Sugizo and Heath lived and hunted in Okayama Prefecture alongside Kirito and his pack in a tense armistice. Since Kirito insisted on guarding the inner city of Okayama so jealously, the pair avoided hunting in that area. It took some weeks before they finally found somewhere more permanent to live, for however long they chose to stay here in Okayama Prefecture. It was a small, somewhat rundown house in the outskirts of town and a number of people in the area had succumbed to cholera, a disease brought into the country by foreigners travelling by sea and spread by contaminated water and poor sanitation and human waste disposal. The two vampires followed the smell of death to the house of an old widow who had recently expired. They buried her in the woods nearby and tidied the house up for themselves, and there they lived quite comfortably.
Although they would not hunt in Momotaro-Odori, they still enjoyed visiting this busy city street for a pleasant night out together; so long as they kept to themselves and did not prey on anybody here, Kirito had no good reason to harass them. They knew that their quiet presence in town bothered Kirito more than he cared to admit. Even if he did become aggressive, they were secure in the knowledge that Kirito’s five was no match for their two.
“It is such a shame, though,” Heath said one evening as they enjoyed a cup of sake at an izakaya. “Why must it be so difficult to make friends with others of our kind?”
“Why indeed,” Sugizo agreed. “Sakurai Atsushi was a strange one. Yoshiki goes without saying. And this Kirito is little more than a petulant child with his attitude; that is no great loss. In all these years, that Issay that you met in Hokkaido sounds like he is the only one worth knowing.”
“I wonder if he is still there?” Heath said, thinking out loud more than anything. Then he shook his head. “No, it has been too long. It does not seem likely that he’d have stayed in Hokkaido all these years. He was already thinking of leaving for a warmer climate when I stayed as his guest.”
“How long do you suppose we shall stay here?” Sugizo mused.
“How long have we been here?”
“Yes.” Sugizo thought about this for a moment. “I like it here, but I cannot say that I enjoy having them for neighbours.”
“I could not agree more.” Heath rested his hand upon Sugizo’s and gave it a gentle squeeze. “Let us leave once summer is over.”
They turned at the sound of a low growl; only Giru passing by and they would scarcely have bothered acknowledging his presence had it not been for a certain look in his eye, and Karyu soon slipped out of the shadows as well, moving as quickly and silently as a wraith.
“Someone else has arrived into town,” Sugizo said under his breath.
“Yes. It seems like not so long ago that we could travel for years and not see a single one,” said Heath. “How is it that so many of us have found their way into one place?”
Sugizo glanced in the direction that Karyu and Giru had gone. “Perhaps everybody has something to run from.”
They paid for their drinks and followed at a safe distance. Sure enough, they glimpsed Kirito at the head of the pack, all five of them quietly stalking a group of four strangers in a wide circle, possibly to avoid being detected, watching their every move. The newcomers looked tired and harassed, certainly like they had been running from someone or something. Heath exchanged a puzzled look with Sugizo and held up two fingers. Of the four, two of them were human. Under what circumstances would two humans be travelling with two vampires? Did they know that they were vampires?
The shorter of the two immortals appeared to be on edge, constantly surveying their surroundings as they moved into town and the four of them entered a small udon shop where the two humans sat down for what looked like a much-needed meal and it became apparent that they were perfectly at ease in the company of the other two, engaging in light conversation as they ate. That only raised more questions about what Heath and Sugizo were seeing.
After the two humans had finished their meal, they left the little udon shop and almost as soon as they stepped out onto the street, the short vampire froze for a second. He knew they were being watched; sure enough, something moved nearby. Kirito and his pack were beginning to move in.
“Look at him,” Sugizo muttered darkly. “He’s going to raise trouble with this group as well, the fool. He cannot help but look for a fight where there is none. All they want is a quiet place to rest.”
The little group of newcomers moved quickly, going back the way they came, obviously trying to shake whoever was tailing them. Kirito’s mob was now close enough for the vampires to smell them; they wanted to make their presence known to scare the intruders out of ‘their’ city.
“Good evening.” Kirito stepped out in front of the little group of four. “You’re not from around here, are you?”
“Begging your pardon,” the short vampire said. “My friends and I are just passing through town.”
“Oh. Anywhere in particular? My friends and I would be happy to show you around if you like.” Kirito chuckled to himself. “Is something wrong? You smell of fear.”
“You were right, Karyu,” said Kohta.
