matsuri.

“You are not allowed to open this letter until the Matsuri is over,” Kamenashi warned him once more, but Taiga was even unable to take the letter. He had started shaking and Juri was unable to even comfort him this time as he was in shock as well.

It was Reo who moved first and put his hand on Taiga’s shoulder. “You will be fine, you always are. Don’t see only the dark where there could be light.”

It was the poetic choice of words that made Taiga chuckle a bit, while he tried to get his tears back under control.

“Now you sound like Hokuto,” Taiga said teasing while his smile didn’t last for more than a brief moment as his lips were shaking too much.

“And you usually believe Hokuto, don’t you?” Reo teased back.

With an insecure expression Taiga looked at Juri, but it was hard to read the latter’s expression. He was shocked that was for sure, but was he happy? Sad? Furious even maybe?

“Can I deny a buy off letter?” Taiga asked, facing Kamenashi on which the owner shook his head.

“I fear not,” Kamenashi replied.

Lost in a chaos he hadn’t seen coming Taiga lifted his look to his Senpai, but Kentaro was the only one who was calm. He formed a smile towards his Kohai and that was when Taiga finally calmed down. No this was not the end, they were right! He had gone through so many challenges and he had always come out stronger than before, so why did he fear this so much when it could indeed mean something good? Once more he needed to find the courage to trust his Senpai, to trust the owner and to see the good in people.

With a slightly shaking hand he reached out for the letter on which Juri stepped closer, which gave Taiga the push he needed to take the letter from the owner. If Juri had pulled away then it would have maybe pulled him towards the dark places in his mind instead.

“Congratulations,” Juri whispered in a hoarse voice as he put one arm around Taiga’s body and pulled him against his, trying to form a smile somehow. How hard must it be on him? Knowing that he would lose Taiga after the Matsuri, not even knowing if there was any future for them together?

“One more thing,” Kamenashi said with a small smile. Taiga would almost call it teasing and he hadn’t seen such an expression often on the owner’s face.

When Kamenashi moved towards Juri and took the boy’s arm they both looked even more confused. The owner made Taiga lower the letter and have Juri hold on to the other end of it.

“This is a shared buy off letter. It’s for two people.”

Silence was all he got as a reply as he stepped away from the two boys who exchanged the most confused look they had ever seen on each other.

“Wait, what?” Reia was heard when he finally stopped crying.

“You’re leaving together,” Shota let out in a cheerful voice.

All their dark moods and worries were suddenly replaced by the hopeful feeling Kamenashi had talked about. A double buy off was more than rare, but somehow it made them believe that it was indeed something good, it just had to be!

“I was so afraid to lose you...again,” Juri said honestly as he started crying this time and Taiga didn’t hesitate to pull him into a tight hug.

“Not this time! Not ever again!” Taiga let out in an unsteady voice while their friends jumped in for a group hug, Reia making sure that the letter wouldn’t get damaged in the chaos.

“You knew, didn’t you?” Myuto whispered towards Kentaro and the boy just shrugged his shoulders.

“Who am I to interfere in Yoshiwara business? I am just a normal citizen,” Kentaro let out playful while lifting up his free letter.

“Once a Senpai always a Senpai, I see,” Myuto said and gave the smaller one a clap on the shoulder.

When Taiga finally somehow managed to get out of the crowded space they had created he walked up to Kentaro who gave him a teasing look.

What took his Senpai by surprise was Taiga not saying anything, but only hugging him. “Thank you for everything.”

“It’s not like I bought you off,” Kentaro said scolding as he pulled back to shake his Kohai a bit on the shoulders. “You just have to make sure I won’t regret begging Kamenashi to let you two know earlier, okay?”

“Well I can’t promise to stay out of trouble for the last month, but I can definitely promise to make it an unforgettable last Matsuri for everyone.”

“That’s the spirit,” Kentaro said with a bright smile. “And now back to work, you don’t want to make your customers wait! I bet Aran will be thrilled to hear about your buy off letter.”

Their friends behind them had fallen silent again and when Taiga flashed the two boys a bright smile and bowed deeply to them all of the others followed his example, because no matter how happy Juri and Taiga were right now, it was still Myuto’s and Kentaro’s send off and they wanted them to leave remembering that they were forever grateful!

“Whatever comes your way, never give up! All of you!” Kentaro said to all of them.

