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Iroha

Chapter Text

“Do you want to change the past?”

 


 

 

Although its scent still lingers on

the form of a flower has scattered away

 

The sky looked, as always, so distant from touch. Even as they went up the path of Irohazaka, the additional 400 meters above didn’t matter as it was still unreachable. Each curve out of the 20 that spelled the poem the road owed its name to seemed treacherous, especially since half of the road was blocked by stationed cars and men clad in black. It was an unnecessary precaution, as there were only two roads connecting the top of Lake Chuzenji, and the 28 curves of the other path seemed less inviting (not to mention they were meant to go down the mountain).

Sure, the view was impressive and so were the curious monkeys, attracted by the banter of the men and the unusual movement at that time of the year, since Irohazaka was crowded normally in autumn, when the scenery was dyed in hues of orange and red, and not in summer when the trees were the fantastic shades of green, green and more green. Eventually, the monkeys became the more attractive spectacle, as they began to attack the guards, and some of the men had to hide in their armoredcars. The woman inside the moving car snickered, thinking how someone could pretend to watch over her car if they ran away from a rabid monkey.

Even so, the constant monkey attacks quickly became the norm by curve number 7. The woman looked at the reflection of her own person in the window, unable to see her own eyes as they meshed with the blue of the sky. If she had been with other people, maybe the scene would have been more enjoyable, as sitting in one corner with five men whose wardrobe consisted of nothing but bleak black institution suits was as fun as rolling down the mountain. And if they were on the other road, the one with the tunnel that granted a wish if one managed to hold their breath as it was crossed, things would be brighter. At the very least, she could wish a monkey would bite the nose of the tallest member of no-fun-scary squad. The other 4 men had the decency of simply ignoring her, but this one liked to turn to her every couple of minutes to make sure she didn’t try doing anything- not that stranded on a path that would reach an even more stranded place gave anyone the freedom of doing something at all.

Even so, the travel went without anything impressive, other than trees changing into more trees and the clouds seeming to grow closer and closer, and security tighter and tighter. The Saniwa was to be taken to the Nikkō Citadel (also known as the Citadel of the Sunlight), the stronghold assigned to her by the History Preservation Force, so such pre-emptive measures were simply the least that could be done. Of course that also meant the men in suits kept watch on her every move.

Not even after they reached the level of the glorious Lake Chuzenji, one that was born out of the eruption of Mount Nantai, did it seem that they were closer to the sky. Instead, the place was swarming with cars and watchmen that had the thoughtful consideration of blocking the view, one that reflected the clouds so clearly as if the waters contained a portion of the sky.

It was said that Mount Nantai was a sacred spot, such that women and horses were forbidden long ago to set foot on its grounds. Ironically, it had become a place that needed the presence of both, one to go through the noble cause of protecting the past and the other needed for transport and fighting.

The year was 2206, a year after history had changed.

It was now widely known that a group, the self-proclaimed Retrograding Army, had violated time-travel laws and decided to change history for whatever reason that no one to that day had unraveled. And shortly after, groups of Saniwa, the chosen people capable of bringing inanimate objects to life, had been sent to fight them. Armed with the souls of weapons, the Saniwa and the sword boys were to defeat the Army and preserve the past.

But a year had passed and the conflict was not close to be over.

It was to be expected, as the first attempts had been mere skirmishes and the Saniwa sent had no idea of what they faced. Every month, a new group would be sent, only for some to come back victorious, giving the impression of testing the field rather than setting something in motion. But it was obvious, as the Army seemed to have planned this conflict a long time ago, and these were mere soldiers sent as sacrifice to buy time. That was how it was.

And now it was her turn.


 


 

 

For whom will the glory

of this world remain unchanged?

 

Aki Wakatsuki sighed as the car took a sharp turn to the west, going along the trail of the lake (and the fucking black cars that still blocked the view), away from the small population of Chuzenji Onsen, the small village on the borders of the lake set up back in the Meiji period. The Citadel had been erected there in the middle of the forest, somewhere where rumors of people disappearing and never coming back had started, where the air seemed different, as if it was the one from a thousand years ago and where the landscapes were still as a real-life photograph.

The habitants of Chuzenji avoided the area, saying it was the presence of the gods that drove people away and made trespassers perish. Other stories included mysterious noises at night, demons that lurked and took the souls of those who dared to meet their eyes, and the wandering souls hailing from Kegon Waterfall stuck between the realm of the living and the dead. Of course, those were simply rumors but no attempt to discard them was made, as it simply made the Saniwa’s life easier.

The car made a stop, at the furthest point where the pavement still existed, a sign that they would have to continue on foot. Aki stretched for a second, giving a look at the faraway town of Chuzenji, imagining people leading their simple lives, without much worry about what would happen. She turned to the sky again, as if thinking that such a carefree existence was either a blessing or a curse, or a necessary evil. After all, everyone outside believed the Saniwa had been winning the war because the admission of failures month after month would bring chaos to the people. It wasn’t as if it was the only thing kept from the citizens, anyway.

The escorts handed her the small suitcase, filled with the very few things she owned that she was allowed to take, since they were only paid to escort and not to be her assistants (not that she cared) and they all proceeded into the forest.

 The scenery inside was the same, as the surroundings still included lush green trees, rocks, and nothing else. The sound of the cursed monkeys was audible, close enough that one of the men turned at the twitch of branches or the rustling leaves. Apparently, he had been bitten by one months ago and never got over it. And while it was half pathetic, half amusing, they kept stopping every time the man looked around for the monkeys, so much that Aki had enough and fished in her pocket for a self-made cigarette and a lighter. Immediately, she felt the glare of the tallest member (that fucking douchebag, she thought) and quickly said, “I’m not going to burn the forest,” as she put the lighter back in the pocket, but not the cigarette. Her eyes went to the ground, thinking that maybe she could grab a stone and hurl it to the man’s face and-

It was then that she noticed something wasn’t right, as she came to the realization that the scenery in front of her hadn’t changed the slightest, no matter how much they walked. The same trees in the same position, making an oddly defined path that went straight as if moving through a photograph. And it seemed that only she noticed, for the other men simply said nothing, just dragged their feet, though their faces did show that they wanted to be done with the task and go home, whether it was because of her or the now very unnatural atmosphere or a combination of both, she didn’t know.

But before she could say a thing, the trees faded, clearing the view to a wide open area and a great building, a mix of a fancy mansion and a temple lost in time, could be seen.

The men said no more, just nodded as if that was as far as they went. She could feel the tension in them dissipating, almost sighing in relief at being done with the task. Before she could blink, they disappeared into the trees again without turning back, as if they had run away. Of course, she couldn’t really blame them as the grounds reeked of otherworldliness, one that chilled to the bone. Even if one ignored the small fox sitting in front of Aki, there was a huge list of things that were out of place, be it the air that seemed to be from the past, present and future and the odd stillness of everything. Even the sky was unusual, it was the same color, had the same clouds, but there was something about it that couldn’t be explained in words. There was something in the air, in the light, something surrounding the trees and the beings, no monkeys audible, and the few scattered flowers, as if they were both a mix of times, though better phrased, it was as if the place had been lost in time.

And of course it had to be, for the Citadels had been erected in places that were considered sacred, so the rumors of the gods murdering people weren’t that off. So there was a higher presence but it simply connected the three strands of time (in retrospective, having a place being a scary murder house sounded much more impressive than a place where time had simply stopped).

“Welcome, we’ve been waiting for you, Wakazuki-sama,” the small fox greeted Aki and she jumped because even if she had been told beforehand about magical talking foxes, one thing was hearing about it and another was hearing the thing. “My name is Konnosuke, I am in charge of explaining everything you need to know. First allow me to thank you for-”

Aki waved her hand as she said, “Right, right, gratitude about dying, that sounds chill, let’s just go.” And before Konnosuke could even say a thing, she had walked to the Citadel, playing unconsciously with the cigarette she still held on to.

Truth be told, she had half-expected the Citadel would be impressive. Half, because Aki certainly hadn’t believed that she would get one of the best ones. The Saniwa in training had often discussed and mentioned that some Citadels were better equipped than others. Some even had aids (as in actual people and not magical talking foxes) that would help with taking care of the chores, so that the Saniwa could concentrate in their actual tasks of sword forging and training and dying. Due to maintenance costs, there was a huge gap between an acceptable Citadel and a piss-poor version of one, so they accommodated Saniwas in terms of progress during their training. Thus, the most promising Saniwas had been sent to the ones with the better facilities and then they all went down in ranking, because if that world loved something since forever, it was ranking things.

“No wonder half of the expeditions worked like shit,” Aki thought to herself as she entered the citadel, hoping that at least it seemed habitable.

It was, so to speak. It was huge, by far the biggest habitable building she had seen, it had furniture and seemed to be able to house several people, though the stench of oldness and not having fresh air in forever was stark. The windows had been closed, so the inside had been robbed of natural light for who knows how long. Perhaps it had been a long time since the last Saniwa lived there, not that it was apparent in a place where time stands still.

And there were no traces of them anyway, as their items must have been discarded the moment they passed away or rather, the moment it was apparent they were not coming back.

Desertion had been rarely heard of (at least in terms of official news) as most of them would be quickly dealt with in manners that one didn’t have to try too hard to imagine. The official number one cause was exhaustion, and an increasing number of Saniwa had to be “retired”, euphemism of “got murdered” that only the more cynical knew.

It was almost amusing, in the horrible kind of way, that some younger people were excited about being selected, as Aki heard younger girls, not even of the legal age, gossip happily about plans of grandeur and how they’d single-handedly defeat the Retrograding Army. It had to be the lack of perspective of the teenagers, as Aki in her 26 years in this world could attest that the so-called simple challenge was far from it, instead being a one-way trip to hell.

Long ago, Irohazaka had been a road Buddhist pilgrims traveled to reach the sacred Mount Nantai and the lake that had been formed after destruction. The rivers it housed gave life, as they nourished the rice paddy fields both in Chuzenji and the areas surrounding the mountain.

No one would have guessed the ironic turn of events.

(The number two cause of diminished Saniwa numbers was actually suicide, not that future aspirants had heard of it, and only bitterly realized this once they had sealed their destiny in a god-forsaken land.)

 


 

 

Arriving today at the yonder side

of the deep mountains of evanescent existence

 

A light filled the forge as a young man took form in front of their eyes, metal turning into flesh and bone. Cladded in a white robe that covered most of his face, he stared at his new master as if judging whether she had something to say. It was then that Aki met his eyes. They were a deep green hue, piercing and vivid, and the cigarette in her hand was folded in two as her own eyes darkened before drifting away.

“I'm Yamanbagiri Kunihiro. ...What's with those eyes? Does the fact that I'm a duplicate bother you?” the man in front of her said, tone as cold and sharp as the metal he had been seconds ago.

His voice snapped her back to reality, her hand and face relaxed as Aki shook her head, dazed. “Ah, what? …N-no, that’s not it,” she mumbled, still unable to meet his eyes, needing air to remind herself that those eyes weren’t the ones she had seen before.

Yamanbagiri didn’t seem convinced, however. His frown deepened, yet he voiced none of his thoughts.

“S-sorry, I didn’t mean, you just reminded me of someone I-” Aki began, though the moment she uttered those words, Yamanbagiri’s eyes widened, flashing an almost hateful glare that made her stop.

“Don’t dare compare me to-!” Yamanbagiri spat, a painful expression flashed across his face, visible only for a fraction of second, as he disappeared from the forge, leaving his master behind.

 


 

It’s said that the Iroha poem had a hidden message, a masterful eulogy to the Buddhist Monk Kukai. Perhaps that truth was hidden deep in Irohazaka.

 


 

 

We shall never allow ourselves to drift away

intoxicated, in the world of shallow dreams.

Chapter Text

How immense the universe is!

How eternal history is!

I wanted to measure the immensity with this puny five-foot body.

 


 

 

Aki let out a long sigh, not one of weariness but one of extreme exasperation, as the first encounter with her starter sword had been anything but what she wanted. She wasn’t expecting the magical, glorious experience half of the training Saniwa had talked about, but she didn’t think it’d be 20 on a scale of 10 in terms of terrible first impressions. She sat by a small table in the dirty kitchen, one that had the marks of a bored person pressing their finger into dirt and carving paths in the dust. And of course these paths made something similar to the words “Fuck me”, not that anyone would notice.

After Yamanbagiri had left the room, rather upset being a mild description, Aki had to first mumble something resembling an apology to the swordsmith, who simply replied with an apologetic smile. Then, she had rushed to find the sword, except the Citadel was huge. She hadn’t thought much of it at first, but once she had to look for a man in a blanket in several, too many rooms and all of them full of dust, she had noticed that the place was deceptively ginormous. By the third attempt at looking for Yamanbagiri, she knew the layout of the household by heart, though the fucker was extremely good at hiding or she sucked at searching. It was then that she thought of hoping that he’d be starving and she’d intercept him. The fox had disappeared too sometime during the futile chase so she was basically alone, tired and not looking forward to the massive cleaning.

One would think that if they were basically on a suicidal mission, something resembling maintenance would be provided. The Citadel had been mostly kept intact since the last person had been there. During her trips Aki had noticed that most of the basic furniture had been kept, chairs, beds, tableware and tables neatly arranged under a large layer of dust, even if seemed like less than two weeks had passed since it had been inhabited. Perhaps Chuzenji had been forgotten as the access was a fucking chore, compared to the several citadels in the Kyoto-Osaka-Kobe triangle. Kyoto had always been the number one Citadel region, since the vast amount of temples there ensured a massive amount of spiritual energy and sacred grounds that were required to time travel. After all, while the technology allowed them to move through time, it was only in these specific places, where time had been ripped apart and the past, present and future collided, that it was possible to go backwards, and more importantly, come back. (A joke between the Saniwa was that the real risk was making it back.)

The citadels like the one in Chuzenji had far more spiritual power, so usually just one building had been erected per area and they needed less assistance, as the power needed to come back was abundant. Kyoto had several citadels but also a group of surveyors that always kept an eye on the Saniwa as they traveled in time with the swords, in case something went wrong. Of course this meant that the urban citadels were paid more attention than those in remote areas that would be in theory self-sustaining.

The most logical decision would be that the remote areas were given to the most prodigious Saniwa (who had proved their worth during the obligatory training), and it had originally been done like this for some months. But since the expeditions soon revealed the slaughter nature of the mission, the government-funded organization decided to switch plans and invest their money to protect the better people and kept them where they were easy to reach, under surveillance and care that ensured their survival. If someone in the remote areas had been able to hold out on their own, it was a plus.

The bloodshed hadn’t been entirely pointless, though, as soon survivors had quickly shared the type of strategies the enemy had and how to counter them, in an unintentional massive trial-and-error experiment. It had also served to halt the Retrograding Army’s progress to some extent, buying precious time so that the new Saniwa would come to buy more time.

Therefore, on the final week of every month, agents were dispatched to check upon the people in remote areas, and to clean the places for the new Saniwa. In time, these people had been called the scavengers, as they usually encountered empty houses and remnants of people if there were any. So their task became simply disposing or storing (as the Chuzenji citadel seemed to have a small room full of what seemed to be belongings of at least 5 different people, judging from the stark differences in tastes, items and sizes) what was left, and preparing the house for the next Saniwa. It was unheard of for a citadel to be inhabited for more than three months.

(After June of 2205, harsher psychological check-ins had been imposed, as the simple idea of a hopeless suicidal cause was enough to cause someone to fall quickly in despair. Maybe the higher-ups had realized that isolation and degree of what one considered human as they dealt with the souls of swords, simple noble ideas becoming a horrible different reality, and the otherworldliness of time traveling and time conversion seemed to affect people. Still, Saniwa of the remote areas, called “outsiders”, only had one session per month.)

Aki wrote another “Fuck me” as it seemed that hours had passed and that kid (sure, he was far older than her, but he didn’t look older than a brat anyway) hadn’t become hungry. She cursed herself because she had for once genuinely not meant any harm, it had been his eyes that startled her and some apparently very deep business that -

It was then that it hit her that Yamanbagiri Kunihiro had been a replica of another Yamanbagiri sword.

She sighed again, not thinking that even swords could have inferiority complexes but she had never really talked to the spirits of things, at least not for long before kids that saw her started calling her insane. In any case, if she at least wanted to live for 5 more days, she had to make sure that the blanket kid was around so an apology was in order, whenever he appeared. Soon, she gave up the interaction in the kitchen and went to the courtyard, lighting the crumpled cigarette she had long held to.

 

 


 

 

Long ago, a young boy deeply admired the beauty of the world.

He loved it so much and carved a poem in the rocks of Kegon Falls.

It was such that surrounded him when he threw himself on the waterfall.

 

The air in Chuzenji had been permeated with death. Perhaps it had been the mass suicides committed in the past, began by that one Misao Fujiwara, or the countless star-crossed lovers, unable to fulfill their love unless it was sealed with blood leaving their bodies. And now, it was the remains of those that gave their lives for a pointless cause. It was likely some of these Saniwa had chosen to end things by their own hand, as reality dawned on them.

There were no spirits or ghosts or reminders that they existed. Yet, the Citadel’s air had become polluted and oppressive, tightening around one’s neck, the grip of death ever-present, fate unavoidable. It corroded the spirit and the mind slowly, and the swordsmith, envoy from a higher plane, could only watch as the Saniwa lost themselves to despair.

 


 

The garden had been among the few things that were still beautiful, despite the days or weeks of neglect. The still pond that reflected the sky was the center of it, surrounded by some plants and flowers giving an ethereal impression, still blooming in spite of the stench of death. It was such beauty, the kind that would make one lose their sense of self.

Aki lit the crumpled cigarette she had long held to, watching it burn against the view in front of her. With some imagination, she could pretend she was setting that world on fire, as smoke came from the tip of the cigarette and mixed with the already poisonous air. She smiled bitterly, as the rumors of Chuzenji were proving themselves true, feeling that creeping despair slowly making its way.

The stronger the spiritual power someone had, the more sensitive they became.

Hence those better qualified had lost their minds too quickly, far too impressed by the hatred and disillusionment, as the beauty of the world had been swept by the darkness in one’s heart.

“At least, this is a pretty coffin,” she mumbled, playing with the smoke, attempts of writings with it. “Too bad I don’t plan on dying here.”

It was then, as the cigarette’s light gave out that Aki saw the fox again, close to the edge of the pond and with him, a blanket with legs.

It seemed Konnosuke and Yamanbagiri had been talking, both not noticing Aki had gotten close enough to them. It was actually tempting to listen to their conversation, but common sense dictated that it was better to apologize than be caught eavesdropping and upsetting the sad blanket kid again. She cleared her throat.

Only Konnosuke turned to her.

“Hey Yamanbagiri, I’ve been looking for you.”

“...”

“So, right. Look, I didn’t mean to offend you,” she began, having decided to vaguely mention the problem as apparently comparisons of all kinds made the kid upset. “I’m sorry. We began on the wrong foot. The name is Wakatsuki Aki, I don’t really care how you call me,” she said as she waved a hand, nonchalantly trying very hard to just seem chill and not dismissive.

“Why did you choose me?” Yamanbagiri turned to her, with his piercing green eyes. This time, she didn’t flinch.

“You seemed like you could do the job.”

It wasn’t a lie.

“Are you sure? There’s better than-“

“Now, we should go back and have the fox finish the explanation.”

Yamanbagiri didn’t reply.

“Ok, kid, I don’t know what reason you want to hear or be told or not be told. But point is, you are my partner and I don’t have plans on dying anytime soon, so we have to cooperate.”

And somehow, Yamanbagiri nodded slowly, his face revealing he wasn’t entirely convinced, but at least he had agreed to try. Hopefully things would get better, or not terribly worse.

 


  

“Who do you wish revenge upon?”

Sayo Samonji’s words echoed in the room, no one among the other 4 present daring to talk. The swordsmith seemed extremely chill about such dreadful words and Yamanbagiri hadn’t said a word though he could have heard the Saniwa cursing under her breath, “The fuck did I do to get this…” However, her eyes fixed on Sayo lacked any hint of hate or fear, just faint surprise.

To be fair, no one expected the first thing to hear when greeted to be “who do you want to kill?”, especially not when these words were uttered by what looked like a small child. In fact, his tattered clothes and oversized hat made Sayo look smaller than he already was.

The Saniwa let out a sigh. “Welcome to the team, Sayo”, visibly ignoring the question, though the younger word stared deeply at her.

“Is there-“

“No.”

Deadly silence filled the room. Aki groaned and rubbed her temple, action that just earned a stare from Sayo. The little sword awaited orders, no, it wanted a name. A name of someone to kill. However, such thing never was uttered. Aki introduced herself and Yamanbagiri as casually as she could, intent to steer off the conversation to more pleasant topics apparent. It was a sign for Sayo to drop it, though everyone in the room knew it was a temporary solution.

But it was how Sayo joined the crew.

 


  

“You’re shitting me if you want these kids to go on a fight,” Aki pointed back, at the line of 4 that were standing neither straight nor in the proper military line that they tried to emulate: Yamanbagiri, Sayo, Imanotsurugi and Midare Toushirou, the last two being the newest members. In fact, Midare had left the forge a couple of hours ago and Konnosuke had seen that.

“Wakatsuki-sama, you haven’t gone on a sortie and it’s important that you are taught the tactics of combat,” Konnosuke replied.

“I know one already, sometimes the enemy attacks in groups of 6. Unless you don’t know how to count, I can tell you that 4 newcomers against 6 will end badly, no matter how much half of these kids look very eager to wreck shit.”

“Not many know that, Wakatsuki-sama.”

Aki shrugged as she crossed her arms. “I have my ways. You might be the fox, but I’m the one calling the shots. None of these brats are setting foot outside until there’s 6 of them. Besides, only one seems like they actually know what they are supposed to do.” Aki turned to the swords. Yamanbagiri’s face was covered in that blanket, but his expression said nothing, contrasting with the excited faces of the other three to go to fight. Though Sayo’s expression was different, one that showed experience and not the amateur sense of adventure both Imanotsurugi and Midare’s eyes held.

“I know what you are thinking, and you’re not. Now, move it, we still have the entire house to clean,” Aki’s voice gave no room for complaints, and she left the room followed by Yamanbagiri. Sayo hesitated for a second, and then disappeared with the group. Only Imanotsurugi and Midare remained, looking unhappy with the decision.

 


 

 A soft knock resounded in the room that Yamanbagiri and Sayo shared. Since they had arrived at the Citadel, the Saniwa had insisted they spend the first days cleaning and making the place habitable. But with only four more pair of hands, they could barely get much done, and they had to add the apparent chore of tending the fields for food. So, while in theory everyone could get a room of their own, they had only managed to clean three bedrooms in around four days. That meant the swords had to share rooms as none dared to suggest they stay at night in the same room as their master.