“Of course I was.” Karyu leaned in a little too closely, trying to use his height to intimidate the new strangers. “Couple of vampires travelling with humans. Not something you see every day, eh, Takeo?”
Takeo reached out and pinched the cheek of one of the humans. “How old are you? Eighteen? Nineteen?”
The second human slapped his hand away. “Don’t touch him!”
“What are a couple of humans doing travelling with two vampires?” Kirito asked.
“None of your business,” snapped the taller vampire.
“Look at them,” said Giru. “The humans know that they’re vampires. Anyone who knows about our kind is putting us in danger.”
“Like I said, we’re just passing through,” the first stranger said, eyeing all five of them warily. “We don’t intend to stay long so if you have any objection to us being here, we’ll be gone early tomorrow night.”
He moved to shoulder past, but Kirito stepped in front of him and placed a hand on his shoulder in a vice-like grip.
Watching from behind a corner at a respectable distance, Heath started forward but Sugizo pulled him away, out of sight from the quarreling group.
“What are you doing?” he hissed.
“Kirito means to harm them.”
“Hush!” Sugizo frowned and glanced back at Kirito and the newcomers. “We don’t know what sort of people they are. We have no need to get involved.”
“We are already involved just by being here. If it were just the two, that might be a different matter, but they are clearly trying to protect their human friends.”
Sugizo bit his lip. Heath was right. If it had only been the two vampires, they would probably be capable of defending themselves with little in the way of permanent consequences but if the humans were hurt, there was no telling what—
“Sugizo!” Heath hissed.
Miya heard a muffled grunt and the hand clutching at his hair abruptly let go, and when he opened his eyes he saw two unfamiliar vampires fending off their attackers. One with auburn hair held a wounded Kirito aloft by his neck; Karyu snarled and dropped Satochi to defend his leader, but a tall slender one with long black hair swiftly intercepted him and smashed his face into a wall with the sound of cracking stone and bone. With their leader apprehended and Karyu incapacitated for now, Takeo, Kohta and Giru were reluctant to make a move; the two new strangers were strong.
“Why are you helping them? They’ve got humans!” Kohta hissed.
Heath helped a stunned Miya to his feet. “And what of it?”
“They’ll bring trouble to us all!”
“And I’m sure you won’t attract any attention by attacking a couple of strangers and their human friends where anyone might see,” Sugizo said dryly.
Giru pointed at Miya. “He attacked us first.”
“They’ve done nothing but mind their own business yet you’ve been stalking them all night.”
Kirito looked like a kicked dog when Sugizo released him. He spat on the ground and cast a spiteful glare at Sugizo and Heath for interfering, before staggering away with his pack.
“Thank you so much for helping us,” Miya said, bowing deeply.
“You can thank us later,” said Sugizo. “If you want to save your friend, we have to do it quickly.”
Heath hastened to the wounded human’s side. He had lost a lot of blood and his human friend was terrified and in tears, and the pair brought the newcomers to their modest little home out of town.
“We have to hurry,” Sugizo said to Heath. “I fear…”
Heath caught his eye and shook his head slightly. Carrying a lifeless and bloody Satochi in his arms, he cast a couple of backwards glances at Miya. Their new acquaintance was also looking at them curiously. They had never met, yet this Miya seemed to recognise them somehow.
“You… you’re Heath and Sugizo, aren’t you?” The awe in Miya’s voice was apparent.
“Your friend is dying. He has lost a great deal of blood.” Sugizo slid the door open and Heath gently lay the young human on the floor. Satochi let out a weak groan and his eyelids fluttered. His three friends Yukke, Tatsurou and Miya knelt by his side.
“If you want to save him, one of you will have to change him,” Heath said, looking at Miya and Tatsurou. “You need to decide quickly.”
The two in question exchanged a glance, and Heath watched Tatsurou slowly get to his feet and walk away with his head down, stony-faced, while a frightened Yukke crouched by Satochi’s side, looking up at Miya with large, red-rimmed eyes. “Miya, what’s happening?”
“He’s dying,” Miya said in a quiet voice. “If you want him to live, I have to change him.”
The unspoken question hung heavily between them. Yukke drew in a trembling breath and his hands hovered uselessly over Satochi. A sob caught in his throat. Tears ran down his cheeks and dripped off his chin.
“I— I don’t— I don’t know!”