“Never, I promise,” Taiga replied in the name of all of the boys. After all they were known for creating chaos, but also taking care of each other in the end.

They would never forget the hardship, yet also never forget all the love and support they have gotten from one another in this district!

Yoshiwara was a place full of demons, but if you looked closer you could find so much more behind the red bars, you only have to dare to open your eyes!

*** 

Epilogue

The Nakasendo was already a day behind them and on the next fork they stopped their horses, taking in the landscape around them.

“The castle should be behind the next mountain,” Juri said, taking a look at the map they have received when leaving Edo. They were up in the mountains of one of the central provinces after they had been told to check up on the Daimyo after he hadn’t responded to one of the Shogunate letters.

The light breeze was already showing that soon the leaves would turn to their beautiful red color and autumn would replace the warm and humid days.

“I hope we can settle this as calm as the last one,” Taiga said as he looked down at one of the villages in front of them. There was no sign of a civil war or abuse of the villagers in the small places they have passed on their way, so he hoped that no upcoming war against the Shogunate was coming their way.

“You will get rusty if we solve everything by talking though,” Juri laughed as he put the map back and turned his horse towards the path down the mountain.

Taiga only laughed on hearing that, but intuitively reached out to touch Tai-chan’s swords, which he was still carrying. Using it had become a regular task for him and also Juri’s fighting skills have improved, but luckily they didn’t have to face anything as dangerous as the uproar Yabu had caused.

“My lords,” someone was heard from down the hill and soon an older man came into their sight, a villager. He bowed towards them and asked if he was allowed to come closer.

“Speak up my friend, you don’t have to fear us,” Taiga said as he allowed him to come closer. It had been a challenge for Taiga to accept the position he was in now, to not always try and stop people from speaking from a lower position to him, but now he was wearing the emblem of the Tokugawa Shogunate on his Hakama and he had to behave that way. After all it didn’t mean to be high and mighty or impolite, it just finally gave him the opportunity to help were he could only watch until now.

“We would like to talk to you about our Daimyo if you don’t mind listening to some of the villagers.”

Juri and Taiga exchanged a knowing look on hearing that and Juri nodded. “Show us the way. We will gladly listen to what the people of this province have to tell us.”

The man bowed towards them again and hurried down the path to show them the way.

Over half a year ago they had gotten their buy off letter and while it hadn’t been such a surprise in the first place it had still been a quite weird feeling to see Domoto’s name on the letter when they were finally allowed to open it.

Taiga would be eternally grateful though, because Domoto hadn’t just seen Taiga as one of the Yoshiwara boys he could have his fun with, but he had seen more potential in his ambitions. He had given him the opportunity to take the necessary preparations to go through several difficult exams to become the Hatamoto of Domoto, and not only that. Domoto had put Taiga in charge of patrolling the provinces to check on the Daimyos who were connected to other provinces through giving their children into their custody.

It had been a task Taiga could have never dreamed off, after all he wasn’t of high birth and if it hadn’t been for Domoto he would have never gotten the chance to even hold any rank in the Shogunate.

Also the fact that Domoto had bought off Juri together with him and allowed him to take part in the training as well, showed how well he knew Taiga and how much he cared.

Juri was a Taisho for now as he had to actually catch up to a lot of things Taiga had already established before.

“By the way did you hear back from any of them?” Juri asked when they went down the mountain.

“Not yet, but I hope that means they are taking their time reading, because if their silence means that my book is that bad that they don’t even bother with a reply, then I won’t write down our story from now on,” Taiga said with a teasing smile.

A month ago he had finally finished his book and he had given it to a copy service so he could send out a few copies to his friends. After all it wasn’t just Hokuto who had told him he wanted to read it, so now he had a lot of copies on their way all over Japan and he could only nervously wait what they all would think about it.

“We can ask them directly after we’re done with this job, after all we are close to a few of their provinces,” Juri said with a wink.

“You only want to take a few days off. You know that Domoto will get angry if he realizes that we delayed things on purpose.”

“Then we just don’t tell him,” Juri said laughing on which Taiga couldn’t even object.

They were now part of the Shogunate, possessions of Domoto and while they were indeed not free, things have turned out way more positive than Taiga could have ever imagined.

Maybe this part of their story would be indeed worth another book!