Another knock broke the silence, deep in the night, long after the lights had been turned off and the area was in utter calmness. Yamanbagiri opened his eyes.

“Hey, are you two awake?”

Yamanbagiri didn’t reply. He waited in silence, in hopes that the sword on the other side of the door would give up. But it was futile. There was another knock on the door.

Yamanbagiri sighed. He didn’t feel like talking in the middle of the night and he certainly didn’t want to open the door. But he figured that if he didn’t reply or tell the person to go back to their room, there would be knocking all night long. He sat on his bed, grabbing the white cloth that he always kept close and put it on. Though when he arrived to the door, it was already opened, done by that one small and quiet Sayo, and in front of them stood Imanotsurugi and Midare.

“Hey, hey,” Imanotsurugi began, trying to keep his voice down but failing to do so. “You know how Master didn’t want us to go on a sortie? Midare and I-”

“Go to bed,” Yamanbagiri interrupted, not even looking at any of the Tanto, but at the door he was trying to locate so that he could close it.

“Master has said we would have to wait,” Sayo’s voice seconded. “You should go back to your rooms.”

“But it’s not fair!” Midare replied. “All of us are swords, right? We have been made for fighting, so the sooner, the better, right?”

“Yes, yes! We’re very strong! We can take the enemy without a problem.”

Neither Sayo or Yamanbagiri replied. Instead, Yamanbagiri closed the door, only to be stopped by the fast reaction of Midare, or rather his foot between the door and the doorframe.

“Don’t you want to go to the battlefield? That’s why we were made for.”

Yamanbagiri’s face grew grim, not that any of the other swords would notice in such darkness. “I’m not interested,” he said, and he tried closing the door again, but Midare didn’t move his foot.

“What about you, Sayo?”

“Master said that we would go when there’s 6 of us.” Sayo’s voice didn’t show the frustration Yamanbagiri’s had, it had been a matter-of-fact tone. “In a few days we will be able to go.”

“But that’ll take a lo-o-ong time!” Imanotsurugi chimed. “That’s why Midare and I thought we’re convincing Master.”

Midare nodded. “Yes! If we catch Master by surprise, surely she’ll see how capable we are and she’ll let us go.”

If both Tantos expected a reply from either Sayo or Yamanbagiri, they’d be waiting forever. The more obedient (or resigned) swords stood in silence, one that reeked of judging the naïveté of the newer members.

“Hey, say something,” Midare said, as he pouted, not pleased by the cold reception of their plan, one that had taken a few hours to hatch and that both he and Imanotsurugi were pleased with.

“That’s not going to work,” Yamanbagiri said. “Just wait quietly for a few days.”

“But-”

This time Yamanbagiri was faster than Midare, as he pushed the long haired Tanto and closed the door with a swift move, showing that the conversation was over. He stood there for a moment, listening to a weary sigh from Midare and then steps becoming more distant, a sign that the swords had gone to their room. Without a word to Sayo, Yamanbagiri went to his bed and stared at the ceiling.

If they didn’t get to fight, it was fine by him. He had to sweep floors and use human tools for cleaning. Tomorrow he would plow the land and sow seeds. It was fine.

Anything that wouldn’t have him compared to the real Yamanbagiri.

 


 

 

Midare and Imanotsurugi waited behind a door that led to the main hall of the first floor, staring from a small creek they had left in hopes of seeing their Master pass by. The sun had begun to rise, light faintly filling the quiet household. Soon she’d go to the kitchen and prepare breakfast for all. If they wanted to prove themselves, now was the time.

They had spent all night long planning, far too focused to even feel tired, even if it was their first time with a human body. Neither would harm the Saniwa, just surround her and make her admit they were ready for the battlefield, in fact they would be leaving after eating. Aki would be severely impressed by their skills. Surely she’d let them go.

They heard footsteps. Imanotsurugi peeked through the door and saw traces of long black hair. It was her. The steps’ sounds became faint and distant, and they quietly opened the door to the hall, then both Midare and Imanotsurugi tightly gripping sticks (because they were worried they might injure her in the stunt if they used real blades) rushed to the end.

Imanotsurugi was faster, darting straight to Aki, stick aimed at her back. Midare would attack from the left. Master’s black hair waved as she walked, Imanotsurugi readied himself to plunge the stick and-

“Wha-”

In a fraction of second, Imanotsurugi’s arm was caught by Aki’s arm, only being able to feel a hit to his hand, stick falling into the ground. Then, his entire body crashed on the wooden floor, as he had been knocked down.

Midare rushed to the left, seeing his partner fall to the ground, halting for a second as he tried to register what had happened. Suddenly, he felt his arm twist, letting go of the stick as he suddenly saw the cold eyes of his master and then the wooden weapon was pressed against his throat.

“What the fuck are you trying to do?” Aki asked, her blue eyes piercing Midare’s and the sword felt something go down his spine, as if he had been submerged in ice cold water. “Did you think with your little stunt, I’d let you go?”

Midare couldn’t respond, unable to look away no matter how much he wanted. Then, the pressure against his neck disappeared as he saw Aki break the stick into three pieces and throw them to the ground. She walked to Imanotsurugi’s form, the Tanto struggling to stand up only to be pulled up by her with almost no effort, picking the stick that Imanotsurugi carried and breaking it as well.

Imanotsurugi said nothing as he leaned against the wall before he got hit in the forehead by her finger flicked at him.

“You shouldn’t do that shit, someone might get hurt,” Aki said, light-hearted tone as her face softened, waving to Midare to come close. When both swords stood next to each other, she gently smacked their heads. “You are grounded, you’ll clean the toilets until they are sparkling. Now fetch everyone for breakfast.” And with that, the Master went to the kitchen.

Neither Midare nor Imanotsurugi said a word, simply rubbing their heads as they quietly went upstairs to tell Yamanbagiri and Sayo that they should get ready for the day.

 

Chapter Text

Not one. Not two. Five.

"Tigers."

Five white cubs surrounded the equally small child that had just left the forge. His entire figure trembled as he nervously eyed the people in front of him. "Um, I’m, um..."

So much for a sword that was renowned for killing tigers.

"How cute!" Imanotsurugi chirped as he rushed to grab any nearby cub. Gokotai shrieked so loud that everyone who wasn't him winced.

"Tigers."

Aki groaned and sighed deeply, face spelling the feeling of praying to a higher deity to "Give me a fucking break".

Gokotai stood uncomfortably, balancing on his feet as his hands tightly gripped the sword he was carrying and if he didn't look as if he was about to cry, he might have been mistaken for dancing.

"Th-th-they’re my friends! They’re so cute..." he said, words becoming inaudible by the end of the phrase.

"O-o-ohhh, they’re like big cats, aren't they master?" Imanotsurugi eyed one of the tigers curiously, and unlike Gokotai, the tiger looked back at the sword. "I bet you can have them play with sticks and balls and sleep on them."

"That's not how tigers work... What the fuck are we going to do with them? We can't have something li-"

Gokotai shrieked and all the tigers flocked to him, and now he really looked as if he was going to let the waterworks -

"No no no, don’t cry, no, stop, ok I got it, the tigers stay."

"Wah, not fair, I want tigers too!" Imanotsurugi yelled, trying to grab one of the tigers, running in circles around the forge. Another scream followed suit as Midare (who had just popped in after hearing the noise) rubbed his hand, rubbing two tiny holes that suddenly turned red as he retreated from a growling and not dangerous looking angry cub.

The forge grew loud from the banshee screams of Gokotai asking Imanotsurugi to not swing a tiger, two tigers going after Midare who yelled apparently elated at this.

"Fuck damn it." Aki pulled her hair and took a deep breath that turned into a growl.

 


 

 

“Master, what do tigers eat?”

Aki looked up from the papers she had been reading, thinking for a second of saying "People," but quickly realizing it would be a bad idea. "I don't know. Tiger food?"

"Tiger- food...?" Imanotsurugi looked confused and Aki recalled that back when he was made, the concept of premade food for pets probably didn’t exist, not that anyone made canned food for fucking tigers.

"Someone makes food that tigers can eat... I think. I'll ask when I go to the city.”

She took another set of papers, drafting a list of the things that were missing and that she'd have to fetch if they made it to the end of the month. If that happened, she'd have to leave the citadel for one or two days, report their progress among other things and then receive money to buy supplies. Saniwas were mostly free to spend the money on what they deemed necessary (except travelling outside or trying to run away). So Aki's list consisted of cleaning goods, a shit load of premade ramen cups because no one could cook anything worth shit and now tiger food. Somehow.

“O-o-ohhh, if I get some, can I have a-"

"No."

"But-"

"Ask Gokotai to let you play with the tigers." And as if she had said some special word, one of Gokotai's cubs walked into the room. The feline gave no shits, prancing as if it had realized that wow the house was huge and stared gnawing on the closest leg of the table.

"What the. No-no-no, stop! Bad tiger, bad tiger!"

The tiger didn't stop, and started running around the room, Imanotsurugi following suit as he yelled, "Yay, let's play, let’s play!"

"Stop it. Don't run!"

"Master should play too!"                     

"Gokotai! Goddammit get over he-, not the fucking papers, get down the table. Not you too, Imanotsurugi!"

Without thinking, Aki grabbed the closest thing in the table, one of the pens she had just used a few minutes ago, and threw it at something, hoping that the two would stop. The pen missed any target and instead flew out of the room, crossing the open window into the courtyard. A sudden white flash and the tiger leaped outside the window.

"The fu-"

And it entered again, holding the pen in its mouth, looking happy as fuck. The tiger went to where Aki was and put it on the ground, wagging its tail. Aki arched an eyebrow and picked the pen up. She threw it outside and the tiger darted to get it, bringing it back after a minute, then after 2 when Imanotsurugi flung the thing as hard as he could.

 


 

 

It was the end of the week and everyone had gathered in the forge again. The swordsmith had said that he would need three days for this new sword to be ready and neither Imanotsurugi nor Midare could sleep for days, going at least thrice a day to ask "Is it ready yet?" to the swordsmith. Apparently, the next one that would join, if the recipe the smith had tried worked, would be a stronger sword, as he needed around half a day to make little tantous like Sayo or Gokotai. Yamanbagiri didn't look as if he cared much about the new sword, more interested in keeping the end of his white not-blanket away from "Wolf". Apparently the tiger had taken a liking to him and since neither was the socializing type, tiger and sword, the tiger had been named like one (and Yamanbagiri kinda had a name already).

"Dog" ran around the now terrible duo of Midare and Imanotsurugi while "Cat" simply judged from the top of Gokotai's head. "Dolphin", apparently the only tiger in the earth to really like getting into water and dive for hours in the pond, and "Mouse" (not because it was a coward but a sneaky little bastard) were somewhere in the house.

Sayo sat quietly, behind everyone, even behind master, looking intently as if he wanted to ask something, though Aki brushed it with a "Not now".

"Ok, let's do this," she said as she grabbed the freshly made sword, feeling heavier compared to the tiny tantous and in a matter of seconds, light mixed as steel became blood and flesh and apparently fur- what the fuck.

"Yo!” Yelled a lively man in black, with what seemed to be a cape made of fur or some similar material, as he stretched out. "The name is Shishiou!"

His appearance was wild, almost out of a fairy tale, as the intent eyes of almost all of the younger swords showed, not one taking their eyes off him, or rather, the odd cape.

But at least it wasn't someone that could be confused with a kindergartener.

"Aki Wakatsuki," she said raising a hand in the world's most terrible attempt at saying hello. "Welcome to the-”

Midare walked to Shishiou, eyes burning on the thing. He moved his hand, finger extremely close to the fur, almost poking it because that thing looked very unusual, as if-

The nue moved and screamed and Aki and Gokotai screamed too.

"The fuck is that thing, what the-"

"Hey, no touchies! Nue doesn't like to-" Shishiou looked at Midare who looked anything but utterly elated at the bloody thing, so much that Shishiou took a step back.

"What did you say, nue? Are you shitting me?!"

"Yes, the old man and I killed one long ago! Heh heh!" Shishiou said with a huge grin, cocky but not to the degree of shit-eating.

"That thing looks very fucking alive, excuse you."

"Master, do you want me to kill it?" Sayo interjected and Shishiou immediately replied with, "No, don't you dare!" growling and holding the nue very close to him. The nue moved angrily and Gokotai screamed again. The tigers growled and there was sudden chaos.

"Fuck this shit, I need a drink", Aki mumbled as she laughed extremely bitterly and looked at Yamanbagiri as if saying, "God, fucking help me."

Yamanbagiri didn't reply though she could swear she saw a faint smirk in his no-fun-allowed face. The fucker.

 


 

 

"Master , master!"

"What is it, Midare?"

"There are six of us."

"I know that."

"Then…"

Aki sighed as she glared at Midare and Imanotsurugi, who peered from the side of her bed looking extremely awake. Shishiou had just been forged a few hours ago, had no experience and only the vague knowledge that they needed to prepare a room for him (because in their excitement while they waited, half of them got shit done), and after that, they'd go to battle. And the other minor aspect that since their screaming lasted for hours, Aki looked like she would murder someone, so no one really dared to mention anything until she had gotten sleep and calmed down. Hell, even they cleaned the rooms faster and better (Little shits, I should bribe them more often, she thought) and cleaned three more rooms so that they would not be stopped by dust bunnies.

She got up, scratching the back of her head as she snorted, "Is every-”

"Yes yes, we had them all be awake and ready!" Midare interrupted.

She stretched. “Give me five minutes.”

“Yowza!” Imanotsurugi and Midare screamed as they disappeared in a flash, and even got ready the miserable breakfast that only those with zero cooking skills would be able to make without burning the entire house down.

 


 

 

“Enlighten us.”

And Konnosuke stood up proudly, as much as a fucking talking magical fox could, and he told them the general basics. His speech seemed more rehearsed now, perhaps because he had been flat out denied doing so a week ago, but only Yamanbagiri, Aki and Sayo could tell he was acting. All eight were standing in front of a torii gate, deep in the back of the citadel, beyond the bedrooms and secured by the shimenawa ropes that guarded against evil. The gate, guarded by a double shimenawa chain that now was lying on the ground, looked imposing.

For the time being, the Saniwa in charge would be accompanying them, serving as their link between the past and the citadel. As they grew stronger, their bodies would naturally host more spiritual power needed to come back. Each of them carried a bead in a rosary, the one that would make the connecting between the host and the torii gate.

The process was simple, actually: Crossing the gate together, defeat the enemy and then use the rosary, channeling the energy to get back. The problem was having enough spirit energy to do the last one and not having anyone suddenly wanting to stay behind. But as in most things in life, it was always a bet and the risk of betrayal laid in every expedition, and every encounter.

"And that is all, questions?"

Konnosuke would be going there but since they might appear in the middle of a fight, explanations had been already given. It's not to say that the swords hadn't been told beforehand about formations and how to counter strategies, a small briefing about their enemy as well as explaining to each other their abilities. And they had been studying them, or so they said they did. Midare, Sayo, Gokotai, and Imanotsurugi would serve as the vanguard, taking out the fastest enemies before they were able to strike. Yamanbagiri and Shishiou would follow suit after.

According to the supposedly reliable calculations of the demonic duo, if 2 concentrated on a foe, the tantous would be able to defeat 2, and Yamanbagiri and Shishiou would continue with the rest. Then, they'd win without a single scratch.

Even if she seemed capable of fighting, their master would just survey the battle and give orders in case Yamanbagiri, the current leader and secretary, was unable to.

The group held the rosary together.

“Ready?”

A sudden light engulfed them as they crossed the gate.

 


 

 

A wasteland in front of their eyes, and close-

"Enemy detected," Yamanbagiri shouted. "Horizontal formation. Assume... Uh…"

"Horizontal!"

"Vertical!"

"Aren't we doing C-crane…?"

"Let's just kill them!"

"It’s the Crane Wings, you little-"

The Crane wings formation had an advantage against the horizontal formation of the enemy. And in such a strategy, Midare and Imanotsurugi would open from the left and right, each going in a different direction. The tantous gripped their swords tightly and lunged forward.

Right into each other.

"Midare, you had to go to the left!"

"No, you had to!"

The idea was an ambush.

Suddenly, an enemy sword leaped forward, right at Imanotsurugi, only to be barely blocked by the fast reflexes of Sayo, losing his own sword to the ground. The enemy raised their sword, plunging it down right at both of them, but the hit never came.

With all his strength, Yamanbagiri pierced the body of the enemy tantou from behind, managing to stop it millimeters from Imanotsurugi's face as Sayo recovered his sword.

Wolf and Dog growled, as a shriek from Gokotai prevented anyone from thinking they were safe. Shishiou shielded the tiny child from the hit of another enemy sword, cutting its head off as Midare had just gotten up and stabbed the incoming one. Only two remained.

Sayo rushed forward to one, as Imanotsurugi followed. Both cut deeply but not enough to kill, the enemy sword countered, both sword boys were too close to each other to be able to duck.

"Gah!"

"Nghhh!"

Gokotai ran to the other, realizing the uninjured one might strike them. His hands were shaking.

Gokotai’s sword missed the target, he fell to the ground, sudden dread filling him as he knew he'd be impaled for his carelessne-

A mix of blood spilled in his face, as he lifted his eyes to see a flash of long black hair and blood dripping from one arm, Aki standing between him and the enemy wakizashi as Shishiou stabbed it from the side, shoving it off with difficulty as his own arm was bleeding profusely.

Yamanbagiri flung his sword against the last one, cutting one arm, then the other.

The enemy was no more.

 


 

 

Everyone was sitting in the repairing room as Midare wrapped the injury in Gokotai's shoulder messily but tightly.

"It looks like the encounter was a success," Konnosuke mumbled, and Aki stopped tending the injury on Shishiou's arm to glare at him enough that the fox's fur bristled and added hastily, "Ah, yes, um, everyone has accidents in the first day."

"They didn’t die because they had more people, you fucking-"

"We shouldn't get caught in the past, and see things to a prosperous fighting future."

She groaned and poured some alcohol on Shishiou's arm, the blond groaned though he quickly stopped, trying to reassure the nue that he was fine.

"What happened is my fault. I shouldn't have left any of you set a fucking foot until you had the formations right and knew what to do. I deeply apologize for this oversight on my behalf.”

“But but we did fine,” Midare began.

“Listen, I don't give a fuck if you think you did fine. All of you are injured. You might be swords but you can break. And if you do as you please and not listen to orders, you'll die.” Aki finished wrapping Shishiou’s arm and looked at Midare with cold eyes. “What is your left, Midare? Your right, Imanotsurugi?”

Both swords fell silent.

“Thought so.” She closed her eyes and asked to no one, “Do you even know what counters what? Yamanbagiri, as the leader, it is you who should come up first with the counter strategy. To all of you, if you don’t know, don’t fucking guess the strategy.”

Yamanbagiri looked intently at his bandaged hand, barely moving except for a faint scowl of shame drawn in his face.

“Gokotai.” The sword froze up and looked at Aki with fearful eyes. “I know you are scared and you don’t like to fight. I understand. But we don’t have enough people. So please, get your shit together.” Her piercing eyes made him flinch. “A single mistake is a difference between life and death. If you drop your sword, you are gone. If you miss and don’t react fast, you’ll die or get someone killed. Your actions don’t affect only you, they affect the entire group.”

Gokotai could barely contain his tears, shivering as Aki walked to him.

“But not everything was a disaster,” she said, voice softening as she gently patted Gokotai’s head. “All of you rushed to save your comrades. That’s the most valuable trait you can have. You can get the strategies drilled and practice your technique for days and that will improve. But if you lack such desire to protect someone, no matter how long you are fighting, you won’t develop it.”

Aki sighed. “You have the rest of the day. Dinner is at 6pm. Think about what happened, get a bath, and sleep well. Tomorrow we’re going over all of the strategies and you’ll spar each other. There are no sorties until all of you know what you have to do. Understood?”

They nodded, but all of their eyes were glued to the floor.

“Good enough,” she replied and left the room.

Aki hadn’t reached the end of the hall when the voice of Sayo made her stop.

“What is it Sayo? Are you still hurt?”

Sayo shook his head, and his eyes were fixed to the bandage in Aki’s arm. “Master, how is your wound?”

Aki looked at the bandage, amused for a second as she smacked it lightly. “This is nothing, don’t worry about it.” Her eyes then caught a glimpse of white and she smiled faintly. “And tell Gokotai he shouldn’t be worried about it.” She ruffled Sayo’s hair and then walked away.

When she was alone in her room, her breathing the only sound nearby, Aki grabbed her arm and rubbed it gently, pain written in her face. She let out a sigh.

Chapter Text

Sometimes things happened before one understood what had taken place.

 


 

 

A week had passed since the disaster that should not be named. It had been far from the win everyone had thought they’d get because, fuck, fighting is hard. The lack of fighting experience was a serious detriment for them, as only Sayo and Shishiou were capable enough. Yamanbagiri could do something, sorta, but he looked as if he would rather eat nails than fight. Gokotai still shrieked when he darted forward in training and while both Midare and Imanotsurugi had the spirit, they still had a long way to go. Aki had resorted to tying handkerchiefs on their wrists, red meant right and blue meant left. Thrice every day, they’d be randomly tested on which was right and left, and so far they could get it right 2/3 of the time.

Their physical condition was shit too. They could hardly keep up with her pace when running laps and at least three of them crashed on their faces when trying push-ups. Gokotai looked as if he had died after 3 crunches, Midare could hardly bend and touch his knees, and Shishiou laughed hard but managed to entangle himself to the floor with a jumping rope. The “condition test” ended up being “depression test” as no one could finish a single thing and all of them dropped on the ground, almost pleading for the nightmare to stop.

“God, you haven’t even lasted 15 minutes,” Aki had mumbled as she cleaned off sweat from her face, looking at the pile of sword children bodies that were unable to move. “How will you endure more than one fight, because you do realize you might get caught in successive battles, right…?”

Hence, they eventually got a schedule:

Wake up
Nightmare (Daily exercise hour)
Awkward moment when no one can wash their hair or lift their arms above their heads
No one can cook shit so we’re all eating cereal
“I’ll make you run laps until you die if I catch you sneaking on this” activity period
Boiling water (for instant noodles)
Cleaning rooms that still don’t have people
Fun time that doesn’t involve burning down the house
Cereal again
“Imanotsurugi, stop fucking jumping on the bed”-“Midare, not you too”-“Shut up, we’re trying to sleep”-time.