“He’s dying,” Miya said again. He gently reached for Yukke’s hand and pressed it to Satochi’s chest. “If I’m going to do it, I need to do it before his heart stops.”
Yukke gasped and snatched his hand away. The idea of Satochi’s heart stopping, the finality of it, spurred him into a decision. “Do it.”
Yukke jumped nervously when Sugizo put a gentle arm around his shoulders. “Come,” he said. “You should leave.”
“Leave?” Yukke looked back at Satochi. “But I can’t— he— I have to— I have to stay…”
Sugizo smiled at him gently. “You don’t want to see this.”
“He’s right,” said Miya. “It’s better if you’re not here for this. Sugizo will ensure that no harm will come to you, won’t he?”
The look that Miya gave him was a plea for help more than anything else and Sugizo’s heart went out to him. Miya and Tatsurou clearly thought of their human friends as family.
“Of course I will look after him,” Sugizo assured him. “Come now. Satochi will be fine. We will come back after he wakes up.”
Reluctantly, Yukke got up, his eyes never leaving his friend’s face until Sugizo guided him away and closed the door.
Sugizo glanced at Yukke as they strolled back into town. The young man was very quiet and pale; he kept his gaze firmly trained on the ground, deep in thought, and more than once he lagged behind and Sugizo had to stop to let him catch up.
“S-sorry,” Yukke mumbled, jogging the last few paces and nervously looking all around for anything that might leap out at him from the darkness.
“My friend, please be at ease.” Sugizo offered him a patient smile. “I will not allow anyone to lay a hand on you, Kirito and his pack least of all. Besides, they ought to be at home licking their wounds and tending to their bruised pride.”
“And you needn’t worry about your friend. I have every confidence that your Miya will take very good care of Satochi, and Heath is there with them. He is strong and clever and he has the warmest heart of anyone I have ever known. He will make sure that no harm can come to any of them. All right?”
Yukke just nodded numbly.
Sugizo tried another tack. “You look like you have had some difficult travels. You must be tired. Let us sit down for some refreshments, shall we?”
“But… you’re… you’re one of them, aren’t you?”
“A blood drinker?”
Yukke bit his lip and nodded again.
“Yes, I am,” Sugizo said cautiously, watching Yukke's face to gauge his reaction.
“I thought you can’t have human food.”
“Oh!” Sugizo chuckled lightly, relieved that this young man was not immediately afraid of him. “So you know about that.”
“A little bit.”
“It is correct that we cannot partake in human food and the result is not pleasant. That said, a drink here and there will not harm us.” Sugizo smiled kindly at Yukke. “In fact, my companion Heath is quite the tea enthusiast.”
Sugizo took young Yukke to the little izakaya that he and Heath liked to frequent, and he ordered some sake and a few morsels of yakitori to help soothe Yukke’s nerves.
“Here,” Sugizo said, pouring a drink for the both of them and then he paused, frowning. “Begging your pardon, but may I ask how old you are?”
For the first time in too many days, Yukke laughed. “I’m twenty-three. Miya and Tatsurou own a shochu distillery. Satochi and I have been drinking shochu since we were fifteen.”
Now it was Sugizo’s turn to laugh. “Then I am glad! Please: eat, drink. You need your strength after such a harrowing night.”
Yukke inclined his head again and took a tentative sip of his drink.
Sugizo watched his every move carefully. Although Yukke was anxious and restless, he was clearly not too uncomfortable being in the presence of another vampire. “Yukke, may I ask how you came to be here with Miya and Tatsurou?”
Yukke blinked and chewed a mouthful of grilled chicken, washing it down with some more sake. He told Sugizo about how he and Satochi had grown up as orphans and, at the age of ten, were taken in by Tatsurou to help around the household; how Hiro had taught the two of them to cook and clean and tend to the horses. Growing up, the two boys had always wondered about Miya’s strange behaviour, always appearing at night and never taking anything more substantial than tea or shochu, but they were treated as family by their masters and Hiro taught them not to question that which did not concern them. When they came of age, they were schooled in the matters to do with the Aoi Mori business and helped Tatsurou with administrative duties.
“Then one night, just a few years ago, Master Miya and Tatsurou went away for a few nights. They never said why. When they came back, Tatsurou was…” Yukke paused. “He was different. I could tell that something was different with him as soon as I saw him. It was as though a ghost had entered his body and was pretending to be him. I… I can’t explain it.”