Aki sighed as she looked at the papers, trying to come up with a good way to distribute activities. They had to be ready for anything. There were stables, so she assumed they might get a horse or two for battle. They also had a large field to grow crops (in fact, she had found several seeds and perhaps if they managed to grow something, they would eat vegetables until they died) and a small area to spar. But the biggest problem was how undermanned they were. She could have 2 per place, but everyone had quickly shown that some were more skilled at not fucking up in some things than the rest (at least Shishiou had shown a promising future in murder, it didn’t make her feel better, though). She couldn’t keep watch on them all the time, as she had to organize things, make fighting draft plans, and read books on gardening so that at least someone knew something.

“What are you doing?” Yamanbagiri’s bored voice broke her thoughts.

She lifted her eyes from the paper and saw the blanket with feet. He and Gokotai were supposed to spar but since the sad kid was there and the crying kid was not around, she imagined the session had been riveting. Her eye twitched.

“Thinking of better ways to make you do shit,” she said, but Yamanbagiri simply stared at her. “Fine, fine. Other than this, I’m trying to figure out how seeds work.” She picked a nearby book and threw it to him. The young man eyed the pages without any expression.

“Why?”

“Because gardening is fun and I kinda fucking die if I eat only noodles. I don’t mind them, but they are probably bad in the long run.”

No response. Aki went back to arranging duties for the week, as she figured that this should be the first thing to get rid of. When she looked up, she was surprised to see Yamanbagiri still in the room, reading the book, half-interestedly which was much more than his usual disposition. He had gathered the small bags of seeds and arranged them in an order only he understood. His eyes flickered from the one package he was holding, tomato seeds, as he flipped the pages, trying to look up the plant. She didn’t say anything, and watched him quietly, not making a noise when he suddenly grabbed a piece of paper and a pen and scribbled something (she couldn’t make out shit, because his handwriting was horrid, not that hers was any better).

It was very tempting to say something but ever since he appeared, Yamanbagiri had had the drive of a rock and the ambition/interest/desire/something of a shoe, perhaps pointing anything out would destroy this miracle (he was supposedly the secretary, in name only, as he often ditched duties and half-assed things).

“So you have to plant them indoors and after weeks, you transplant them outside…” he muttered, as he wrote down hieroglyphics.

In the lapse of an hour, he had read about other crops. Potatoes seemed easy enough to grow and so did carrots. Rice and wheat were a must, even if they couldn’t really cook but maybe they’d get someone competent or starvation would lead them to develop basic cooking skills, so he had looked them up as well. He also had written about fruits, perhaps thinking someone might have the skill to not kill a plant and give it a shot.

But the more unexpected was when he actually opened his mouth and asked for help to draw diagrams of the land. And then, both actually went to measure the fields and wrote down distances and he didn’t even gave a damn when his clothes got soiled (perhaps he did look unusually happy, but whatever made him happy that didn’t get them killed seemed ok to Aki).

The cherry on top was, though, when the small potato experiment had been successful and they saw a small leaf grow. (For once being stuck in the mountain of fun doom was not a hindrance, clean air and pure water, as well as rich soil and magical trainwrecky place hastened the growing process of plants as the little experiment showed, with increased yield to boot). It wasn’t because it was the sign of the threat of starvation dispelling slightly, it was the small smile on Yamanbagiri’s face, one that was faint but lacked any bitterness as if he had found something.

 


 

 

“...I'm Ookurikara. I don't have anything else to say. I don't plan on getting friendly with you.”

Aki stared back at the unfriendly eyes of the sword in front of her. She had tried to introduce herself but Ookurikara made no attempts to listen. Yamanbagiri seemed like a Casanova compared to this fucker.

“…Right. Whatever you say… I’m-”

“Not interested.”

Her eye twitched. “You fucking-” Aki stopped mid-sentence and took a deep breath, eyes closed as if meditating or trying to reach a god for a not-shit sword. “Ok, ok, I’m the one in charge here and-”

When she opened her eyes, Ookurikara was nowhere to be found.

 


 

 

Apparently getting one sword to do something meant getting another that was even more of a pain in the ass. When she had tried to make an icebreaking joke (half serious because they had a zoo by this point) of “You don’t have a dragon mascot do you…?”, the pleasant thorny dickhead merely replied with a “Hmph.”

“I want apathetic blanket back, he’s seventeen thousand times more agreeable than this jackass,” she whined aloud, to no one in particular, as she looked for him for the fifth time in the day. He had ditched training, didn’t show up to eat. And of course didn’t participate in training or anything. He was dragged anywhere and in less than five minutes, Ookurikara was out again. With each instance, the desire to break his nose increased exponentially.

This time, he was out by the pond, looking at the water with his usual expression of “angry aloof annoyance”.

“Ookurikara,” Aki said, as she stood next to him, folding her arms across her chest so that she wouldn’t want to strangle him.

“I decide what I do,” he replied, as he seemed eager to have the same conversation for the nth time already. “You do as you want, don’t include me.”

She groaned. “OK, I’m going to explain it in a way your thickheaded skull understands. You live here now. You follow orders. End of discussion. If you behave well, then you can do other things, like continuing your aloof rebel without a cause shtick.”

Ookurikara stared at Aki with those piercing, annoyed as fuck eyes, almost daring her to say anything else.

“At least pretend to fucking try. Even Gokotai tries training and he can barely hold a stick. But you say shit like ‘I do this my way’, and proceed to aloofly do nothing. Your fucking way of battling is by charging forward like a moron, you don’t even pay attention to the formations and the strategy to not get anyone killed. And to make matters worse, this day has gone to waste because I have to babysit you, …you-you fucking piece of shit Chuunibyou!”

For once a different emotion flashed in Ookurikara’s eyes, as he processed the foreign word to him, but just as fast he went back to his angry stare, assuming that the word was something similar to an insult.

“When I was little, I was a fucking wild kid. I got up on trees, ditched school, came back after curfew. I got into fights and I can certainly break your fucking jaw and dislocate your stupid shoulder. I was punished frequently and I think the caretakers hated my guts. But I never came to a level like you. I’m like shit level, but you’re Chuunibyou shit level.” She covered her face and sighed loudly. “Goddamn it, you are my fucking penance. I’m sorry to everyone that had to deal with me, I swear I wasn’t this bad.”

“Are you done? Then, leave.”

That did it. Aki clenched her fists and was ready to break his fucking nose and teeth, if it were not for the sudden water splash that hit them both. From the depth of the pond “Dolphin” rose happily and fell back. Ookurikara seemed surprised to see the tiger cub, but Aki, despite being drenched, whistled and Dolphin swam to the surface.

“Attack kitty!” She pointed at Ookurikara and then, a white flash and a new wave rose, as the cub aimed at Ookurikara’s feet, gnawing his shoes and pants while growling.

The Chuunibyou didn’t move. His cold eyes were fixed on the tiger, as if he examined for the first time what it was and he bent down, reaching out with a hand, almost as if to pet-

Aki blinked for a second, before getting her shit together, realization hitting hard and whistled again. Dolphin ran to her side, missing Ookurikara’s hand by a long shot. (Who knew that feeding the tigers would end up favorably to her?) She picked Dolphin up, holding it very close to her and scratched the back of its ear, in front of Ookurikara’s eyes. The tiger purred loudly.

“This tiger is Dolphin. There are four others. They all are Gokotai’s but they roam free AND they obey my orders. If you are a good sword and do what you are asked, you can play with the tigers. If you don’t, well, surprise, surprise.”

Without looking back, she went straight to the training field, tiger in one arm.

Five minutes later, Ookurikara showed up.

 


 

 

The goal was five laps. Ookurikara had done two, yet the path felt insanely long as he wheezed for air and cursed that woman for this torture. If he did the laps, he’d be able to touch a tiger. He didn’t care about her at all, he just wanted to see the tiger close, alone. But he didn’t imagine he’d have to go through this.

“Ha.. ha… haaah!” A loud voice, even more strained than his, resounded, as Shishiou caught up with him. “You have… no… condition, Ookuri…kara…!”

“Shut up… You have only… finished one…” Ookurikara snapped back, a mix of a bark and gasping for breath that only made Shishiou laugh harder and deplete his lungs of air.

“I’m your superior… I got here first…”

“Then, you should,” Ookurikara took in a big breath, “be faster…”

“I’m holding back, for you…” Shishiou replied with a faltering grin.

“Hmph!” Ookurikara ran faster, trying to get away from Shishiou, as much as he could before he felt like he was dying.

Shishiou tried to keep up his pace, but he hadn’t advanced much before stopping to catch his breath. His eyes followed Ookurikara’s back, grin widening as Ookurikara stopped as well.

I’m glad you’ve been well after all this time, Shishiou thought to himself.

 


 

 

Sayo sat down on the veranda that looked at the garden. They had finished their duties for the day and were allowed to do anything that didn’t involve hurting each other or breaking anything in the house or anything that seemed important, not that Sayo cared much. The young sword had nothing that needed his attention, other than that fateful question that still went unanswered. But whenever Sayo had asked her for a name, she simply switched the topic, discomfort obvious.

He didn’t have something to do. There was so much he could do when cleaning a room, and the other swords were busy with themselves. In fact, he saw Imanotsurugi and Midare chatting as they played with the tall grass patches of the garden. Shishiou, Ookurikara and Gokotai were nowhere to be seen and Yamanbagiri liked to be left alone in his room (though he had taken a liking to reading, apparently). Meanwhile, Sayo simply sat there.

He looked at the sky, blue turning orange as if the sun was bleeding. He wondered where his brothers could be, it had been a long time since he had seen either of them, not that he thought much about it. It simply was because he had seen the Toushirou ones, Gokotai and Midare talk between training or when eating. Imanotsurugi sometimes joined the talk and jested, or devised a prank with his diabolical new partner in crime. They were nothing like his brothers, both serious and far older than him, reserved and rarely sharing words, not that the three of them needed to.

Maybe he’d meet them soon, he thought. The Saniwa would forge more swords and eventually they’d appear, perhaps.

Sayo didn’t know.

He shifted in his seat, gaze turning back to the Toushirou kid. They were all swords but those two in particular acted so strange, quite lively and chaotic. They laughed and screamed and ran carefree. It was as if they were human. Human children. Sayo shook his head, they were swords given a body, but nothing else.

Children were innocent. That was something Sayo knew. Children had feelings. They weren’t children, even if the two in front of him laughed loudly, full of life. And Sayo wasn’t innocent, as he turned to his hands. They were as red as the sky above. Even if the others looked as if they had feelings, as if they were human (they were not), Sayo was Sayo and he was born by hatred. They wouldn’t understand, as the tale of-

“Um, S-Sayo-san?”

Sayo turned to the voice calling him. Gokotai stood next to him, arms raised in front of his chest, fidgeting his fingers.

“What is it?” Sayo replied, his voice lacked emotion and somehow, Gokotai shuddered. Sayo shook his head, it was to be expected. A sword like Gokotai would never understand. Their lives were very different. Even so, Sayo wouldn’t blame Gokotai fearing him.

Gokotai looked nervously, as if he was carefully thinking over his words, or trying to breathe or both. “A-am I bothering you?” He bit his thumb. “If you want to be left alone, uh, I’ll do so…”

“What did you want?”

“Um, well, I wondered if you wanted to talk or… play or do something together…?”

Gokotai’s tiger had left his usual post and crept close to Sayo, sniffing for a moment, before it met Sayo’s stare and the cub flinched and backed. Sayo turned away.

“I’ll scare your tiger. You should go with your brother.”

It was ok if Gokotai left. Sayo had no feelings to be hurt. He knew what he had done and he’d scare people away. It was fine by him (no, it wasn’t but he couldn’t do anything about it).

But Gokotai stayed.

“I-it’s ok!” the tiny child replied. “If you feed Dog, he’ll know you’re a friend… I’ll ask Master for food!” Gokotai nodded his head and ran inside the house.

Sayo looked again at the sky. He was alone again.

Gokotai wouldn’t come, it was fine (the tiger food was a good excuse, or so he wanted to think). Sayo knew he scared people away. Gokotai tried.

Time passed. Gokotai wouldn’t come. The sky was still red but soon it’d be over too.

Suddenly, he heard a thud, and the crying voice of Gokotai, whose face had hit the floor because his hands had been full with something. Meat.

“It hurts…” Gokotai whimpered as he struggled to get up by relying on his elbows, carefully holding food, shielding it from the incoming tiger. When he had managed to get up, he held his hands to Sayo, as he said with a red nose and held-up tears, “H-here, with this Dog will be your friend too.”

Sayo took the food and the tiger came close. Dog sniffed cautiously, step by step closing the distance between them. Sayo knelt down, the same as Gokotai. “Stretch your hand like this,” Gokotai showed, and after a second of hesitation, Dog licked Sayo’s hand. In a matter of seconds, it gobbled down the meat and wagged its tail, not leaving after it was done.

“O-o-oh! What are you doing?” Imanotsurugi’s incoming voice was heard.

“Sayo-san is, um, making friends with Dog…” Gokotai replied.

“In that case,” Midare smiled as he ran to the grass and just as he had left, he brought a branch and put it in Sayo’s hand. “Use this!”

“Yes, yes! If you fling it hard, Dog will run VE-E-RY FAST to get it!”

Sayo didn’t know what he was doing. Everyone talked but he didn’t understand. Yet his hand moved and threw the stick. Dog darted to fetch it and brought it back. He did it again. Then Midare tried. Then Gokotai, Imanotsurugi, and the stick was back at Sayo’s hands.

Sayo didn’t understand. His heart beat fast when he threw the stick. It beat faster when Dog came back, when the other swords screamed and laughed. Sayo was a sword, a tool without feelings, dyed in blood and born of hatred.

Yet, he felt something.

Chapter Text

Doutanuki Masakuni.

A sword capable of wrecking shit, and proud of this fact. In fact, he actually seemed like he knew what he was doing, an unusual confidence compared to the other seven kindergarteners. A disposition to fight AND actual knowledge, though perhaps too much since he proudly boasted about being able to crack open skulls and that just made for the perfect topic after breakfast.

Except nothing in this world was simple and nothing was perfect.

“Why are we doing this? We should just go and beat the enemy down.”

Doutanuki stared at the water can between his hands and then to the Saniwa (who looked as if she wanted to smack him with the rake she held).

“Because. We. Need. Food.”

“I’m not a farming to-“

“I’m not a farmer either, so just water the plants and then go pick your nose or persuade someone to spar with you again.”

It had been a mistake to think that maybe Doutanuki would complain less in the crop fields than when cleaning the house or the stables (actually Aki thought she’d want someone that didn’t complain about battling but that was a mistake). When they trained, Doutanuki actually tried (unlike Ookurikara who still needed to be bribed with animals, though he was marginally faster than the former). He didn’t try ditching sparring (and he quickly became the punishment for swords like Chuuni and Blanket if they left, “If you flee, I’ll have you fight Doutanuki until you can no longer move” and boy Doutanuki never held back) and embraced it. He sorta ran in the field, as he quickly realized that maybe he was fast in the past, or relatively anyway, but being carried by a human was one thing and carrying his own fucking body with his own legs was another.

It was the reason that he had yet to be sent to battle, not that the others did many sorties. In fact, a day after Doutanuki arrived, a temporary team had been sent to a small skirmish and managed to not get slaughtered. But as the newest member, he had yet to learn all the formations and strategy tactics and actually not lose his breath after one lap. Hence, Doutanuki’s life consisted of training, wishing to be sent to battle, and complaining about everything else.

Too bad he didn’t have something to be bribed about to do the things he didn’t want, unlike Ookurikara.

 


 

 

Ookurikara liked to do things his own way. Since he had no signature from his own smith, it meant he belonged to no one but also that he was not bound to others as well. Hence, he could do and act as he saw fit, something he prided himself in doing. The others could follow orders or stick together, but Ookurikara was Ookurikara and Ookurikara certainly worked better alone, lived alone and would die alone. It was only because of things he liked that he still continued that shtick that insane woman wanted, not because of her sake, but because a man has his priorities too.

And tigers were very important priorities.

(And he would still wonder what in hell Chuunibyou meant, but he’d rather eat nails than to admit or ask that.)

But even so, no matter how amusing and enticing the prospect of playing with a tiger was, there were things Ookurikara couldn’t handle. Like having to get coached from the self-proclaimed senpai Shishiou, just because Shishiou arrived days earlier, or having to eat with everyone and endure the talking and screaming and slurping of the thing that was supposed to be called food. After a week of this, he was already ready to bail out. He couldn’t do so on training, because he had gotten punished once and Doutanuki Masakuni certainly hit like a truck (curse the woman for bringing Doutanuki into the mix and Doutanuki for being Doutanuki).

That said, he could sneak on eating. Eating peacefully, alone, with no one around, no breathing or horrid children or anything. Just Ookurikara, the noodles and a spoon.

(Just because he was doing things his way didn’t mean it had to be the right one.)

Ookurikara held the cup in one hand as his eyes hovered to the printed letters, not that he cared. He had seen the others prepare noodles, just boil shit, add it, wait, and eat. It didn’t take genius. However, the process seemed to be too long, why couldn’t they just boil the things in one go? Anyone would skip two steps and those were two steps closer to eating and to decrease the likelihood he’d be caught in the act.

“What the hell are you doing, Ookurikara?”

Perhaps he should stop thinking of the devil, so that he wouldn’t summon her.

He didn’t reply though, because common sense didn’t have to be linked to “I’m doing things my way”.

The woman got close to him, but Ookurikara didn’t turn to look at her. Instead, he turned on the stove, max flame, grabbed the nearest liquid, one that seemed yellow and not as fluid and poured it in the cup, filling it to the brim and some of the liquid spilled off the container. It didn’t matter, Ookurikara put the cup on the fire with a swift move, before she’d be able to even blink.

“What the-?!”

The oil from the noodle cup instantly caught on fire, spreading it to the inside of the burning cup that had just been placed above the direct flame. In a matter of seconds, the noodle cup turned into a mysterious mass of fire and the smell of plastic burning, smoke quickly filling the kitchen. Without thinking, Ookurikara poured the closest liquid on it, and the flames fucking burst.

 

 

“I can’t..” Aki covered her face with her hands as she let out unsightly ghoulish noises, after seeing the disaster that the kitchen had become once the fire had been put out. “I can’t fucking believe burning noodles was possible. Oil and fire and… You poured more oil to put the fire out…”

“Hmph.”

“That’s what the instructions are there for. So that your Chuuni eyes can read them and follow, not everything has to be done your way if it burns down the house.” She buried her face in her hands and mumbled, “I’ll let you not eat with the others sometimes, and just leave the water so that you put it in the bowl and wait. In exchange for that, you will NEVER try cooking anything again without someone.”

For a second, Ookurikara got offended. Then, he simply left with a Hmph, as he realized he had partially gotten what he wanted.

 


 

 

“Excuse me. Has Kane-san… Izumi no Kami Kanesada hasn't come here, has he? Ah, I'm Horikawa Kunihiro. Let's get along.”

Horikawa diligently presented himself and Aki feared for a second that something bad would happen. After nues and chuunibyous and basically disaster at every forge attempt, she had wisened up to expect something. However, Horikawa bowed and asked if there was something he had to do, and actually went to do the actual work he was entrusted to do, no complains. And fuck, he did it well.

Perhaps that was the surprise itself, Aki wondered as she saw him cheerfully greeting Yamanbagiri, and she recalled both were brothers and how completely different they were, like Midare and Gokotai. Horikawa also got along with the rest, or the rest that weren’t animals (Ookurikara), and he was among the few that dared fight Doutanuki in sparring even if he wasn’t punished.

Horikawa was diligent and well-mannered, helped others (and was actually among the few slightly proficient at not burning food) and became probably the most reliable sword in the entire house.

There was just one thing.

 


 

 

“Ah, Kanesan hasn’t come today as well,” Horikawa said as he saw the newest recruit, Akita, run alongside his brothers. It wasn’t the first time it happened. Horikawa had been there when Aizen Kunityoshi arrived and when Yagen Toushirou made his entrance.

Horikawa understood that Tantous were easier to craft and thus took less time to be forged. But when Souza Samonji appeared, the unexpected wait day of 1.5 days had really gotten his hopes up. He thought that maybe he would finally arrive. But no.

Horikawa let out a long sigh as he stared at the clouds. He had been asked to sweep the corridor but he was caught in reminiscence, and soon forgot to move the broom.

“Hey, Horikun, what are you doing?” Aki’s voice snapped him off his thoughts, as he turned to see her and Aizen, both carrying baskets of vegetables. “You seem less chipper than usual.”

“Ah, Aruji-san,” Horikawa bowed, but Aki shook her head.

“You can drop the formalities, Horikun. In any case, is something the matter?”

“Well…”

“Oh, I got it,” Aizen said. “It’s about this Kanesan guy you always talk about, right?! Aki-san, Horikun probs’ feels lonely!”

“It’s not like that, Aizen-kun, I just-”

Aki smiled softly (quite an unusual sight but boy he deserved it for working so hard). “Well, you do care about this Kanesan guy a lot. He must be quite something for the reliable Horikun to look up to him so much. Maybe you’ll get lucky and he’ll appear soon.”

Both master and sword left, and Horikun could hear them whispering, “I wonder what he’s like, Aki-san.” “Well, he’s probably a great sword, Horikun talks about him a lot.”

Horikawa looked up at the sky and sighed. But just as immediately, he shook his head. As Kanesan’s assistant, he shouldn’t get down. Instead, he should work even harder to surprise him once he arrived.

Because Kanesan would definitely arrive.

 


 

 

They finally had enough people for an expedition. Unlike sorties, these were mostly about recon and getting intel from the enemy, so fighting was avoided and in theory, they were harmless. Aki had too many things to do to go with them, the end of the month was approaching and she had to finish that budget list and a report on their observations and nil-progress. The swords had managed to do some sorties, now with fewer casualties, but no big battle until now. Furthermore, some of the newcomers were starting to catch up so they’d be allowed to fight in battles.

Since she was staying, she thought of at least leaving the expedition in the hands of Horikun, as he was capable and dependable, unlike the rest. Aizen had joined too, as well as the Toushirous Akita, Yagen, and the dutiful Sayo and Shishio were sent in case things turned out to be rough (because Midare and Imanotsurugi were simply not cut out for recon as their definition of stealth was incompatible with survival, and Shishiou was kinda short, so he didn’t stick out much).

Though on second thought, she wanted to fucking go on the expedition and hit trees and murder something.

“How is it, having me in your service?”

“Pleasant, I like to be talked passive-aggressively the entire fucking time.”

It was as if these fuckers liked to one-up each other.

Blanket was still disagreeable but at least did a rather fine job at growing crops. Chuuni was his lovely jackass self but he could be bribed with tigers and the arrangement of the kitchen had made him slightly less obnoxious. But now, she had Souza.

She was now used to kids that didn’t do things, and Horikun’s magical appearance had helped her keep everyone in line. But Souza Samonji did not just give a fuck.

She had got a vibe of “this won’t begin well” once she saw his eyes and that polite but clearly sardonic voice as he presented himself. When she said her name, Souza didn’t even bat an eye, as if he was just there, like a doll. When asked to help with cleaning, he just simply mocked the kind of job he was given and having him help Yamanbagiri had Souza stand in the mud, clothes dirtied and staring at the sky. And God, the one fucking sparring time had him muttering, “... Yes. It's alright. Either way, I'm at your mercy.” After a week of having Souza, she was ready to scream because fuck him.

And Souza Samonji did not give a single fuck.

Now he was sitting there (since nothing he was given seemed agreeable), being brought to help with paperwork. Perhaps Souza might like the boring tasks, since his A+ terrible condition didn’t give her any desire to try to send him on a sortie (and she had a feeling he’d manage to say something because when she gave him clothes for running, he had said something about ‘her giving him that for when she felt like having him fight’, as if it she lived on a whim).

Aki had asked him to ‘please arrange the papers and double check that the items on the government request forms match’. But since Souza just stared at her, she immediately added, “Or just sit there, like you fucking do,” and went on doing everything herself while Souza sat there and looked.

And of course he had to ask that question and after a while of not talking, he said, “You're satisfied with me simply belonging to you, without ever being used... Just as always.”

The pencil in her hand cracked in two and Aki threw one half at Souza’s head, hitting straight at his forehead as she seethed, “Yes, I like to have a fucking sad flamingo criticize everything I do while doing absolutely nothing. For fuck’s sake, I’m trying to give you a single shitty task that you might not absolutely abhor so that you can fucking help. Everyone is helping, even that Chuunibyou, and you sit there. If you go on an expedition, you whine. If you help with the crops, you whine. What the fuck do you fucking want?” She slammed her hands on the table, sending papers flying.

“What the symbol of the Conquerors wants is irrelevant, it’s all about the master’s wish.”

“GODDAMMIT, if you say Symbol of the Conquerors once more, I’ll stick a pencil up your ass! At least do something for your fucking brother!” Aki stood up, almost seething fire while Souza looked at her, picking up the broken pencil and said, “Do you not mind chipping the Symbol of the Conquerors? How unusual…”

She cringed and grabbed Souza by his collar, unable to say a thing as her face was flushed, and there was a dull knock.

Yamanbagiri entered the room, arching an eyebrow at the scene for half a second, then just shrugged as he said, “The sword at the forge is ready,” in what was the most deadpan tone in his boring blanket life.

Aki let go of Souza, and stormed out of the room heading straight to the forge.

 


 

 

“I am Izumi no Kami Kanesada. I'm cool and strong! Recently, I'm a popular sword.” The man in front of her flipped one of his bangs and pointed at Aki.

Aki blinked once, then twice. “Are you… Kane…san…?”

“Kanesan…? Seriously, Kunihiro called me that again?”

Aki covered her mouth and mumbled to herself, “Hmm, there’s got to be a mistake.” She turned to Yamanbagiri and asked, “Hey Yaman, are you pulling a prank or something?”

“What are you talking about?”

Aki crossed her arms and stared at Izumi no Kami, thinking very hard. The blanket seemed to be telling the truth and he didn’t seem capable of planning of a prank or telling a joke in the first place. The other one that knew of the new recruit was Souza, who was standing next to them, but he had said nothing (except perhaps a vague comment about her getting a new addition to her collection that made her eye twitch). And he could have not planned anything anyway since he had been with her the entire day.

“Why aren’t you saying anything?” Izumi no Kami Kanesada, dressed in flashy clothes while proudly holding his sword, said and then smirked. “Could it be that you are charmed by me?”

Aki walked closer to him, stretched her arm and knocked on his forehead. “Sounds like it’s real. Empty too.” A deep frown was drawn on her face. “This isn’t a joke, you really are Kanesan… The Kanesan that Horikun is always talking…”

“Could you please not call me that, I have a reputation to keep, can’t let down my fans.” Kanesan rubbed his forehead and adjusted his bangs.

Aki turned to both Yamanbagiri and Souza, who stared back (and both actually seemed amused by the scene). “He’s Kanesan…” She let out a long sigh and covered her face with a hand. “I knew it was too good to be true… Horikun… has shit tastes….”

 


 

 

Horikawa Kunihiro came back with the expedition team, holding some items they had gathered along the way as they crossed the torii gate into the Citadel. He was surprised to see Aki there, not because she was there, since she usually tried to welcome back the teams that had left or send someone to thank them for their efforts. No, it was the expression on her face, a mix of a smile and a terribly hidden frown, similar to the kind one would make when eating something disgusting but being polite about it.

“Aruji-san, are you alright?” he asked while the rest of the team followed Yamanbagiri to store the materials to forge new swords.

“Well, things happened,” she replied, laughing bitterly (and it seemed she wanted to cry at the end of it). “I think you might like something, though.” She pointed back to the back entrance of the Citadel. Horikawa followed her hand and then stopped breathing.

His eyes widened as his entire face lit up, the brightest anyone had seen Horikawa since he had arrived. “Ka-Ka-Ka-Kanesan?!”

“Oh, it’s you, Kunihiro,” Kanesan replied as the Wakizashi fucking teleported to Kanesan’s side and began asking a thousand questions to the newcomer Tachi, his fucking idol. The motherfucking Kanesan.

Aki let out a long sigh. “At least someone is happy…” she said to no one and shrugged in a mix of defeat and resignation.

“Is your new addition not suitable to your taste?” Souza’s voice made Aki turn. Souza looked at her, as if expecting a remark or anything so he was naturally surprised when she gently smacked his head.

“Refer to any of them or you as objects again and I’ll shove 1000 pencils up your ass.” She glanced at Horikawa and Kanesan. “I might think Kanesan is a glimmerous fop, but the happiness in Horikun’s face is real and I won’t take that away.”

“Well, this is unexpected.”

“The unexpected would be you finding something you don’t hate.” Aki shrugged. “But I suppose I should keep trying. It’d be of great help if you actually fucking said what you want to do.”

 


 

 

“Hey, you shouldn’t pull those! Those aren’t weeds! Pull out the green short ones…”

“Shush, I know what I’m doing Yamanbagiri!”

 

 

“O-o-oh! Kanesan! You are supposed to fight! Where are you going?”

“Shut up, Imanotsurugi, this is my way of training.”

“That’s the way to the Citadel… Master will get SU-U-PER PISSED if she sees you sneaking on training~”

 

 

The sound of a thousand plates crashing resounded in the entire Citadel.

“Kanesan, are you hurt?!”

“This is nothing, the plate just slipped off my hand, that’s all!”

Aki looked at her request list and wrote down “Plates: plastic and normal ones. Child-safe tableware. A miracle.”

“Ah yes, Izumi no Kami Kanesan, the cool and handsome glimmerous fop of a sword held by Hijikata Toshizou… Right…” She let out a sigh as she looked at the sky.

Chapter Text

Piercing and beautiful blue eyes looked at Aki, as the handsome blue-haired man, dressed in regal clothes and with an air of extreme elegance appeared in front of her. He was unlike the swords she had seen, far more delicate and almost otherworldly. She felt her cheeks grow warmer and redder as she stared at him (and the first time she had actually done something like this), perhaps for too long. So much that the man simply laughed, and she braced herself, feeling that if she heard his silky voice, she might lose all composure and fall to her-

"A ha ha," he uttered and the world broke.

Aki stared at the man, eyes growing cold as the man suddenly lost his dreamy appearance and turned from a god into a good-looking man who had something that made Aki's frown grow deeper.

He presented himself, “My name is Mikazuki Munechika. Well, I'm only one of the Tenka Goken, but I'm also said to be the most elegant. I was born near the end of the 11th century. I guess you can say I'm an old man. Ha ha ha!”

Tenka Goken.

Most elegant.

Old man

Aki just stared as the words, "Don't talk," somehow came out of her mouth. However, Mikazuki didn't even bat an eye, and with his pleasant smile, he laughed once more. "A ha ha, this is unexpected. I like it."

She stood there, speechless, and the eyes of everyone were fixed on her, Mikazuki looking at her, visibly amused, while Yoshiyuki and Horikun glanced at her and at each other, wondering what was going on. She covered her mouth without thinking as if one could hear the sound of something shattering. Mikazuki stepped forward and stared straight into her eyes as he put one of her locks in place. “Please take good care of me,” he said, in what was to Aki the most something voice, yes, infuriating, the most fucking infuriating voice as her cheeks grew pink.

Her shoulders stiffened as her hands curled into fists as she muttered weakly, “H-how fucking dare-” But words drowned in her throat and she just screeched and stormed out of the room.

Mikazuki’s smile never faltered.

 


 

 Mikazuki was like a porcelain doll, one with regal beautiful dresses like Aki had seen in pictures of the 18th century. Gorgeous faces, lovely eyes, frilly dresses. Figurines that simply sat there and looked pretty.

(She had always wished for one when she was a kid, but she had never gotten it.)

 


 

 It had been two days since he had been forged and Aki still wanted to throw a pillow or a rock or something at Mikazuki’s face. And the man just smiled, when they passed by, waving nonchalantly at her, having the time of his life.

He was a horrible person because how dare he talk to her like that, that stupid old man, and she screeched, scaring the shit out of Mouse that was just about to attack her from behind as she walked down the hall.

“A ha ha.”

Speak of the devil.

God, that laugh was so infuriating, his gentle smile even more. His stupid face was handsome but she’d bet he was rotten. She recalled again how fucking close he had come to her and she had an urge to break something, perhaps his face, and then she-

His laugh came across the shoji door, but that wasn’t what interrupted her thoughts. She felt wind as Gokotai and Akita passed by and entered that same damn room, both carrying something that looked like clothes. Curiously, she stepped inside-

And found a half-dressed Mikazuki, arms wide as the two sword kids struggled to put layers of clothes on him.

The temperature in the room dropped. Akita and Gokotai sensed it, freezing on the spot, Gokotai still holding the thread to bind the clothes together. Akita didn’t even dare to turn, Aki’s piercing eyes were too much, even if they weren’t directed at the tantous, shuddering in fear despite not being the recipient of such a glare. Instead, Mikazuki simply smiled like he always did.

"What are you doing?"

"Hmm… I'm not good at dressing myself. These kids are helping me."

"..."

He kept smiling. God, she wanted to punch him in the face and throw him on the floor.

"Please, step aside," Aki said in a relatively warmer tone, one that only implied being doused by icy water, to the swords surrounding Mikazuki.

"Master, what will-"

Mikazuki's smile widened, as Aki stepped closer to him and pulled his lips by the corners. His chuckle was muffled because of her fingers but he never stopped smiling.

“You are the worst, making kids help you.”

“That tickles,” seemed to be what he was saying.

Aki let him go and snatched the blue kimono from Akita’s hands. “Here, you can learn.” She held it in front of Mikazuki but he didn’t take it.

Instead he just kept smiling. “It seems complicated… But Master can dress me, if she doesn’t want the kids-”

He couldn’t finish the sentence, as Aki threw the cloth at Mikazuki’s face. It managed to stay on Mikazuki’s head as she stormed out of the room, face burning, with such speed that the passerby Shishiou had to step aside, confused.

"A ha ha," Mikazuki said under the kimono, and he didn't even try to take it off. "What a feisty one."

 


 

 “Hmmm.” Mikazuki tilted his head, bemused as he looked at the ingredients neatly organized on the table, as well as cooking items (like pots and pans and spoons) that seemed exotic to him. “What are you doing, Master?”

“We,” Aki corrected him as she was busy measuring the amount of rice they needed. “We are cooking today, it’s our turn. Well, it’s YOUR turn but you look like you’ll burn the goddamned kitchen, so I’m here to prevent that.”

"Interesting," he said as he grabbed one of the forks, examining it, half-amusedly. “What’s this?” He hit a pan with the fork. Aki jumped and almost dropped the cup she was holding. “It didn’t break.”

“Why the fuck do you want to bre- Forget it. Stop playing and change into something else.” Her eyes drifted from his face (GOD HOW BADLY SHE WANTED TO DO SOMETHING TO IT) to Mikazuki’s long sleeves that were covering everything in the way. “You’ll get your clothes dirty and I’m sure I’ll be the one washing them.”

"Could you help-"

"No, you can do it yourself."

Just as she had finished saying those words, a wild, horrible thought flashed in her mind but before she could even voice the prohibition, Mikazuki had begun undressing right there in the kitchen, dropping some of the clothes in front of her.

"Fuck!" She couldn't restrain herself and rushed to pick the clothes, face flushing pink then crimson as she tried to fold them and ignored Mikazuki's pleasantly devious smile that made her want to both scream and punch him in the face.

“A ha ha, my bad,” he said, with that grin still plastered and Aki put the clothes without thinking on the table and leaned close to him as she pinched his nose, her face mere centimeters away from his. She stared right at his eyes, so beautifully mischievous and fuck, they glinted. Aki blinked and realized how close she was to him.

She made the curry for everyone in record time, always looking down at the items and her hands, trying her damnest to ignore that obnoxious and nasal grandpa voice that whispered something stupid into her ear. And fuck, Mikazuki looked as if he was having the time of his fucking life.

 


 

 Despite what the swords thought would be the case, their Master actually helped in all of the house matters. Or in this case, Aki joined their usual 10 laps of horrible doom and she was the only one to do the entire routine. The closest to not die when running was Imanotsurugi though Doutanuki was the sturdiest one. The swords would see their master going past them as she finished the higher-lap-number-than-they’ll-ever-reach as they struggled on lap 3 (though it was one more than last week, hurray for improvements).

Or most tried.

Aki ran to the sitting blob that seemed to look at the other unfortunate running souls as he sat in the middle of the makeshift track field. She looked down at Mikazuki who in turn looked back, ignoring the icy glare directed at him.

“Ah Master, good morning.” That fucking gentle smile had to be a tattoo or a mask or something, Aki was sure of it. “Is there something the matter? Oh, perhaps you want to sit next to me and enjoy the morning sun?” He patted the area next to him, and added, “Here, Master can accompany me in this fine weather.”

“I’ll break your feet if you don’t stand up.”

Mikazuki didn’t even flinch or stop smiling, au con-fucking-traire, his fucking smile widened as he laughed so casually, right in front of her face. “In that case, I wouldn’t be able to stand up either. Does this mean Master will carry me? It’s an unusual role reversal, but I don’t mind it at all.”

Aki’s eye twitched. “I should carry you and dump you in the pond.”

“My my, I have such a lively master.” Mikazuki stood up and dusted his clothes off. He came closer to Aki, who kept looking, as in murderous stabbing eyes, at him as she folded her arms, showing she was waiting for him to be done with his shit. He extended a hand and stroked her cheek. “Beautiful too.” And he chuckled. Carefree. Fucking carefree.

Her eyes darkened (now everyone else was running away from the spot) and her hands reached his mouth and pulled his lips. “How. Fucking. Funny.” He didn’t say a word, but his eyes smiled (perhaps at that faint flush in her cheeks that grew darker in shade) and god, she wanted to punch him in the face.

She let go of him. “If you don’t finish your fucking laps I’ll make sure you never forget this.”

 


 

 “Um…. Mikazuki-san…?”

Mikazuki stopped in the middle of the corridor that lead to their rooms, stopped by Gokotai’s hesitation.

“Ah, good evening, did you need anything?” He answered with that placid calm smile of his.

“Um… I-I don’t mean to be rude, but um ever since you arrived… Master has… um”

“She looks as if she’ll murder someone~” Midare chimed in, as he happened to walk by and listened to the conversation.

“Is that so?” Mikazuki covered his mouth with his sleeve, though it was apparent he was smiling. Quite possibly a mischievous knowing one, as he had lived and seen far more than these two swords’ lifespans added together.

“Are you not worried about what Master will say of you…?” Gokotai asked and to his surprise, Mikazuki laughed.

“Should I be?” And even though Midare and Gokotai titled their heads in confusion, Mikazuki said nothing else and kept that smile of his plastered on his face.

 


 

 Mikazuki Munechika had always lived inside elegant rooms. Most of them were for storing swords, being exhibited once or twice to the important visitor. Always kept clean and ordered, but silent and unnoticed. He could see sometimes the sun from the windows though seeing was different from feeling, and with time he no longer distinguished the white grounds in the horizon from the dyed orange trees. He could never imagine the smell of freshly cut grass or of ground after heavy rain.

From that distance, he’d never see the tiny critters climbing up on flowers or listen to the carefree laughter of children. Instead, the polite chatter, full of those two-faced words and smiles had always been his every day. As a sword, there was a limit to what one could do and Mikazuki simply was content to see that view from the window or to greet the random visitor even though he couldn’t be heard.

He wouldn’t say though that he was lonely. There were other people or swords, coming and going, and even then, Mikazuki Munechika had himself.

 


 

 “Hahaha, what is this?” Mikazuki said as he swung a long thin item, one he had never seen. It was light and had some sort of metal item attached at the end.

“It’s a hose,” both Yamanbagiri and Aki said in extreme frustration. “You turn the handle and it’ll pour water. Use it on the plants,” Yamanbagiri added in a flat tone of “I swear”.

Mikazuki observed the hose, quite amused at its design. “Hmm, I’ve never used one before.”

“I can tell,” Aki said as she ripped out a long weed from a tomato plant. “It’s not difficult, so you can actually do it. Just don’t point it at peo-”

In that moment, a burst of water sprouted off the hose, hitting her directly in the face, Mikazuki having pointed it at her and turning the handle.

“WHAT THE FUCK?!” She hollered as she moved away and wiped out the water off her face but she was drenched.

Laughter could be heard.

“A ha ha, I am sorry, I didn’t know it would sprout water,” Mikazuki replied with a grin, though Aki didn’t glare at him (completely) as she (and Mikazuki) turned to Yamanbagiri who had actually laughed as well, at least until he was hit straight in the face with the hose.

“HEY!”

Mikazuki’s eyes glinted for a second, even more when Aki got up, huffing and with water falling from her clothes and hair, with heavy steps, going close to where he was standing.

“You fuckin-AH!”

The ground they were standing on was normally muddy. But Mikazuki’s little mess up had it flooding with water, enough for Aki’s foot to slide, she lost her balance and fell right on her face. Or she would have, if she hadn’t actually hit Mikazuki’s chest, knocking both to the ground and splashing mud all over them as the hose flung in the air and fell nearby.

Mikazuki smirked as he lifted his face as Aki rushed to get off of him but slipped and crashed against his body again. “A ha ha ha! It’s okay, it’s okay, you can touch me!” he said in such a cheerfully loud voice and Aki’s face turned deep crimson as she crawled away from him instead of trying to get up.

She shook mud off her clothes, or she tried to. “Goddammit,” she mumbled to herself, her hands full of dirt that refused to be removed.

“Hey,” Yamanbagiri called her, Aki turned, fuck why was he holding the- and was blasted by water.

“YAMANBA-FUCKING-BLANKET!” she screamed, shielding herself from the water to no avail. “I’M GOING TO MURDER YOU!”

Yamanbagiri closed the hose, looking unusually smug as he calmly stated, “I’m just helping you get rid of the dirt.”

Aki picked a nearby rock and threw it at Yamanbagiri, though he ducked and it hit the ground. It was then that she was held from behind and suddenly lifted on her feet. She turned to meet Mikazuki’s face as he wrung her bangs, whispering, “Master should get changed or she might fall sick.”

(And she had to admit that Mikazuki really had a beautiful useless face.)

 


 

Mikazuki’s life had been so different, another world compared to the Tantous that were made as good luck charms or swords that had actually seen combat. Even compared to the other veterans, like Shishiou, Mikazuki’s life had always been one of quiet luxury, except for one moment, reflected in the way he talked and walked. He was so different from others, full of grace and elegance.

Until he opened his goddamned rotten mouth.

It was almost amazing how his lips spewed all that flirtatious shit and nonchalant smile.

Added to that, what he could do was rather limited. While Mikazuki was not on Kanesan’s level (praise the heavens, Aki would scream), he wasn’t a lot better. Yamanbagiri didn’t want to deal with him and his laughter, and in training he simply stood there and smiled, as if he didn’t give a fuck about winning or losing.

“Is it alright that I am here?” he asked, voice soft and curious, looking around at the room that had become Aki’s workplace, full of papers and books, pens and other trinkets.

Aki didn’t lift up her face, brows furrowing as she scanned a document. “I thought that since Blanket is living the country farming life now, I’d get someone to help me here. A secretary. And since you are useless for everything else, at least you could help me with that.”

She sighed and shrugged, in a comical exaggerated manner.

“But you prefer to sit on your ass and laugh. At least, you behave better than the others, I don’t have to chase you around the house like I do with Chuuni or stop you from scribbling on papers and I really appreciate that you haven’t taken Sad Flamingo’s passive-aggressive comment shtick.”

(It wasn’t entirely true, there was Horikawa and he had been quite helpful when he served for a short moment as Secretary, BUT that meant leaving Kanesan to his own devices. In a matter of three days, Horikawa had been assigned the special task of babysitting, because Aki could live without a secretary but the house wouldn’t last with an unsupervised grown-up toddler if left alone for 5 minutes.)

“Ha ha ha, I wonder why, since we can just stare at Master’s beauty.”

Aki frowned and huffed, and added, “…Though I have to endure your shameless shit.” Even so, she didn’t chase him out or told him to be quiet. She scribbled down notes, the progress report inexplicably growing longer, perhaps because of the intel they had gathered rather than actual sorties, as Mikazuki glanced at some of the laying papers.

“Hey, grand-“ She paused for a second, looking as if she had drank something extremely bitter, shook her head and continued, “Useless-”

“Useless?” Something flashed for a brief moment in Mikazuki’s eyes, though Aki’s eyes were glued on the paper.

“You can’t cook, or farm, and you hardly do shit though I think you slack on purpose, you fucking blob, so you’re like a useless frilly doll, like those Victorian ones that are very pretty but just sit there. Hence, Useless.”

Mikazuki blinked and then laughed. “I suppose Master is the one that named Gokotai’s cats and the one responsible for the nicknames of Yamanbagiri and Ookurikara.”