Sugizo nodded slowly. So that was how Tatsurou had been changed: not by force, but by choice. That in itself was as unusual a story as two humans travelling with two vampires.
“He still treated us well but just like Miya, he slept all day and rose at night, and he never ate any food.”
Sugizo poured him another cup of sake which Yukke gulped down without thinking.
“And then… Hiro had a terrible accident. He was thrown from his horse and was bleeding from his head. Satochi and I were so afraid that he would die. He looked dead. Miya was out of town but Tatsurou brought Hiro home and told us… told Satochi and me to go back to our room. So we did. And…”
“Shh,” Sugizo murmured, rubbing his shoulder.
“The noises.” Yukke’s voice dropped to a whisper. “We heard such terrible screaming coming from the house, like a demon. It went on and on, and then when we thought it was over, it got worse, and… and…” Yukke buried his face in his hands and took a deep breath. “There was so much blood. I have never seen so much blood. The next night, Miya and Tatsurou told us the truth. They told us… what they really are. And what happened with Hiro. They tried to save him, but something went wrong.”
Sugizo was quiet for a moment. “And?”
Yukke shook his head. “I don’t know. Satochi accepted it all but I… it was so confusing. It’s still confusing, I don’t understand it all.”
“But if you are still with them…”
“Miya gave us a choice to leave or stay. Satochi wanted to stay.” Yukke laughed hoarsely. “He is like a child. He is too trusting. But he was right: we had always been treated well. Just because we had only just found out that our employers were blood drinkers, did that change how they had raised and taught us in the past? They killed Hiro but if he really was what Miya said he had become, maybe… maybe killing him was the right thing to do.
“So… things were fine. For a time. Then one night Tatsurou and Miya came home fighting. Tatsurou kept shouting something about his family being killed when he was a child. Miya convinced him to flee from our home in Wakayama. And now we are here.” The young human’s eyes were wide with worry and fear. “The thing that happened with Hiro… is that what will happen with Satochi?”
Sugizo pursed his lips and sighed inwardly. There was little point in lying. “That is why I had to call you away. When a human is changed, their mortal body must first die. It is a painful process—”
Yukke groaned. “I have killed him.”
“What if he goes mad like Hiro?” Yukke whispered. “How can we possibly know?”
Sugizo was quiet for a moment. “Do you recall what Miya said? About doing it before his heart stops?”
“I am only guessing, but if Tatsurou had attempted to save Hiro’s life by changing him, he may have already died by the time Tatsurou reached him.” Sugizo’s face was very solemn. “Perhaps that is the reason for his madness. That is no way to live. Death is a much kinder fate.”
Yukke put his face in his hands. “Oh gods, what have I done?”
“Yukke.” Sugizo placed a cool, reassuring hand upon his. “Satochi was alive when we brought him home. If Miya changed Tatsurou, then knows what he is doing. Satochi’s pain will be short-lived. He will not likely remember it once he wakes. You will have your friend back.”
Yukke stared glumly into his empty sake cup. “Wait. Have you and Miya met before? How did he know your names?”
“Miya?” Sugizo frowned. “No, we have never met, but I believe we have the same maker.”
“The one who changed us into blood drinkers.”
Yukke fell quiet again. “Miya said we were running from someone called Yoshiki.”
Sugizo nodded grimly.
When they returned to the little house in the outskirts of town, Tatsurou and Miya looked exhausted and harried, and Satochi had not yet woken.
“You can come in, Yukke,” Heath called. “It’s fine. The worst is over.”
Yukke’s face peered out from behind Sugizo and he looked around at the circle of faces before sinking to his knees beside Satochi. His friend didn’t look too different at all; a touch paler than usual, perhaps, but he wasn’t in pain and he wasn’t bleeding, he wasn’t even wounded. Had a stranger walked in at that moment, they would have never guessed that he had been mauled earlier that evening if it weren’t for his bloodstained clothes. He looked like he was only sleeping.
Sugizo carried Satochi to the spare bedroom and gently lay him on the tatami. “You can stay with him if you like,” he said to Yukke. “So few of us get to wake up to a familiar face after we are changed.”
“R-really? Is it safe? Won’t he…?”
“Attack you? Of course not. You’ll find that he’ll still be himself.”
“You mean he’ll still be stupid?” Yukke blurted out.
Sugizo looked at him in surprise and laughed.