“If you dislike it, work hard so I call you “Pervert” instead.”

Mikazuki laughed once more.

“Don’t you get tired of smiling all the time?” She put down the paper and stared at him. Mikazuki’s placid smile didn’t falter or fade, instead something was reflected in his eyes but she couldn’t read that emotion.

“This is surprising, though I have never thought of my smile being something wrong. Instead, Master is too young to be frowning all the time.”

Aki looked down and scoffed a laugh, “Well, you got me there.” She sighed and rested her head on her hand. “Seriously, though, you don’t have to smile all the time.”

“With time you learn to do what is best for you.”

Aki’s eyes never left his face, and went to his placid smile. A bitter one was drawn in her face.

 


 

“Do not misunderstand,” Aki mumbled as she fastened the knot, quite tightly and on purpose, as she shut her eyes and fought in vain the redness of her cheeks. “I won’t be doing this all the time and you fucking have to learn.”

“Is this what you call ‘Skinship’?” Mikazuki added, visibly enjoying the sense of danger as his eyes didn’t leave Aki’s hands on his clothes, struggling to keep everything in place. And he didn’t back off when he saw the deadly glare directed at him. “I don’t mind at all that Master likes touching me. It’s very enjoyable.”

“If you keep saying that shit, I’ll have you eat your goddamned clothes and your stupid necklace. I don’t want you walking naked around the house, that is all. Because I know you are capable of doing that.”

Mikazuki laughed as he extended his arms, obeying whenever she asked him to move.

This was a nice change of pace, after all.

Chapter Text

It was the end of the month and the Saniwa had been acting unusual. After Mikazuki’s arrival, there were no forging attempts and they only went out on a sortie once. It had taken a while, but all of the swords had grown relatively athletic, still pathetic for most, but at least they had improved compared to what little ability they had at the beginning, even if it wasn’t much. The crops were single-handedly taken care of by Yamanbagiri, though most of the Toushirous took turns to help him plant, water or harvest them. Everyone had got a schedule, tailored to doing the activities they hated less and that they were most skilled at (or at least enough to not fuck up). But they still had an issue.

They had grown vegetables, so easy-to-make salads had become a perpetual part of the menu, but if they wanted something other than curry or instant noodles, they were out of luck. So, among the list of things to get from the capital, the priority was getting a lot of frozen meals, enough to feed an army for months, and cooking books. With luck, someone among the future forges would be able to cook and not burn everything down in the process, but that was only if they got so far.

Aki looked at the list again, though by the fifth time, the words had blended into the paper and stopped meaning anything at all. It had been written fine the first time, she and Mikazuki had gone over it before, but it didn’t stop her from picking it from time to time and absentmindedly staring at the paper.

“Master?”

Aki didn’t react, and Mikazuki wondered if she was just simply too concentrated to listen to him. She’d depart tomorrow early in the morning, leaving the Citadel to Mikazuki and the other swords. Alone. Of course she had to have everything ready. Still, seeing her so quiet and unresponsive was uncommon. Even when she looked over things, if Mikazuki said anything or if anyone entered, she nodded or mumbled something, not answering by not saying anything at all.

“Master looks so beautiful when she’s deep in thought,” Mikazuki said, louder.

No answer.

Mikazuki’s smile disappeared. Now something serious was going on. He cleared his throat and knocked on the table, but nothing changed. He stood up and sat next to her, painfully close, and tapped Aki’s shoulder. She almost jumped, blinking rapidly as if she had been sleeping awake and just jolted to reality. When she felt Mikazuki so close, she leaned to the side, more out of surprise that he had suddenly appeared next to her than anything.

“Uh, ah, s-sorry.” She rubbed her eyes with a hand and put the list down. “Did you say something?”

Mikazuki shook his head. “I was just asking if you were ready for tomorrow.”

“Ah, yeah, I suppose.” She took a deep breath and stared at the table. “I think I am.”

 


 

 The swords usually went to bed after dinner, but they had stayed after just for this night and sat in their chairs, some becoming impatient and others thinking about the future days of unsupervised household paradise.

“Ok, so everyone knows what you have to do. I’ll be back in 3 days. Please don’t burn down the house,” Aki began. “Yaman, you’re in charge of the crops and will help Useless if needed. Yoshiyuki, you are the only one allowed to use the microwave. Disconnect it when you aren’t using it. And the rest, remember, you CAN’T put metal in it or it’ll explode.”

“Leave it to me, Master!” Yoshiyuki replied with a smile. Before Mikazuki, he had been the last sword forged, but he had proven to be quite reliable in several matters. While he wasn’t good at accounting and secretary work, he was level-headed and apparently the only person who was capable of handling technology. Hence, he was the only one allowed to use the more sophisticated items, such as the microwave. Especially when Shishiou had accidentally managed to cook something three times for 20 minutes and got something burned and charred.

“Imano, Midare. Behave. You can pull pranks later but not when I’m not around. Remember to stick to your schedules and there are no sorties or expeditions. Doutanuki, I leave the training to you. Everyone, listen to Useless while I’m not here. If you disobey, he’ll let me know and I’ll pound you when I’m back. Dismissed.”

With a clap, the reunion was over and the swords went to their rooms, the smaller swords chatting and wondering if they could see the capital in the future. Once they were out, Aki let out a sigh.

“I need a smoke,” she mumbled to herself, picked up some paper and went to the garden.

She sat down on the veranda, carefully rolling the piece of paper, stuffed with some crumbled leaves she had picked, and licked the paper, sealing the makeshift cigarette. She took out her lighter and stared at the flame for a second before lighting the cigarette.

Smoke dissipated in the air, Aki let out a long sigh as she stared at it. It ascended rapidly, but the cool night breeze made sure it faded in the same fashion.

“If you stay out at this hour, you will fall sick, Master.”

Mikazuki sat next to Aki but turned to the starry sky, visible thanks to the fresh air of the region, compared to the rest of the land.

“Are you nervous?”

“…Yeah, sort of.”

“Hmm?”

“I just don’t want to go.”

Mikazuki glanced at Aki’s face, ghostly lit by the dim moonlight. “You don’t have to worry about us.”

Aki dropped to the ground and threw the cigarette to the floor, stomping it to extinguish the fire. “Well, that’s reassuring, coming from you.” Mikazuki chuckled as held his hand and pulled Aki up.

“Everything will be alright.”

“…Everything will be okay, right…”

 


 

 Aki waved at Mikazuki and the Toushirous, who had woken up so early to see her off and soon, she walked through the same forest she had done a month ago. They had sent the same people, and other than mild surprise to see the Citadel with people instead of a pile of corpses, they hadn’t reacted much. She got in the car and stared at the sky, it looked as blue as the same time she had seen Chuzenji for the first time. She wondered if they would be alright, and hoped that Mikazuki, Yoshiyuki, Horikawa, and Yamanbagiri were capable of handling everything.

Suddenly, something flashed as she blinked for some seconds, just realizing something dreadful as the driver turned the ignition on and the car departed.

The Citadel would be left alone.

With Yoshiyuki.

And the former members of the Shinsengumi.

 


 

 Mutsu no Kami Yoshiyuki walked down the bedroom hall, stretching as he let out a long yawn. He was used to getting up early, but these days he would have to be ready a little earlier if he wanted to prepare breakfast for everyone. He’d ready the rice cooker, pour coffee that apparently only he liked, and set up the table. He hoped that Master’s worries were simply unfounded, they would be perfectly fine on their own (though he would heed the advice of disconnecting the microwave in case the demonic duo decided to test it).

That was until he stopped, as someone else was standing, half-asleep, in the hallway.

Izumi no Kami Kanesada.

Yoshiyuki looked at the man. It seemed Kanesan had not noticed Yoshiyuki’s presence and that made him slightly relieved. He didn’t hate Kanesan or dislike him, but rather avoided him most of the time. It wasn’t motivated out of anger or desire of revenge either. It was just that Yoshiyuki didn’t know how Kanesan would react. It was widely known that Kanesan still missed his former master and that former master happened to oppose Yoshiyuki’s own master, Sakamoto Ryouma,just a little. It had been way too many decades but Yoshiyuki understood that some wounds would take a long time to heal, some never. In fact, Yoshiyuki didn’t hate any of the Shinsengumi swords but kept his distance. First because he didn’t want them to feel awkward, and second because they were FOUR against his one and single self. Just a little before he appeared in the citadel, it seemed that Aki had forged Yamato no Kami Yasusada AND Kashuu Kiyomitsu. Then there was Kanesan and Horikawa Kunihiro. While he had been able to interact in a civil manner with Horikawa, he didn’t know how alright the other 3 would be.

He assumed that as long as Aki was around, no one would try anything funny, only because they had experienced beforehand the one time someone tried to play smart. It had been actually Kanesan himself who had tried to rebel and overthrow the system of daily lap running and exercise, claiming to be in perfect shape already. Aki had made a proposal, they would fight and if Kanesan won, Aki would let him be. On hindsight, Kanesan should have expected something fishy.

Kanesan had clenched his fists as he remarked how experienced he was in grappling and how he was second to none (and in fact, he was able to beat some of the swords except for Doutanuki who he didn’t personally fight) as their Master moved around, seemingly restless and Yoshiyuki had thought for a second that she was dancing and not really fighting. Even Kanesan had thought it was humorous to see her unable to stay in one place, he joked that she was so nervous to fight against him and then-

A sudden forward kick hit Kanesan straight in the nose, making him fall down partially because of the force, but also because he had been knocked out cold.

While Yoshiyuki laughed bitterly as he remembered that rather full of second-hand embarrassment moment, it had made it obvious that perhaps opposing their Master in a stupid way and try to blob one’s way out was really not a good idea.

But now, Master was out for three days and there was no one around to drown any attempts of rebelling using sheer terror of kick-to-the-face-OHKO preventing measures.

Kanesan still seemed oblivious, so Yoshiyuki slipped past the man and rushed down the stairs, maybe he had gone unnoticed and would be able to be on his merry way-

“Hey, you! Bastard, what were you trying to do?!”

Izumi no Kami Kanesada was running behind Yoshiyuki.

 


 

 “Stop!” Kanesan yelled as he pursued Yoshiyuki who kept turning at every corner, trying to get away.

“No, you stop!” Yoshiyuki yelled back as he got inside a room, ran around a table and then exited from where they had entered. If Yoshiyuki thought it would be enough to beat Kanesan, he was dead wrong. Kanesan jumped over the table, there was the sound of something crashing but he didn’t pay attention to it, all of his senses locked on the dog man in front of him, the same that had avoided Kanesan in such an unsightful and offensive way that would need A LOT of explaining.

They crossed the living room, scared the shit out of Gokotai and Akita who had to slam on the walls if they did not want to be run over, went upstairs and to the third floor that was currently without any members sleeping there.

“Kanesan?!” Horikawa’s voice was distant, but nearby, approaching and Kanesan cursed his luck, as Horikawa would try to stop him from beating the shit out of Yoshiyuki. Instead, Kanesan pressed further, Yoshiyuki’s back was so close.

“Leave me alone!” Yoshiyuki ran, tripped on the stairs and almost rolled down, and he would have crashed into Aizen if he hadn’t regained his balance at the last second, and Kanesan had to avoid the bewildered kid while he could hear Horikawa apologizing quickly as he was on Kanesan’s toes. They went to the first floor again, Yoshiyuki’s pace should relent at any moment, but why was he not stopping, both ran past Yasusada and Kashuu, who managed to step aside just in time to avoid Kanesan, but as he got inside the kitchen, he heard a scream and a crash that could only mean Horikawa had accidentally bumped into them. At least he was now free to punch Yoshiyuki with no restraints.

Yoshiyuki kept running but his gasps for air were loud and Kanesan almost taunted him, if it weren’t for a similar grunt because he was missing air. Yoshiyuki entered the study and halted abruptly, holding one side of his torso seemingly in pain, but Kanesan wouldn’t fall for those tricks. He lunged forward, hit Yoshiyuki from behind and both fell, knocking something at the same time, but whatever Kanesan didn’t care. He had caught Yoshiyuki and quickly sat on his back, keeping the offender to the ground.

“So you wanted a fight, Yoshiyuki. You picked the wrong guy.”

Yoshiyuki didn’t respond or try to look at him and Kanesan frowned.

“Hey, don’t ignore me.”

Yoshiyuki still didn’t look, staring to his side as his face went pale, not out of the exercise but the kind of fear when something terrible had happened. Curious, Kanesan turned to see what had made Yoshiyuki so scared and his heart sank.

One of the expensive vases they had cleaned a week ago lay in front of them.

In thousand pieces.

 


 

 

Shishiou knocked on the door for the third time but the person inside had chosen to ignore the call.

“Hey, Ookurikara! Open the door!” Shishiou tried again but Ookurikara had decided to hole up in his room. Shishiou sighed in frustration, knocking the door on vain, but he thought that at least by mildly irritating his friend, Ookurikara would open the door to tell him to shut up.

They were going to be late for training, and Shishiou did not want to be late. With Master gone, the one in charge was Doutanuki and while he was a gruff average guy, Shishiou had seen him beating the hell out of Ookurikara the one time Ookurikara tried to sneak. Shishiou would think that if his friend had been on the receiving end of the mother of punishments, he would try to avoid it a second time. He had to admit that Ookurikara wasn’t the brightest man at times (not that Shishiou was any better) so maybe he had chosen to forget what could happen to him.

Still, he didn’t want Ookurikara to be punished again.

 


 

 “It’s okay, it’ll be okay,” Akita repeated but Gokotai wouldn’t stop crying. “We’ll find them.”

At that last word, Gokotai cried louder and Akita rushed to pat his brother on the back, increasingly getting anxious because he didn’t know how he’d get Gokotai to calm down.

“Let’s think of another plan, alright?” He said and brought Gokotai to the nearest cushion while he looked around the living room, looking for anything that resembled a napkin or handkerchief so that Gokotai could clean his nose and wipe his tears.

“Yo! Akita, Gokotai. Where did you go? You disappeared after Master left.”

Yagen entered the room, holding his hand in what seemed a military nonchalant salutation but his expression grew serious when Gokotai turned to Yagen, looking as if he’d burst out crying again.

“Ghhaaah!” Gokotai attempted to say something but he instead whimpered and Akita ran toward Yagen.

“Yagen, Yagen, we’re in serious trouble! We can’t find Gokotai’s tigers!”

Yagen raised an eyebrow and his gaze turned dark, stopping on Gokotai’s frame. “Since when? Were they around when you all went to bed?”

Akita nodded furiously then stopped abruptly, suddenly remembering something. “Uh, uh, I had to go to the bathroom at night… But I don’t remember if they were with Gokotai when I was back. I think they were but ugh…”

Since the Toushirous were too young and were very close to each other, they had agreed to share rooms and Akita and Gokotai were roommates. Yagen held his chin, looking deep in thought. “So, you noticed early in the morning?”

Akita nodded again. “Yes… Right before we went to say goodbye to Master. I-I… didn’t notice they were gone…” Akita looked down and crouched, ashamed that he had missed them. “I just grabbed Gokotai, I didn’t see he was upset but I dragged him to say goodbye and…”

Yagen patted Akita’s head. “There, there. Gokotai didn’t want to ruin the farewell so he didn’t want to tell you. After that, did you go to look for them?”

“We searched everywhere… but we can’t find them…”

Gokotai’s wails grew louder and both Toushirous went to comfort their sibling, standing next to Gokotai and rubbing his back and head. “Master left at 5am and now it’s training time. We can ask the others if they have seen them,” Yagen said in a calm voice that felt reassuring. Perhaps Gokotai would keep crying but Akita at least felt a little hopeful because brother Yagen was around.

 


 

 Doutanuki folded his arms and couldn’t stop tapping his foot against the ground as his eyes wandered to the people in front of him. Yamanbagiri returned the look, seemingly bored and just wanting to be done with the training (he had gone to avoid punishment rather than genuine desire to train). The Samonji brothers stood in place as well, both quiet as they had arrived, and next to them Mikazuki. Doutanuki was actually surprised to see him around, and so early, but quickly imagined that the reason he was there was because Master wasn’t around and the old man sword liked to get a kick out of making her angry.

“Where is everyone?” Doutanuki groaned in frustration but he just received three vacant looks in return.

“Ha ha ha, I think that since Master is gone, the rest might think of it as a holiday.”

Mikazuki’s reply made Doutanuki frown. He had been put in charge of training and he didn’t want to have to do the task of baby-sitting disobedient swords. There weren’t even one third of them at the running ground and if they didn’t arrive soon, Doutanuki would have no qualms on punishing them for thinking that things would be easy-peasy if Master wasn’t around.

 


 

 “What did you…” Horikawa looked in disbelief as he saw Kanesan and Yoshiyuki crawling on the ground, ghostly white and with a blank dreadful shadow in their eyes.

“This is all your fault!” Kanesan hollered at Yoshiyuki, Yoshiyuki slammed his fist on the floor.

“What’cha talkin’ about? It was YOU who started chasing ME!”

“Because you- FORGET ABOUT IT, you knocked down the vase!”

“Because of WHOSE FAULT?!”

Horikawa’s eyes drifted to the remains of the vase and he had recalled Master saying it was very expensive, probably something that was belonged to one of the previous habitants of the household. It had been put in the storage room and Horikawa recalled that he and Aizen had taken a long time cleaning it, especially since the inside was full of dust and spiderwebs.

“Kanesan…” Horikawa began and both men in front of him, turned, suddenly realizing they weren’t alone. “We-we need to fix this.”

“Ora ora, what are you all doing?”

“Fufufu, it seems you got in trouble, Kanesan.”

Now the three of them turned to see Kashuu and Yasusada entering the room.

“You almost ran over us and now you made a reeeaally huge mess. Master won’t be happy,” Kashuu said and Kanesan shook his head and grumbled angrily.

“You wouldn’t dare-!”

Kashuu shrugged. “Master ordered us to report anything out of order to the old man. I believe this is very out of order~”

Kanesan’s and Horikawa’s mouth flung open, and while Yoshiyuki didn’t say anything and instead focused on picking up the shards, his body shook in fear as well.

“Fu-fu-fu, Kashuu, you are so mean,” Yasusada spoke, covering his mouth with his hand to hide a smile. “If you bully Kanesan too much, he’ll cry.”

“Sh-shut up!”

Both Kashuu and Yasusada laughed. “Easy, easy, we won’t tell either, but you do need a lot of help...” Yasusada said as he eyed the shards in Yoshiyuki’s hand.

“Hey, don’t look at me. I just finished doing my nails,” Kashuu immediately replied. And as if to prove the point, both Yasusada and Kashuu stayed where they were, standing unlike Horikawa who had sat next to Yoshiyuki and helped separate the big shards.

“You are the worst!” Kanesan grumbled and pointed at the Okitagumi. “What about all for one and-”

“That’s another group, Kanesan.” Yasusada smirked but then he replied in a nicer tone. “Oh well, sit tight, we’ll get you glue. You can’t fix the vase without it anyway, smart pants.”

“Yasusada, Kashuu… Please don’t-”

“Right, right,” Kashuu waved at Horikawa, dismissing the Wakizashi’s distressed tone. “We won’t tell a soul. If we meet anyone, we’ll say you were too busy making out. Ah yeah, Yoshiyuki. You do know you can talk right?”

“Fufufu, unless you are a black cat,” Yasusada ended.

“Mahaha…” Yoshiyuki forced a laugh and looked at the duo. “I’m really in need of your help…”

“Kanesan here is too, don’t fret it.” Kashuu smiled gently. “We’re not leaving you on your own to face the punishment you’ll get from Master. So-!”

“O-o-ohhh!” “Heh heh heh!”

Two voices froze all of the Shinsengumi swords and Yoshiyuki in place.

“It looks like someone is in biiiig trouble, Midare!”

“I wonder what grandpa Mikazuki will say about this~, Imano.”

On the edge of the study door peeked Imanotsurugi and Midare’s faces, and two wide mischievous smiles upon them, as if taken out of a horror movie. Before any of the adults there could react, the diabolical duo disappeared and a sinking dreadful fear took over all of them.

“Mi-ka-zu-ki! Mi-ka-zu-ki!”
“Mi-ka-zu-ki! Mi-ka-zu-ki!”

“”We’ve got great news!””

"What are you doing?! GET THEM” Both Yoshiyuki and Kanesan hollered and in that fraction of second, both Kashuu and Yasusada darted to catch them, passing dangerously close to the passerby Aizen, who had to pull close to the hall as he yelled “WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU?!”

Horikawa knew that time was of the essence, they had to put the vase together. He sprang up to the entrance and closed the door, saying “Kanesan, Yoshiyuki, stay here and don’t open the door! I’ll get the glue.”

Aizen walked by, fumbling and ruffling his hair seemingly upset, startled for being almost hit again. If Horikawa recalled correctly, Aizen liked to play with the glue, and Horikawa had no time to waste.

“Aizen, the glue, where do you keep it?”

“Wha- what is it with everyone today?!” Aizen replied but Horikawa didn’t listen, towering over Aizen so fiercely that Aizen laughed nervously and tried to escape.

“Aizen, do you have glue in your room?”

“Y-yeah… why, do you want to make figu-AAAH!”

Horikawa grabbed Aizen’s hand and pulled him without any warning. He’d run with Aizen to his room and fetch the glue, whether the tantou liked it or not. Kanesan’s life depended on it.

“WHAT IS GOING ON?!”

Chapter Text

Kashuu Kiyomitsu hated running. It always meant trouble, wind ruining his perfectly kempt hair, sweat messing up his perfectly applied make-up, staining his clothes AND making him smell. He knew it was good for a human’s body, helping detox and whatever their Master liked to talk about, a feeble incentive to make him participate. Of course Kashuu wanted to be healthy, if he was healthy, he’d be beautiful and Master would keep him, looking at him in high regard. Exercise was good for one’s health, and therefore, beauty, but it was just that the aftermath of it was not (and running in high-heels seemed to be a masochistic choice, appearance over practicality but Kashuu didn’t care). If exercise were easy on his appearance, Kashuu would do it more often, but it was not. So Kashuu really disliked running.

He had actually planned on ditching one day of training, assuming that he could later talk and persuade Doutanuki to not hit him and then rat on him to the Saniwa. Yasusada had actually joined him so they could act something out, pretend one was sick, anything that appealed to sympathy. But he did not expect to suddenly having to pick up Kanesan’s mess.

Even less, run after a pair of swords that had come straight from hell.

Midare was fast, faster than Kashuu and while he was not wearing heels at the moment, it didn’t help his issue in the slightest. Midare was also sneaky, choosing to casually drop things around them, Kashuu having to avoid them while cursing his not exactly bright decision of going against this one and not Imanotsurugi. Imanotsurugi was faster but straightforward and Kashuu was sure that he would have found a way to trick him if he was going after him, but no, he had to be stuck with the deceptive bastard.

Kashuu almost tripped over a book (where had Midare gotten that?) and slammed onto a wall, turning right at the last moment and his ponytail was all loose. Yasusada would pay for this later.

But Kanesan and Yoshiyuki more.

 


 

Doutanuki cursed his luck. An hour had already passed and he still had only four people of which three were high on his list of “People who will ditch the moment they can”. Sayo was a given on the list of “People who will arrive”, since he was the most obedient and apt at fighting and Doutanuki liked him for this. He didn’t like Souza’s apathy and Yamanbagiri’s eternal scowl that reminded him of a sad, sad puppy. Whatever their issues were, he’d appreciate if they just didn’t let them get in the way because everyone has gone through something and had to pull their weight somehow. Though he had to admit that the fact that they were standing there gave them points.

Mikazuki was actually the greater mystery. He was the most obnoxious, since he was so carefree and didn’t think much about orders yet followed them, and he was smiling pleasantly as he was sitting under the sun. Doutanuki couldn’t reprimand him, because he had fulfilled his end of the deal, and they weren’t training, so technically he wasn’t slacking off. And somehow, despite being the most recent addition to the household, he had shown less trouble in doing exercise compared to the rest. The ‘glimmerous fop’ Kanesada had proved incapable of even finishing one lap, so he was not a good comparison point, but if he took Horikawa or Aizen, people who DID like training or gave their best, Mikazuki did a little below their progress, but they had been around longer. For a second, Doutanuki worried that this was what “beauty” was or a reflection of it, because if he recalled correctly there was a rumor that Mikazuki’s gravity center had been off, hence, he was the worst sword of all, one that had failed at its purpose. So it didn’t make sense.

But the old man, who didn’t look old except for the nasal voice he liked to sometimes stress to annoy their master, never spoke a word about anything.

Doutanuki shook his head. Enough time had passed that he had even thought about a topic like this instead of working with the punctual ones. This meant he had to do something. As much as he hated it, he would have to look around for everyone and probably beat them to the ground.

This was going to be a long day.

Doutanuki sighed loudly and the four swords looked at him.

“So, what now?” Yamanbagiri spoke, perhaps the first time in the entire day. He had folded his arms and instead of a sad dog, he resembled a bored cat for now.

“We have to bring them here,” Doutanuki replied, irritation in every single syllable.

“We?” Souza added. This was going to be a looong day.

Doutanuki realized what this meant. He had to decide. He could send them to look for the missing swords, at the risk of having the four ditching him. He could take them all with him but if someone showed up, he’d find the empty grounds. If he decided to go on the lookout, he had to pick carefully who to leave to wait. Every decision was as pleasant as sharing a room with Kanesada or Ookurikara.

He looked at the grass, as if it somehow held the answer. It was clear to him that he had to look for them. At least intimidate them, give them a good scare, scold, and put them in place. He only had to decide if he brought the other four or just some.

If he thought about it, bringing them all meant having to look out for them as well. Sayo would not cause trouble, in fact, he’d be the only one Doutanuki could trust to order to stay there and would still be standing if he came back three hours later. If Yamanbagiri was left to his own devices, he’d probably go back to his fields. So, he’d bring him along. Souza… It was hard to say. On the one hand, he’d have the second most troublesome under his watch. On the other hand, Souza was cooperative half of the time.

Doutanuki went to consider Mikazuki. He didn’t want to bring the old man. His perverted lines and carefree style simply didn’t match Doutanuki’s and there was something…

If he had to be honest, he didn’t want his authority to be undermined because the Secretary was with him. It had been hard to be recognized on his own and he wanted to be the one that the swords feared as he was the instructor and the one who found fault with them. Mikazuki would be feared only because he was the closest in rank to the Master. So, maybe Sayo could be able to handle Mikazuki while Doutanuki, Yamanbagiri, and Souza looked for others. They had to ensure the swords reached the training grounds, so having him (and he wasn’t too fond of having to resort to the old man’s rank) would ensure that they arrived after being rightfully scolded.

“We’re going to look for them. Yamanbagiri, Souza, you will come with me. Sayo, Mikazuki, you two stay here and wait for anyone that might arrive.”

“Why?” Yamanbagiri asked, but Doutanuki shook his head.

“Consider it your training for today. Anything else?”

Yamanbagiri and Souza gave Doutanuki a blank stare, but the gruff warrior didn’t react to them. “Follow me,” he said as he walked and the two Uchigatanas followed obediently, if it weren’t for the sound of dragging feet that accompanied them as well.

Today was going to be a long day.

 


 

 Gokotai’s tears had ceased a little, Akita smiled slightly at this. Yagen’s presence really lifted both of their spirits. While he was not like Ichi-nii, Yagen was also dependable and just having him there made Akita think they could find a solution. In their desperation, neither Gokotai nor Akita had thought of going to the training grounds, having forgotten about it entirely. But Yagen had brought this up immediately, and this was why Yagen was the big brother.

The three siblings walked, Akita holding Gokotai’s hand as he smiled and reassured him with a slight squeeze as if saying “We’ll find them, don’t worry.” Hopefully, most swords would be done with their training, and if Doutanuki was angry at them for having skipped training, Akita would intercede for Gokotai and he was sure Yagen would also speak on their behalf.

It was why Akita had to rub his eyes when he saw Sayo and Mikazuki sitting on the floor, seeming to be taking a sunbath, or at least Mikazuki did while Sayo sat closer to a shadow and scribbled on the ground.

“Ha ha ha, good morning,” Mikazuki said, though they had seen him earlier because Mikazuki had been with Master before she left. “As you can see, there is no one else here but Sayo and me. Did Doutanuki send you here?”

Yagen shook his head. “No, we haven’t met anyone on our way here. You are the first we’ve seen since early morning.”

“I see…” Mikazuki replied, though his eyes darted slightly to Sayo. It was in that moment that Akita realized Sayo had been looking at Gokotai the entire time.

Sayo had come close to Gokotai and the cowardly sword looked almost as if he wanted to cry again, but struggled hard to not let tears fall. Sayo noticed this as well and patted Gokotai’s shoulder in what was an attempt to comfort him, though the fragile-looking boy seemed more upset.

“Mikazuki-san… Have you seen Gokotai’s tigers?” Akita asked, though his voice was louder than he intended and a whimper soon followed the question. Akita’s polite smile faded and even when Mikazuki still kept smiling, it had turned sympathetic.

“The tigers…” Mikazuki closed his eyes, trying to recall his day. If he had seen something that troubled him, he didn’t show it and just added, “No, I haven’t seen them, not even when you came to bid Master farewell. Is something the matter?”

Yagen had stepped in and, separated from the rest, talked to Mikazuki in whispers that Akita couldn’t hear except for vague noises what made one think they were talking in a language, but not one they understood. However, it was obvious that Yagen had explained to Mikazuki the issue with Gokotai’s tigers, and Sayo had noticed and assumed something similar.

“I see.” Mikazuki closed his eyes, deep in thought. “The only ones that have been around here are Souza, Yamanbagiri, and Doutanuki but they went to look for you. No one mentioned anything about Gokotai’s tigers, though…” Mikazuki’s smile widened and then he laughed. “But you shouldn’t worry about it.”

Akita blinked, feeling as if there was something he was missing, especially since Yagen’s eyes flickered with recognition. But Yagen said nothing.

“I will go with you.”

All of them, even Gokotai, turned to the speaker, and Sayo just remained there adding nothing to what he had already said.

“Ha ha ha,” Mikazuki laughed and nodded, seemingly pleased at this turn of events, almost as if he had guessed it already. “Fine then, I will stay here in case someone else comes here. Be on your way, Mr. Queen.”

Yagen let out a sigh and shook his head slightly, though Akita could see a faint smile and he was more confused than ever.

 


 

 Aizen had run out of breath by the end of the stairs though that hadn’t stopped Horikawa from literally dragging the Tanto to his bedroom. Such perseverance was scary, and Aizen thought he was the unstoppable one. He had to lean against the doorway, panting heavily to get air while Horikawa looked around his things to get some glue. Aizen’s paper figurines lay everywhere, or rather, parts of them because Aizen liked to put pieces together but usually changed to a new project even before finishing the one he was working on. He liked to work based on his creativity, and when the more meticulous like Yagen or Akita seemed appalled at this disorganization, Aizen just prided himself further that he could be working on so many things (even if he lost interest halfway through and held on the pieces thinking he’d just finish them tomorrow).

Horikawa meanwhile fished around, from his looks, Aizen would be in later for scolding because ‘your room is a mess, Master won’t like it’. Whatever, he could read those eyes and it’d not be the first time Aizen got those warnings. However, it seemed that Horikawa was more preoccupied by the glue than Aizen’s room, and his annoyance was not at Aizen’s creative display but-

“Where is the glue?”

“On the… desk…” At last his heartrate had gone back to normal and Aizen could speak slowly.

Horikawa turned to him, that serious stare piercing through Aizen, he’d be accused for being messy, Aizen knew it.

“Where on the desk?” Horikawa pointed at the entirety of it, piles of paper, scissors, and scraps were everywhere, piles above piles, not counting the ones that had fallen to the floor while Horikawa dug into that mess. “Come, give me a hand, we have to hurry.”

“Geez, what is wrong with-” Aizen couldn’t finish his sentence, for Horikawa had dragged him again to the desk. He pouted but Horikawa didn’t even spare another look and lifted colorful sheets. “Fine, fine, I’ll help you do whatever you need to do with the glue.” Then, he added in a lower tone, “It’s not like you’ll die if you don’t get it right away.”

 


 

 “This is all your fault!” Kanesan screamed for the eight time, maybe, Yoshiyuki had stopped counting after the third time he had heard that dramatic accusatory tone from Kanesan, as he put down the pieces that he had tried to put together but did obviously not fit because one had round edges and the other seemed to end in a pointy angle, and gave a glare at the non-Shinsengumi member.

“Yeah, yeah, I got it very clear the first time, will ya drop it?” Yoshiyuki picked another piece and matched it with one that he had been holding. Perfect match.

“If only you hadn’t acted so suspicious!”

“Well, excuse me for trying to not interrupt ya while ya stared at the air! Ka-ne-san~

“That’s it, I’ll kill you!” Kanesan lunged at Yoshiyuki and pinned him to the floor.

“What the-! Get off me!” Yoshiyuki wriggled under him, he grabbed one of Kanesan’s long hairlocks and pulled it. Kanesan’s grip faltered, his hands going to protect his precious hair, which Yoshiyuki used to throw Kanesan off of him and now it was his turn to sit on Kanesan.

“You fucking!”

“Serves ya righ-!” Yoshiyuki couldn’t finish the sentence, as he had failed to keep Kanesan’s hands in place and his fist hit Yoshiyuki’s cheek. They rolled over the floor, Kanesan was on top once more as he grappled Yoshiyuki’s arm and leg, and wouldn’t relent even with Yoshiyuki’s feeble hits on Kanesan’s back.

“Stay still and I’ll make it qui-LEAVE MY HAIR!” Kanesan hollered as Yoshiyuki’s hand found some hair strands and pulled again, then flung against Kanesan’s body to knock him to the side, even as they fell on Yoshiyuki’s arm. Kanesan’s hand felt Yoshiyuki’s face, wanting to return the favor and pull the short brown hair but when it was close to his mouth, Yoshiyuki beat it and then got poked in the eye. Yoshiyuki let go covering his face as Kanesan grabbed his hands and slammed him against the floor, not caring if he shredded some of the clothes or if he had lost his haori halfway through the battle, feeling his kimono sliding slowly off his shoulder. Yoshiyuki tried to kick Kanesan, if he hit his groin, it’d be better, but instead managed to knock his knee off, Kanesan falling on top of him, his thick skull hitting Yoshiyuki in the eye that had almost been gouged out.

The door slammed open.

“What the fuck?!”

It was the sound of Doutanuki’s voice.

 


 

 Doutanuki, Yamanbagiri, and Souza entered the room, just as three eyes looked at them, Yoshiyuki seemed to have been hit on one and immediately both paled, Kanesan getting off of Yoshiyuki, struggling at first and tried very hard to conceal his heavy panting but it was clear he was too flustered and out of breath seconds ago.

“…You didn’t come to training… for this…”

“W-w-ait,” Kanesan wheezed, “I can, it’s his f-”

“And you couldn’t wait until after training?”

“That’s not-” Yoshiyuki said, looking at Yamanbagiri and Souza, who gave him a blank look.

“You could have picked someone better, Yoshiyuki,” Yamanbagiri added, his voice was so calm it was almost hilarious and missed the surprise that Doutanuki hadn’t been able to hide.

“NO, THAT’S NOT-”

“Right.”

“I SWEAR, IT’S ALL KANESAN-”

“IT’S YOUR FAULT, YOSHIYUKI! YOU DRAGGED ME INTO THIS!”

Doutanuki huffed, he was not up to this, and did not want to listen to more of whatever they were doing. “Shut up! I don’t care! You skipped training to get all kissy and shit, I’ll make you both pay!”

 


 

 Yasusada ran fast but Imanotsurugi was faster and somehow they were running outside the Citadel into the training grounds. This was bad, extremely bad, Yasusada thought, but he couldn’t match Imanotsurugi’s speed. They were supposed to be training and if they met Doutanuki, they’d be in a lot of trouble. Though perhaps if he could change the direction of this mess into Doutanuki punishing them for not being on training, they’d be able to shut Imanotsurugi, provided Kashuu managed to stop Midare. He had a feeling that wouldn’t be the case, but at least Yasusada would try. If Mikazuki was Mikazuki, he’d probably be sitting around and hopefully, he was old enough to not listen to Imanotsurugi screaming (Yasusada knew this was bullshit but he tried to find some comfort even if they were lies).

Yasusada looked up and cringed, Mikazuki was nearby. He didn’t see the rest, but that was definitely the old man, with his ridiculous outfit that Kashuu had described as a complete fashion disaster, and he was definitely sitting close to them.

“Mi-ka-zu-ki!”

Imanotsurugi had seen him too and Yasusada felt ice down his spine, they were doomed, they were doomed. OK, strictly speaking, Kanesan was doomed.

Mikazuki waved at them, Imano was so dangerously close to the old man, it was now or never, and not even in three lifetimes would Kanesan be able to repay for what he was about to do. Yasusada sprinted further and tackled, directly crashing into Imanotsurugi’s back and both rolled from impact, grass staining their clothes and their faces dirtying with soil, grass and sweat.

Mikazuki curiously looked at both swords, sprawled on the floor and let out a hearty laugh. “Ha ha ha, it seems you are so lively today.”

Yasusada was the first to move, Imanotsurugi lay on the floor, eyes lost focus as he mumbled, “Yay, let’s do that again!” Yasusada quickly covered Imanotsurugi’s mouth and spoke close to his ear. “If you keep quiet about this, we will all play with you and Midare and we’re getting you all the candy you want.” Imanotsurugi immediately nodded, and Yasusada sighed in relief, letting him go and then focusing on getting rid of the dust on his entire body.

This seemed easier than he thought, other than the ridiculously long chase and perhaps massive bruising.

“Now that you are here, did Doutanuki send you?”

Yasusada shook his head, his neck popped (a night of massive bruising and pain definitely awaited him, Kanesan would pay this dearly). “No, he didn’t. We thought he’d be here…”

“I see…” Mikazuki looked at the sky for a second and stood up, dusting his clothes off nonchalantly. “It is late enough, we should just head back. There will not be training for the day. But we should look for the others.”

Yasusada froze on the spot. He definitely did not want Mikazuki going inside, as Midare was still around. While he had managed to keep Imanotsurugi quiet, Midare was far more devious and would need more convincing and who knew what would happen if they met him as they searched for the others.

“Hmmm? Is something the matter?” Mikazuki glanced at him, and for a second Yasusada thought he saw a glint in Mikazuki’s eyes but he blinked rapidly and saw that the old man was simply smiling as usual.

“N-no,” Yasusada replied. There was not much he could do, other than hope Kashuu was able to catch Midare and shut him up somehow. He also could not prevent Mikazuki from going inside, suggesting something else would prove suspicious, so he had to stick close and make sure he heard nothing. “I-I thought Doutanuki would be upset, but… I guess there is no point in us staying if no one is going to be here.”

Chapter Text

Horikawa huffed, adrenaline rushing through his body as he climbed down the stairs, with Aizen following closely, meaning he was dragging Aizen by the sleeve as the tanto tried to keep up the pace and not trip on his feet. Horikawa had lost track of time while looking for the glue, which he had found by nothing short of a miracle in Aizen’s mess of a room, but that wasn’t important. He had to hurry to give it to Kanesan before anyone noticed. Even if Yasusada and Kashuu had gone to fetch both Midare and Imanotsurugi, nothing guaranteed that they would be successful, and so Horikawa had to ensure Kanesan was able to fix the vase, ok more like Yoshiyuki fixing it, but whatever it was, Kanesan had to be helped.

He also needed Aizen, for he couldn’t leave any witnesses unattended. Who knew what Aizen could accidentally say to betray all that they were doing?

Horikawa ran, they were finally on the first floor. The study was so close, they were going to make it. He knocked frantically on the closed door, thank the gods that no one had been there before him, as he whispered, “Kanesan, it’s me! I’ve got it!”

“No! Don-”

Horikawa opened the door and entered the study, dragging Aizen with him.

Kanesan and Yoshiyuki were sitting in the middle of the room, the scattered pieces lying next to them. But that wasn’t what got Horikawa’s attention, it was how they were sitting. It didn’t seem out of ordinary at first, but then, was that a rope around their chest and their arms were tied to their backs….?

“Huh? Wh-”

Before they could notice a thing, Yamanbagiri and Souza grabbed both Aizen and Horikawa from behind, standing around the edges of the door as Doutanuki emerged from the shadows that lay behind Kanesan.

“WHAT DID I DO?!” Aizen yelled as Souza brought him to sit next to Yoshiyuki, and Horikawa’s mind was just beginning to process what was happening when Yamanbagiri was tying his hands.

“Wait, I can…”

“What were you doing?” Doutanuki asked as he took the glue from Horikawa’s hand.

“I-”

 


 

Shishiou knocked on the door once more. They were going to be so late, at this rate, no imploring or begging would save them from the mother of punishments they were going to get. He didn’t want to have Ookurikara get in more trouble, but he also didn’t want to get in a hell of trouble himself either.

“Hey, Ookurikara! Stop napping or Doutanuki will-”

“Doutanuki will what?”

Shishiou froze in place, face turning slowly to meet Mikazuki Munechika in person, waving happily at him as Shishiou’s mind turned blank except for the words “OH FUCK, WE ARE DONE.”

“A ha ha ha, it seems like I caught you red-handed,” Mikazuki replied, with that same pleasant smile that somehow gave Shishiou the creeps.

“Aahhh, Mikazuki…” Shishiou began, forcing his best smile though his lips seemed to be stuck in terror.

From behind Mikazuki, Imanotsurugi waved at Shishiou, as carefree as always and Yasusada followed close, with a look that betrayed some hidden agenda, one of “I did something bad and I have to do something somehow but I’m stuck with the grandpa.”

“G-good morning!” Shishiou managed to blurt, as the nue growled. If you thought about it, the nue was a little like a dog, except more murderous but it could act like one, especially in bribery. Hence, the nue was uncharacteristically friendly, in hopes that his owner would be able to avoid any trouble.

“O-o-oh~ What are you doing, Shishiou?” Imanotsurugi asked, as he walked next to him. “Isn’t that Chuuni’s room?”

“Ah, well, I…”

 


 

Kashuu couldn’t take it anymore, as his legs gave in and he fell to the ground, his hand went to his chest, clutching his clothes in pain. He had been hit by books and accidentally bumped into walls and tables. He was sweaty and with far too many bruises. And he hadn’t caught Midare.

Somehow they had gone back to where they started, just meters away from the study. He would just get a hold of himself and tell Kanesan that he could begin praying because at this rate, Midare might have just met either Mikazuki or even worse, Doutanuki, so he should fix the vase as fast as possible. Kashuu was out. He tried.

Someone tapped on his shoulder. Kashuu lifted his eyes, saw a familiar skirt and felt his blood boil. A soft laughter followed as Midare waltzed in front of Kashuu, sticking his tongue out. Kashuu tried to stand up, but his knees gave away immediately. Midare laughed again and pranced into the study, probably to mock Yoshiyuki and Kanesan. It was then that Kashuu thought that maybe not all hope had been lost. If he could cover the entrance, he’d trap Midare inside and Kanesan and Yoshiyuki could have him to do whatever they wanted to do. Kashuu wanted to get even, but he was just too tired and only hoped to take a bath and never run again. Ever.

A high-pitched scream followed. Kashuu stumbled on his feet, hoping that at least Yoshiyuki was fast enough to trap the little scoundrel. Struggling, Kashuu reached the door, and had to blink. Several times.

In front of him were sitting several swords. Kanesan and Yoshiyuki were there, but Horikawa and Aizen too, hands tied to their backs as Souza looked at them. Yamanbagiri had caught Midare, who struggled to get free, in vain.

“What-” Kashuu began, not before seeing a black flash, and suddenly his arm was twisted against his back, grip not strong to hurt but keeping Kashuu in place. Kashuu thought that if they got out of the mess, he’d personally murder Kanesan. At least if Doutanuki hadn’t murdered both of them first.

 


 

“What the hell did you do?” Doutanuki’s voice rang from inside the study and the three Toushirous and Sayo looked at each other in relief. The three had gone around the house but hadn’t found anyone in the kitchen or the living room. Since Doutanuki had gone inside, and from his tone, he seemed to be talking to another sword, Gokotai would be able to ask if someone had seen his tigers.

“You made a mess in the house, and you couldn’t even catch a kid.”

“Hey, hey, he’s very sneaky!”

“Shut up! You’d be able to catch him if you had done your training.”

“I told you already!”

The sword kids nodded and rushed to the room.

Kashuu and Doutanuki were talking passionately as the other swords stared at them in dreadful silence. Everyone but Souza, Yamanbagiri, and Doutanuki was bound by ropes and sitting forming a line on the floor, Aizen looking as if he had just woken up into a nightmare and the rest of the Shinsengumi, Midare, and Yoshiyuki just calmly waiting to get chewed out by Doutanuki.

“Kanesan broke the vase, I just went to catch Midare!” Kashuu replied.

“I didn’t break the-”

“Nah, ya just flung and knocked me into the vase, Kanesan,” Yoshiyuki replied though both fell silent when Doutanuki turned his attention to them. Doutanuki groaned as he rubbed his temples.

“I thought you were a handful but, I didn’t think you’d be this bad,” Doutanuki grumbled and let out a long weary sigh.

“Uh, um….” Gokotai breathed deeply as he stepped inside the room. “H-ha-eeck!” And he immediately backed off when everyone’s eyes were to him.

Akita waved nervously, suddenly feeling as if they had perhaps entered the room at a wrong time, and smiling the best he could, he asked, “Um, have you seen Gokotai’s… tigers…?” Akita tried to avoid looking at the ropes that bound 80% of the people inside the room.

“The tigers?” Doutanuki asked and Akita just nodded, too quickly that he managed to make himself dizzy.

“Yeah, sorry for not going to training, Doutanuki,” Yagen intervened. “Gokotai can’t find them since we saw the General off and we’ve been looking everywhere. Sayo’s here to help us.”Yagen pointed at Sayo, and he quickly added, “Mikazuki stayed back at the training field, in case someone else went there.”

Doutanuki closed his eyes and just breathed deeply. “I haven’t seen them.” He turned to the rest, and everyone shook their heads in unison.

“I was around the house and I didn’t see them, Gokotai,” Midare replied, as he tried to stand up, though Yamanbagiri made him sit again. “Hey, Kashuu, did you hear anything as we went around the house?”

“Uh, well, I didn’t pay much attention, but I don’t think I saw anything.”

“Kanesan and I have been in this room, we didn’t see anything the whole time,” Yoshiyuki replied and Kanesan nodded in agreement.

Yagen covered his mouth, looking at the direction of the sitting swords, but not making eye contact, seemingly looking at something else entirely. “I see…”

“What is it?” Sayo asked, his eyes following Yagen’s movements.

“Has anyone seen the rest?” Yagen replied, to everyone in the room.

“Imano was with me after we split up, and he later ran to look for Mikazuki,” Midare replied. “Yasusada went after Imanotsurugi,” Kashuu followed up. “But before that, we were on our way to the training fields when we met Kanesan and Yoshiyuki.”

“Aizen and I went to his room, but we saw no one along the way,” Horikawa replied.

“I see. So no one has seen Shishiou or Ookurikara in the meantime and Mikazuki, Imano and Yasusada are unaccounted for at the moment.” Yagen finished his sentence with a heavy silence.

“Unaccounted…?” Kanesan arched his eyebrow. “What are you talking about? Are you in a mystery no-”

“I think I know where your tigers might be,” Yagen told Gokotai in a decisive hopeful tone. “But first, we have to find Shishiou or Ookurikara. Sorry Doutanuki, we will come back later to train, after we find Gokotai’s tigers.” Yagen bowed and walked out of the room, Sayo following suit. Akita and Gokotai exchanged nervous glances, though Doutanuki just shook his head, his expression softening.

“Go, don’t worry about training,” he said and offered a smile. “Get your tigers.”

The two Toushirous smiled and bowed, uttering a ‘Thank you’, and they left.

As they ran to catch up to Yagen and Sayo, they could hear Kanesan saying “Can I just leave too?” and Doutanuki yelling at him.

 


 

Yasusada looked around him, but there was no way he could just leave without anyone noticing. Mikazuki was knocking on Ookurikara’s door as Shishiou tried to explain that he had been knocking the entire morning on the door but Ookurikara was either dead or was just ignoring him, more close to dead status as he still didn’t respond when Shishiou had tried singing loudly to get him angry so that he’d open up the door.

Imanotsurugi looked amused at the exchange, sometimes knocking on the door alongside Mikazuki, and Yasusada thought that maybe he’d be able to escape, except for the tiny inconvenience that if he left the Tantou alone, maybe he’d just not fulfill his promise and tell everything to Mikazuki. And Yasusada couldn’t really take Imanotsurugi along him.

“So, Yasusada, what are you so nervous about?” Mikazuki looked from the corner of his eye and Yasusada’s heart skipped a beat.

“Dammit, grandpa,” he thought, though he restrained himself to say, “Ora ora, what are you talking about?”

“Ooh! Hi!” Imanotsurugi interrupted everyone as he waved to the people that had just arrived, Gokotai’s group led by a decisive Yagen whose steps resounded in the hall.

“Excuse me,” Yagen went straight to Shishiou. “Shishiou-san, have you talked to Ookurikara throughout the day?”

“Huh?” Shishiou rubbed the back of his head, as he put a hand on his waist, looking confused that he was addressed in such a manner. “Well, he’s been inside his room the whole time… that I’ve been around. Did something happen?”

Mikazuki laughed softly, his eyes had a glint that almost everyone thought to be slightly unnerving, even more so with Yasusada because he knew the grandpa was up to something. “Ha ha ha, so you finally noticed, Mr. Queen.”

“I thought his name was Yagen…” Imanotsurugi asked aloud, eyes bouncing between Yagen and Mikazuki, and then turning to Akita, Gokotai, and Sayo, who just shrugged because judging from the looks of their faces, they didn’t understand anything either.

Yagen smirked. “Indeed. Though, it seems I was too late. You were already onto everything, Mr. Holmes.”

Yasusada felt chills going down his spine, as he felt Mikazuki’s eyes on him for a fraction of second, but the man kept talking to Yagen, without any change in his voice. “A ha ha, maybe I did. I was investigating something else…” Yasusada swallowed hard, they were fucked, they were fucked. “But I found this instead. Your tiger kidnapper is here.”

At the sound of the word “Tiger”, Gokotai immediately perked up, his face still showing signs of utter confusion though. “Do you mean-”

“Hey hey, what is going on, Mikazuki?” Shishiou asked, puffing his cheeks out. “You talk in codenames but the other kids, Yasusada, and I don’t know what you’re-”

“You will see in a second,” Mikazuki replied pleasantly, his smile never faltering even when he kicked the door open in one swift move that made everyone jump.

“SHIT! What-”

They heard groans, one deep long one followed by five high-pitched ones. Gokotai peeked inside and he couldn’t help but smile and sigh in relief. Laying in the bed was the sleeping body of Ookurikara, covered partially by scattered white puffs. Mouse was dozing off next to Ookurikara’s head, while Dolphin and Dog slept on his chest. Cat snuggled against Ookurikara’s hand and Wolf was far from his siblings, closer to the man’s foot.

“It seems they left while you went to the bathroom,” Mikazuki explained after glancing at the room. “Something got their attention and they went inside Ookurikara’s room.”

“And since Ookurikara fell asleep, they couldn’t get out…” Yagen continued. “They must have smelled some of the cat food Ookurikara keeps in his room. He probably took some without the General noticing, if he wanted to play with the tigers.”

“And so, we have our culprit and the case is solved. Well, one of the cases,” Mikazuki suddenly faced Yasusada. Yasusada let out a laugh and began running, though Yagen quickly sensed his intention and pushed him against the wall.

“I did nothing!”

“Kanesan and Yoshiyuki broke a vase in the study,” Yagen replied, as a matter-of-fact and Yasusada squirmed to get away. “Imanotsurugi-”

“Hey!”

“-and Midare found out and went to inform either you or Doutanuki. But it seems in their chase, they destroyed half of the Citadel.”

“We saw a lot of knocked down chairs and objects all over the floor as we searched,” Akita continued.

“Doutanuki is already with the other swords. They also have Kashuu Kiyomitsu and Midare,” Sayo ended the report.

“A ha ha ha, it looks like all of you are in deep trouble.”

Yasusada stopped struggling. If he made it out somehow, he was going to skin Kanesan and Yoshiyuki alive.

 


 

“Can’t believe you did all of this mess because of…” Doutanuki scratched the back of his neck as he went around everyone, the eighteen swords gathered in the study. “I knew you were something but not this…” Doutanuki gave a soft knock on Kanesan’s head, there was perhaps an empty sound, and went on knocking the heads of the other still-tied and held in custody swords, with the addition of Ookurikara, Yasusada, and Shishiou. Gokotai’s tigers were snuggling against their owner while the free swords smiled nervously at their captive comrades. Or well, the kid swords, as Yamanbagiri and Souza seemed more amused at the scene than anything.

“A ha ha, you all skipped training, broke a vase, kidnapped tigers, and destroyed the Citadel. Master won’t be pleased.”

“Ya’re kidding… right? Ya won’t tell’er…!” Yoshiyuki laughed, though fear crept through his smile and his extremely pale face, a fitting expression shared by most of the captives.

Mikazuki just laughed.

 


 

Aki got off the van, stretched out and grabbed the heavy backpack that she had carried on her seat the entire trip. She could hear the gruff groans of the escorts, as they let something fall with a thud, and she was thankful for bubblewrap still being a thing in 2206. The men in black suits probably would have wanted her to carry everything by herself or have the swords in the Citadel help her, but since they had to make sure she set foot in the Citadel before they left, that meant the fastest way was to just help helping her carry everything in one trip. Aki got hold of the handle of the nearest luggage, so huge that it could perhaps fit a body and it weighed like one, and she went into the woods barely lit by the faint moonlight. The men seemed to be scared, perhaps of the rabid monkeys or the ghost stories, but Aki couldn’t really care if they kept her pace, she just wanted to get back to the Citadel.

The lights were out, only the dim night lights were glowing in complete darkness. She honestly didn’t expect anything else, after all, it was way past midnight. She had been kept far longer in Tokyo, as everyone had decided to check everything she was getting into the Citadel. The most annoying part was explaining the knives she had bought because they were obviously cooking knives and she had to go on to explain why someone had to use them to cut food, seeing the ones they had in the Citadel were the great amount of one that was sharp enough to be used in cooking.

She heard thuds, as the men left every box and the extra suitcases down on the garden, and they left without a word. The monkey-phobic one had already ran away and while Aki would have laughed any other day, she just groaned as she realized she’d have to carry everything inside. More reasons to enjoy being alive.

Aki walked along the empty halls carrying only the backpack, figuring the floor would creak under the weight of the corpse-like-heavy suitcases and the sound would be amplified by infinity in the middle of the night. Then again, she doubted anyone would want to steal her things, other than jackass ghosts and even those could just suck it. She’d just go back to pick the items needing refrigeration.

It was then that she noticed a faint light coming from the living room. Groaning that they would have forgotten to keep all nights off at night, she went into the room.

“Ah, Master, welcome back,” Mikazuki greeted her as he looked away from the book he was reading, setting it aside, not hiding an amused smile that was a product of her own surprised face.

Her eyes wandered around the room. Kanesan was lying on the floor, with Yoshiyuki close, struggling to not eat Kanesan’s locks in his face. Doutanuki sat on a corner, fast asleep with an equally tired Shishiou resting on his shoulder. Yamanbagiri had slept on the sofa, because he had no self-esteem but he wasn’t a complete idiot and just got a hold of a seat to sleep, as Souza was calmly reading next to him, who had just nodded in acknowledgment of her presence but kept reading.

Mikazuki waved his hand in front of her face, and Aki blinked rapidly as she backed down unconsciously, not realizing Mikazuki had gotten so close to her. “S-sorry,” she whispered, not wanting to wake the swords up, though only partially as surprise didn’t let her voice her thoughts in an eloquent manner.

“The younger ones were sent to bed when it was past their bedtime,” Mikazuki went on. “I hope the report and the visit went accordingly to your expectations.”

Aki avoided his gaze as she just sighed, “Well, I was sent back. So I suppose so…” She put down the backpack, trying as hard as possible to not drop it with a thud that would wake the entire Citadel up. She didn’t look at either Mikazuki or Souza after that, walking towards the door.

“You should go to bed. I mean both of you.” Aki left the room, not long after whispering, “Thank you.”

 


 

Mikazuki nodded at Souza, the pink-haired man closed the book and turned off the lights as Mikazuki rushed to catch up with Aki. Her steps were audible in the night, and to his surprise, they weren’t going upstairs but in the direction of the entrance, the sounds growing louder as Mikazuki was finally walking behind her. She seemed to have noticed his presence, and halted.

“You don’t have to be following me, you know?” She whispered, not looking back.

“A ha ha, well, Master isn’t going to her room, so there’s probably something she needs to get.”

“I can do it myself, don’t worry.”

Mikazuki didn’t reply and instead rested his hand on her shoulder, a sign that he’d not go to his room, at least not for the time being. He instead followed her, walking around the house without exchanging words, only their footsteps breaking the silence until they reached the scattered luggage and boxes, and a pile of what Mikazuki assumed to be crates of food. Aki searched one of the suitcases, marked by a red string tied to the handle, and took out several boxes of frozen food. Mikazuki stood in front of her, the moonlight faintly reflected on her face, pale skin looking gloomier under the cold light and her eyes hidden by darker shadows than the ones the midnight view would have given her.

“Master bought a lot of food,” Mikazuki tried breaking the silence, walking nonchalantly around her.

“Well, there’s 19 of us… I had to bring food enough for an army.”

“A ha ha ha, I guess that is true… How was Tokyo? Master lived there before arriving to Chuzenji, was it not?”

Aki refused to look at him, simply piling up the boxes she kept getting out of the suitcase. “Big. Lots of people. Though I spent most of the time inside the government building and one day at malls carrying everything while those fuckers were just watching me struggle with the bags. It makes you think that self-immolating is a very tempting idea.”

“It sounds…”

“Fun, right? I hope those fuckers got attacked by the monkeys as they left.” Aki’s voice was painful to hear, enough to wipe the eternal smile Mikazuki liked to keep. She scratched her eyes. “I want to put these in the fridge and just…” She let out a long sigh. “Help me with those boxes, please.” She got up, not bothering to get rid of the grass and dirt that had stained her jeans, and instead carried half of the boxes.

“At least, Master could meet her friends, I hope?”

“Yes, I met my one true love. Real food, not the cardboard garbage we eat. I actually got you pizza, which you obviously don’t know. It’s really good but I think it’s cold by now so you can just eat it tomorrow... If the monkeys don’t figure out how to open the suitcases.”

The trip back to the kitchen was as silent as the trip when they got to their rooms. Aki stood up in front of Mikazuki, the door to her room at her back. She tucked her hair behind her ear, eyes glinting for a fraction of second, making Mikazuki wonder if what he saw was real. “Well, uh, thanks for waiting. I mean, you didn’t have to but…” She paused, trying to find the words to say as she rubbed her eye. “I appreciate it. Thanks… Just go to bed. Tell everyone they have the day off, no training or… yeah…”

“Master, are you alright?”

Aki looked at him in the eye and then just looked around, he furrowed his brow. She put her hands on her pockets and inhaled deeply. “I’m just really tired. You… you should sleep too.” And with that, she nodded, mostly to herself than to Mikazuki, and he saw her entering her room. He stood facing the door as he heard the sound of something falling on the futon and then, utter silence.

Chapter Text

There were times one would wake up after sleeping for hours, and find out that they hadn’t gotten any rest.

Aki’s eyes scanned the room, the now almost familiar and daily view of the wooden ceiling greeting her. From the nearby window, she could see the faint light coming through the curtains, and beyond that would lie the lake and the top of Mt. Chuzenji. She wasn’t the type to get attached to views, but she had missed looking through her window during those three days in Tokyo.

Aki sat up and covered her face, letting out a long, drawn sigh. She was back at Chuzenji, back at the Citadel. For a moment, she had thought she’d not make it back, thinking that anything on her report or progress would be found to be deficient and, so, she’d be deemed unfit to continue. So the fact she was sitting on that old futon, in that long forgotten Citadel, was something.

There was a knock on her door. Raising an eyebrow, she wondered if the swords had gotten the news of their free day and couldn’t believe Mikazuki, so they’d ask her. She’d confirm that and send them on their merry way that didn’t involve destruction, and as for her, she’d probably spend the day moving the suitcases around and organizing the new things she brought. So when she opened the door to meet the smiling faces of Mikazuki, Akita and, Aizen, the kids holding a tray and what seemed to be a bowl of cooked rice, orange juice, and fruit salad for breakfast, she furrowed her brows.

“Um, so…?” She folded her arms across her chest and looked at Mikazuki.

“A ha ha ha, good morning. Everyone thought of giving Master a surprise,” he replied, with his usual pleasant smile.

“Yoshiyuki helped us use the rice cooker!” Akita seconded. “Everyone’s already eaten breakfast!”

Aizen nodded as Akita spoke. “We’ve already put the suitcases inside! We were waiting for Master to open them.”

“But before that,” Mikazuki made Aki turn and pushed her in direction of her bed. “Master has to eat her breakfast.”

“Hey, what are you—“

Before she knew it, Aki had been sat down, with the tray on her lap and everyone sitting next to her, smiling widely. She glanced at her breakfast, and then at the three swords. “Spill it, what did you do?”

“I don’t know what you are talking about,” Aizen replied. “Everyone thought of doing something nice for Master!”

“Right…” Aki took the juice and swirled the glass. “I don’t mean to undermine your efforts, but you clearly are hiding something, because all of you try to get away from doing chores… And when I arrived, the house smelt as if you had poured every single cleaning product in the Citadel.”

“I told you we were using too much, my nose was itch-” Aizen grumbled and covered his mouth just as quickly.

“So, do you have something to confess?”

 


 

 The swords were gathered in the living room, most of them exchanging glances of what seemed to be fear and dread. Neither dared turn to see Aki entering the room and standing in front of them, with the breakfast trio following behind. Only Mikazuki seemed as nonchalant as always, but the nervous and completely white faces of Akita and Aizen made everyone shiver.

“Yo!” Aki clapped. “Before we start, is there anything you have to say?”

“Right,” Aki nodded to herself and walked around the room, looking every sword in the eye. “You have three seconds to speak or I’ll-”

“Kanesan broke a vase!”
“Yoshiyuki broke the vase!”

 


 

 “So …” Aki put her hands on her hips as she stared down at the kneeling forms of Kanesan and Yoshiyuki. “Yoshiyuki and the entire Shinsengumi destroyed the house while chasing the demons, Chuuni here is a pet kidnapper, and everyone else somehow skipped training.”

“We didn’t mean to!” the younger Toushirous exclaimed.

“It was just a vase. But we tried very hard to repair it, it’s as good as new.”

“Actually, Kanesan,” Midare interjected, “It doesn’t even look like a vase anymore.”

“Hey,” Aki turned to Mikazuki. “What’s this vase these morons keep talking about?”

“Well,” Mikazuki hid a smile, a very mischievous and knowing one, one that made every other sword swallow, behind his sleeve. “There was a large vase in the study. I believe Master said it had a very… ‘avant garde’ design.”

The swords fell silent as everyone involved had found it difficult to breathe, almost bracing themselves to receive the mother of punishments. Maybe if they didn’t protest, they’d just get knocked out cold in one swift kick from her.

Aki frowned and stared vacantly at them until her eyes lit up, recognition written all over her face. “Oh, you mean the trashcan.”

Yoshiyuki blinked as he lifted his face. “Trash…”

“…can…?” Kanesan finished.

“Master had found a large vase in the storage room, and since we had nothing of the sort, she had begun to use it as a trashcan for anything that was unnecessary in the study room.”

“It only had dust, not much… I didn’t have any use of it, it was hideous anyway, so it’d make a great trashcan until we got a real one.”

Yoshiyuki’s jaw dropped, as he stared dumbfounded at Aki and Mikauzki. “Ya mean…”

“A ha ha ha, it looks like you caused quite the ruckus over nothing important!” Mikazuki beamed with amusement.

“Mikazuki, you fucker! YOU KNEW ABOUT THIS!” Kanesan growled, standing up in a flash and in the direction of Mikazuki, but Akita and Aizen got in the way, trying to keep Kanesan from getting close to the secretary.

“Ka-ka-Kanesan-san… Mikazuki-san was the last to see the broken vase….” Gokotai cried with the tigers growling in unison.

“BUT HE COULD HAVE TOLD US WHEN WE WERE CLEAN-Agh!” Kanesan’s hair was pulled, dragging him away from Mikazuki and the children, Aki’s eyes completely unfazed at Kanesan’s hands trying to free his hair.

“Well, my dear, Izumi no Kanedumbass, even if this asshole trolled you, you broke the vase because you and Yoshiyuki are idiots. Actually more like almost everyone here is one, seeing that it’s easier to name those who didn’t fuck up. Akita, Gokotai, Yagen, Blanket, Flamingo, Tanuki, Sayo, Useless, you get the rest of the week off. Aizen, Shishiou, you just have to help arrange what’s in the suitcases. As for the rest…” Aki turned at the Shinsengumi swords. “You are in trouble. But first…” She grabbed the backpack that she had left the night before and put it on the sofa, a loud thud got everyone’s curiosity and they gathered around it. “I’m going to regret giving you shit after the wreck you did, though you all cleaned the house afterwards, so you still get to receive this.”

She fished inside her bag and took out some packages, inside of them were tiny blocks of different colors. She threw both at Aizen, hitting him right in the face as he was moping at his half-punishment. “They are small figurines, don’t open both at the same time or you’ll mix up the pieces. Glue’s inside them.”

Next, she got out some thin books, which she used to hit Ookurikara right in the forehead. “Maybe you’ll stop your tiger kidnapping tendencies and improve your shitty reading ability at the same time. They are the first issues of comics about super grim dark hero, a stupid one that wants to make friends, and a shitty romance story. Tell me later which one you like and next month you’ll get volume 2. Three if you behave well.”

Aki threw bottles of red and clear nail polish as well as a pocket mirror at Kashuu, who unlike the others, was fast to catch both (and he snickered at Aizen and Ookurikara’s faces), and a plastic bag stuffed with different types of seeds at Yamanbagiri. “I’ll let Tanuki murder you later, Kashuu, for being a slowpoke. Good job, Blanket.”

The next to get something was Souza, as Aki threw two thin books at him and a pen. “The first is a book for you to write whatever you want, if you want something else, you can write it there. Or you can use it as toilet paper, go ahead. The second one’s a novella. It’s about a guy who wakes up one day and finds out he turned into something like a bug. I think you might like it, not exactly the same but, you’ll get it when you read it.” Souza examined the books, and just nodded.

“Kanesan,” she said next, and hit him in the chest with a brush and as he reached down, he was hit in the head with a huge bottle of hair conditioner. “You use this for your hair, you’ll glimmer this time, you glimmerous fop. You’ll need it after the beating you’ll get later.” At the sight of Kanesan’s pale face, she laughed and added, “Just kidding.”

“Hori-kun, I trust you with these because Kanesan will lose everything the moment his stomach-acid hands touch them,” she added as she threw a small package of ribbons. Following, a small agenda and a fancy pen were flung at Horikawa, and both items almost seemed to have been aimed at Kanesan’s face. “Agenda for your chores and because you’re the most organized in this fucking kindergarten. I don’t forget that you fucked up in the name of the Kanesan, so you’re in trouble, kid.”

“Thank you, Aruji-san,” Horikawa said, with a hesitating smile and an equally nervous laughter.

“OK, so someone spent their time rewriting an old compilation of stories into something we modern people can fucking understand but you should find it nostalgic, Shishiou,” Aki said as she threw a copy of Eiji Yoshikawa’s New Tale of the Heike and Shishiou caught it without a problem and glanced at the cover. Recognition flickered in his eyes, though it quickly faded and was replaced with a bitter smile when she said, “Next time, just fucking kick Chuuni’s door. He has no right to complain and he’d probably not notice either.”

“Tanuki, come here,” she said and Doutanuki obeyed. Though when he got a bottle of hand cream, he had difficulty hiding that incredulous thought as if she was pulling his leg. “Before you fucking whine, while you are not a fucking metrosexual like Kanesan or Kashuu, it is important for you to take care of your hands. If you treat them daily, you will wield your sword without a problem, no blisters or cuts due to dry skin, and you can go on a life of happy chop chop murdering enemies spree. Or just hit someone with the thing, go wild.”

“Yasusada, book time.” She flung a book at the Shinsengumi sword. Yasusada scanned some pages of it, the pictures of several places in the world, some he had never seen at all, were visible in vibrant colors. “I hope one day you’ll understand the meaning of it, but at least look at the pretty pictures. You’re still in deep shit.” Aki turned toward a curious Yoshiyuki and handed him a book, adding, “And so are you. But meanwhile, a book about guns, from their large fucking huge humble origins as fire lances to our modern days. As you’ll see, they’ve gone a long way and all around the world, and you’ll probably find it reassuring after the punishment you’ll get.”

The following things that came out of the bag were several boxes. She handed one with long wooden sticks to Yagen, one reminiscent of the now infamous Monopoly game and the final one, a simple jigsaw puzzle of just mere 1500 pieces of several animals in a zoo. “The one Yagen has is about building a block tower. You remove a piece per turn without making the tower fall, which will help keep your destructive impulses (she looked at Midare and Imanotsurugi) in check and reinforce your concentration. The second one is your introduction to the wonderful world of capitalism and the third one is about making a picture like the one in the box with the tiny pieces. The three are all for you kids, and you will fucking share the games with each other, with Aizen too and if any of the other swords wants to play. However, you are responsible for the games, so if I see any blocks or money lying around, I’ll have you fucking eating them. And I will know if you lost a jigsaw piece. Have fun, except the demons. You two are fucked up.”

The last thing she took out of the backpack was an ornate metallic box, which she placed on Mikazuki’s hands. “I don’t like it, so I couldn’t really suggest any brand myself, but I asked the clerk for the best quality of tea. I’m not sure if some of the combinations work, so you’ll just have to drink them.”

Mikazuki laughed, and offered a kind smile. “My, my, thank you.”

Aki clapped her hands. “Ok, so you have the rest of the day off. Tomorrow begins punishment time for half of you though, enjoy your stay.”

 


 

The first thing that Kasen Kanesada had seen when he opened his eyes were two figures, both cladded in equally contrasting clothes. As a true connoisseur of the arts and fine objects, he quickly recognized the Heian style of clothing that belonged to Mikazuki Munechika, a sword Kasen had heard about from his former masters. The other person was wearing unusual clothes, the kind that made Kasen raise an eyebrow as they had a certain aesthetic that was similar to… something crude. The sight of it filled him with dread, as it dawned on him that maybe this person was his new Master.

“Yo!” the woman replied and Kasen fought back a grimace. “The name’s Aki Wakatsuki. I don’t really mind whatever you want to call me. This one is Mikazuki Munechika, A+ fucking pervert useless secretary.”

“So, you must be my new Master? I am Kasen Kanesada, a liberal arts sword who loves elegance. …Pleased to meet you.” Kasen added the last words at the final second, thinking it’d be better to appeal to politeness, even if it seemed like he was the only one capable of doing so. “I have a request, however. Please group me with people that understand elegance and the arts.” After all, he had to ensure that he was surrounded by those who he could get along with, seeing that the Master did not seem to be up to his expectations.

“Kanesada…?” The woman turned to Mikazuki. “Isn’t that the same name as Kanesan?”

Mikazuki smiled pleasantly. “It appears that Kasen and Izumi no kami were forged by the same family, the Kanesada.”

“Hmmm, that would explain why they seem to both have a fucking fop aura.”

“Excuse me …Master,” Kasen interrupted, not liking the way she was talking about him or him having to call “Master” someone that talked and dressed in such a common and displeasing manner. “Did you use the word ‘fop’ on my person?”

“Yes, I did.”

“I would refrain from using that word to refer to me. I assure you that what I talk about is no façade. I am one that understands and appreciates the fine arts.”

“Right, right, whatever you say, Miyafop.”

Miyafop.

Kasen rubbed his temples and forced a smile. This would not be a pleasant existence.

Chapter Text

The first thing Kasen thought when he saw the rest of the swords gathered in the Citadel was a word so foul he immediately wished he had been forged by someone else. After spending several years with true connoisseurs of the arts, both Master and comrades seemed…

“Gyahaha!” Aizen Kunitoshi laughed heartily, with his mouth open and fully showing the contents of it, specifically, chewed salad. Kasen refrained from commenting about it and turned to the other swords. But he soon found that it was a terrible mistake.

Next to him sat Shishiou who, despite being born in the Heian era and thus, someone who should be wise and mature, cackled at the silly nonsense Izumi no Kami (Kasen refused to acknowledge he and Izumi no Kami were crafted by the same family) and Mutsu no kami Yoshiyuki were exchanging. There was also Doutanuki Masakuni, who prided himself in being a weapon and he was definitely NOT ART. The tantou children were simply too young and uncultured to understand, same as the modern swords of the Shinsengumi. And if Kasen could think that the oldest and the senior equivalent to all of the swords, Mikazuki Munechika, was someone he could interact with, a single tea session provided him with enough innuendos and vulgarity that would last an entire lifetime. It was obvious to him that there was not a single soul in that place who could understand him, and he wondered what he had done to deserve such punishment.

Even worse were the tasks he had to fulfill, like getting on the ground and having his clothes stained by dirt while that unhappy-looking Yamanbagiri Kunihiro stared and scolded him for not planting the seeds properly. He couldn’t decide if that or the obligatory daily exercise hour was worse, and no one seemed to understand that Kasen Kanesada was not made to run laps and smell of dirt and manure used to help plants grow. Kasen existed to admire and write about the elegant things of the world.

 


 

 “And, as if in confirmation of their new dreams and good intentions, as soon as they reached their destination Grete was the first to get up and stretch out her young body.”

Souza finished reading the last line and closed the book, keeping it on his lap. He looked at the afternoon sky, red fading away, the novel’s emotions whirling around his mind, still present even if he had read the book for the fifth time. Gregor Samsa had once awoken as a mysterious creature, and as one, he had grown into a prisoner of his room, unable to leave or even speak to his family. His family grew discontent with him, repulsed by his transformation until they no longer wanted to do anything with him. And so, Gregor Samsa had decided to die for their sake.

Souza could only pity him, a foolish man who had devoted himself to those that had used him for their interest, and when he was no longer able to provide, became worthless. A foolish man that had decided to sacrifice himself for their sake, yet his intentions were never acknowledged. Even worse, with every re-read, Souza found himself asking one question, more and more often in every word, in every repulsed action of the Samsa family.

Does Wakatsuki Aki want Souza Samonji to disappear?                      

Is Souza Samonji expected to disappear as an unspoken nuisance?

Souza got up from his bed, the book still tightly in his hands, and he left his room, in the direction of the living room. He doubted anyone would offer him an answer to his question, but he could at least see what others thought of his book.

 


 

Aki coughed as a cloud of dust emerged from the pile of books still left in the storage. Despite some cleaning, there were still far too many items in there that needed to be taken care of, either as being disposed or being used for something else. Kanesan and Yoshiyuki were helping clean. Even if the week of punishment had already ended, they were the ones that had begun it in the first place and still had to atone for their idiocy. Thus, they were forced to help her clean the storage.

She had put the books aside in the hall, planning to clean them after they fished around the storage longer and found more things to use. The storage was deceptively huge, and even after weeks, they could keep finding more items cramped together. In that day’s search, not only had they found a pile of books, but several cups and clothes that would fit no one but would make nice cleaning clothes, towels, another vase (and Aki snickered at the dumbfounded appalled faces of Kanesan and Yoshiyuki), and what seemed to be dishes.

Aki sneezed as she blew the remaining dust of the books, followed by Kanesan complaining about the filth for the xth time in the day while Yoshiyuki had to make sure Kanesan didn’t drop a thing. Some particles got in her eye, just as someone was passing by, and she turned away from the dust to rub her eyes with Kanesan’s clothes. When she could see clearly again, she noticed that the pile of books seemed smaller, but she couldn’t really think more about it when Kanesan almost dropped one box of what seemed to contain glass.

 


 

The Metamorphosis wasn’t a long book. It was thin and the number of words was enough for it to be called a novella. Souza didn’t know this, but he was sure that its length would make it more appealing to others to read it. However, none of the people he had met were able to reach the last page.

“Hmmm, I can’t go on, Souza, sorry,” Shishiou offered an apologetic genuine smile as he handed back the book, the makeshift bookmark still lodged around two thirds of the book. “It’s too… Well.”

“Woah, Shishiou, ya’ got further than I did. Couldn’t reach past the part when the father makes him go back to his room,” Yoshiyuki interrupted the swords as he eyed Shishiou’s progress.

“Heh heh…” Shishiou chuckled weakly, as he scratched his ear. “I tried to get to the end, since Souza asked but….”

“Everything just gets sadder and sadder in every page,” Yoshiyuki replied with a shrug. “It’s not a book I’d read, anyway. Sorry, Souza.”

“I see.” Souza’s eyes drifted back to the cover.

“I wonder why Master gave you that book. It’s too depressing for anyone,” Shishiou wondered aloud. “A story of a man being discarded by his family and being turned into a bug’s way out of my list of things I’d like to read.”

“I don’t think anyone in the Citadel would finish it and say they liked it, Souza.” Yoshiyuki slapped Souza’s shoulder. “Maybe you should ask her yourself.”

With a faint nod intended to be of gratitude, Souza left the room, wondering again about why he had been given such a book. Souza was fully aware that Wakatsuki Aki considered him sad, but was Souza so sad in her eyes that she’d give him an atrocious book full of despair?

 


 

Kasen Kanesada was writing a poem, but found himself interrupted by the incessant flipping of pages that broke the silence in the study. Sayo Samonji was sitting there, eyes glued on the book he had just found, not noticing the dust on his hands or the noise that was driving Kasen mad. He had arrived minutes ago, sat on that sofa and had begun looking for something inside the pages of the book.

Kasen was about to ask Sayo to be quiet, when the door opened and that uncultured woman who was supposed to be Kasen’s master entered the room, holding a pile of books that she put on the table without any care in the world. The thud of the books quickly erased any idea he was about to write down, and Kasen frowned, as he wanted to protest to both about the noise they made and their lack of consideration for someone who was clearly going to produce something magnificent. He cleared his throat, though was blatantly ignored, as Aki turned not to him, but Sayo.

“What are you looking there, Sayo?” she asked, tilting her head to the side as Sayo finally lifted his eyes off the book.

“…I’m looking for something,” he mustered as Aki took the book of his hands.

“Here?” Her voice sounded incredulous as she turned some pages.

“…It’s a quote my Master used to read, long time ago,” Sayo’s voice rose after taking a breath. “Come to Me, all who are…” Kasen’s eyes widened for a second, as he wondered if Sayo was just reading the-

“Who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and My burden is light.”

The two swords stared at Aki, who just shook her head as she finished reciting the text. “It’s Matthew 11:28-30. Jesus Christ had begun to spread his teachings when he said those words.” She opened the book, and searched for the New Testament, then the Book of Matthew, as Kasen stood from his seat and looked from her side. When she found the quote, she handed the book to Sayo, not before noting that Kasen had been staring as well.

“I didn’t think you had read the Bible,” Kasen said, unable to hide an incredulous tone in his voice.

“Well, I could say the same of you or Sayo,” she replied. “I haven’t read it all, just some quotes someone told me long time ago. What’s your story?”

“Sayo and I belonged to a household, the Hosokawa. Hosokawa Tadaoki was a cultured man and he had married a woman by the name of Tama, the daughter of Akechi Mitsuhide. Eventually, she converted to Christianity and adopted a different name. Surely ‘Hosokawa Gracia’ means something to you?””

“It rings a bell.”

Of course it’d ring a bell. Hosokawa Gracia had attained fame for her faith and her life in confinement, as Tadaoki had hidden her once as an extreme way to protect her from death, as Akechi Mitsuhide had betrayed Oda Nobunaga in Honnoji in 1582. Then…

“Our Master would read the Bible every day, short specific passages,” Kasen replied as he took the book and went to almost the end of it. “James 1:12. Blessed is a man who perseveres under trial; for once he has been approved, he will receive the crown of life which the Lord has promised to those who love Him.”

Kasen looked around more pages, with Aki glancing at him. “I never understood why she did that, but her voice is still clear to this day.”

 


 

 Sayo Samonji’s eyes fluttered open, as a faint moan ripped through the silence of the night. The mountain had always been so distant from sounds, as life had been so calm that the passage of time had been imperceptible. He had grown used to the halls and floors in the house, the rooms and its inhabitants, and so, he followed the sobs quietly. He always stayed put in the day and roamed the place at night, so he had not expected to hear someone awake at that late hour. However, his ears weren’t mistaken and with every step going to the second floor, the louder the muffled cries were and soon he found himself in front of that door. Sayo stepped inside.

A young woman, barely past her twenties, embraced a pillow, her face hidden by her long dark hair. She struggled to keep her voice quiet, but the pillow wasn’t enough to drown the sound of blurred words that she told to herself, as there was no one else in the room, no maids or male company, just the woman… and Sayo. Sayo stretched his hand to reach her, it was pointless to do so but he nonetheless tried to hold her shoulder. He had seen his Master do the same in the past, a gesture that had been done before she and him had parted, before she (and Sayo) had been sent to the mountains and when Sayo had been given to her as a way to protect herself. The man would visit her whenever he could, but she had to be strong and understand that everything was done for her sake, that she couldn’t stay back at the household until things had calmed down and the chaos had disappeared. Sayo couldn’t understand that gesture, but back when that man had done it, she had stopped crying, and as the appointed protector, he had to do something as well.

Just before his hand touched the fabric of her kimono, vivid eyes stared at him and Sayo froze. Tears kept falling from them, and her eyes weren’t staring at the vacant empty room, but at Sayo, at Sayo’s spirit.

“W-who are you…?” she whispered, and Sayo knew she talked to him, against all odds, against all sense and logic. She was talking to someone like him, who wasn’t supposed to exist, to be seen by humans.

“I am Sayo Samonji. I was named after the song by Saigyou Houshi. ...But the matters of my origin are not a pretty sight. …I am covered in blood and hatred, a revenge tragedy.”

Despite these words and to his surprise, the woman had a faint but complex smile on her face, as she wiped away tears clumsily with her sleeve. “I am Hosokawa Tama. I am the daughter of the traitor Akechi Mitsuhide, and so my origins are scorned by many throughout the land. I’ve been sent here after being persecuted and my name is spoken with hatred.” She bowed down and managed to laugh, the first time he had seen her do so in ages perhaps. “I suppose we were fated to meet, Tsukumogami, no, Sayo-san.”

It was that fateful night when Sayo Samonji met Hosokawa Gracia.

 


 

 "You can’t just simply sit and read what’s written in the Bible, you have to understand part of the history of the Jewish to do so. Several books were written anachronistically. For example, the Genesis, the origin of the Universe, Adam and Eve and all that story, wasn’t the first book to be written.”

Kasen was always intrigued by the woman’s eyes, always avoiding people, even those who were trustworthy and had been allowed to stay. Hosokawa Tadaoki and Kasen sometimes visited the small mansion up in the mountains. Tadaoki would become worried with every instance, as his wife’s features paled and grew grimmer and more somber with every visit, weeks, even months between each.

“The books reflect whatever that the Jewish were going through until around the time of the Roman Empire. That’s why sometimes there’re inconsistencies between what’s said in one and in another.”

Kasen himself was surprised, as the view up in the mountains, the small hamlet surrounded by nature and tranquility, was so distant from the bloody war that spread throughout the rest of the land. It was almost ethereal, traversing between the succession campaign of Toyotomi Hideyoshi and the unaware atmosphere in Midono. It was an otherworldly paradise, perfect for aligning oneself with nature and spending quiet time indulging in the arts as seasons passed by. It’d be a most pleasant place for writing a poem, with all the elements needed if one would just look outside the window.

“That was until someone by the name of Yeshua was born. He proclaimed himself to be the son of God and spread teachings about love, encouraging people of the era to be virtuous, kind, compassionate, charitable, merciful, and peaceful. Such ideals were looked down by the Roman lifestyle but were quickly embraced by those who were slaves and who had long suffered. In fact, a philosopher of the 19th century, Friedrich Nietzsche, had compared the person of Jesus as the closest thing to the ideal man, the Übermensch. Jesus of Nazareth lived his life through his personal moral code and values, instead of living one dictated by the values of the era.”

In fact, it seemed that she had found company in her personal maid and the maid’s husband. From what little Kasen would see, they sometimes talked about the beliefs of the maid, the conversations the husband had had with another practicant of that faith. His Master Tadaoki had never been happy with the idea, but if such talks made his wife’s life in Midono bearable, Tadaoki accepted them.

“However, misunderstandings about this new religion made them an easy scapegoat target and Emperor Nero was the first to persecute and execute them.”

 


 

 Kasen had stopped searching when he reached the Second Letter to the Corinthians. His voice was nostalgic as he read the verse he had been looking for. “…We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed…”

“…perplexed, but not despairing;  persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed.”

Sayo sat in a corner, quietly listening to Tama’s quivering voice as she struggled to keep reading the text and prevent her tears from falling on the holy book, a single copy that was irreplaceable and neither Sayo nor her would even begin to understand the lengths Tadaoki had gone just to get one for his wife. Most copies brought by the missionaries were in foreign languages and Tadaoki had to bribe and go through many people to be able to get one of the few copies from Kyoto and keep their identities in secret. As such, the one copy she was holding was too precious and too important, and she tried her best to wipe the never-ending tears.

Aki’s eyes scanned the text. “Corinthians… The man who wrote those letters was later known as Paul the Apostle. He had originally persecuted Christians only to have Jesus himself appear in front of him. After this meeting and some temporary blindness, he believed that Jesus was the Messiah and began preaching throughout Rome, reaching out those that weren’t of Jewish origin. Of course, he didn’t have it easy. He was himself persecuted and tortured. Many believe Nero had killed him.”

Her hand clutched the rosary so tight, her fingers had turned white. She closed her eyes for a moment before reading the text so many times that Sayo lost count. The disbelief and shock in her face had not faded in the slightest when Tadaoki had arrived with strict orders of her not leaving their house. Should she step outside, she’d be tortured and executed, as Toyotomi Hideyoshi had forbidden Christianity and a massive hunt against all the believers had started.

Tadaoki entered the room, his footsteps lacked his elegant demeanor, this time they were dragged and rushed. He held his wife tightly, whispering things that Sayo couldn’t understand, and he wiped the tears off her face. Then, she said something.

Tadaoki broke their embrace, fear reflected in his eyes, the first time in forever and Sayo knew something had gone wrong.

“You can’t be serious,” he told his wife, but she shook her head.

Her hands were shaking, her face was ghostly yet something flashed in her gaze, more vivid and violent than the candles that barely lit the room. Even if her voice cracked as she spoke, there was something, firm determination as she said, “I want to be baptized.”

Sayo didn’t understand, but Tadaoki did, as he held the rosary in her hand. “It’s too dangerous… If you do that, you-” He began but stopped when she placed her hand on his cheek.

“Please.”

Tadaoki looked at her for a long time, as his hands traced her face, as if he feared he’d lose her in the blink of an eye, in a sudden flash. He knew he had few options. Tama had once managed to leave the house and visit the Christian church in Osaka. If she had been so determined to do so, despite knowing her life was in danger, she’d do the same to be baptized. He closed his eyes and inhaled. “…I understand. Stay in your room. I’ll arrange everything so that this is done without you leaving the house before the end of this week. Keep the sword I gave you at all times.” When he had finished, he stood up and stormed out of the room, Sayo could only see a glimpse of his face, but there was a shadow of fierceness and despair in his Master’s features.

She only kissed the rosary.

“The Lord is near to the brokenhearted
And saves those who are crushed in spirit.”

 


 

 Kasen arched an eyebrow as he quizzically looked at Aki. He had made no attempt to hide his surprise as he said, “You seem far too knowledgeable for just having read a little about this book.”

“The Lord never abandons those who believe in him,” Gracia spoke as she looked outside the window, longing gaze at the sun rays reflected on the water, flowers blooming far away from the mansion, so distant from Gracia. Sayo and Kasen looked at each other, uncertain if they were being spoken to or if she was talking to herself. “I know that… I know He’s merciful and kind. He loves us all but…” She let out a long sigh as her hand held tightly the cross that hung from her neck.

“I heard many quotes long ago. After that, I did some digging on my own,” she replied nonchalantly as she stared back at Kasen. “I don’t believe in this myself, but I wanted to understand the meaning of those words. Who knows, maybe I’d believe in it if I dug enough.”

“Sometimes I ask myself if He has forgotten about me.”

 


 

 Kasen read aloud. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

Screams and the sound of metal clanging and violent footsteps resounded throughout the grounds of Osaka Castle. The maids were running, trying to get away of the incoming samurai. The retainers broke into Gracia’s room, all kneeling down in front of her, faces as ghostly as those of people who knew death was around the corner.

“The Ishida forces have surrounded the mansion, milady,” one of them spoke.

“They demand that Master Tadaoki joins him at Sekigahara.”

Sayo turned to his side, Gracia remained seated, her calm face had even startled some of the retainers, so serene, almost as if she had known this day would come.

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”

Her maid knelt beside her, Sayo could see the fear in her face as the reality of the situation had dawned on her. The decisive battle of Sekigahara, the one fight that would determine who would inherit the land left by Hideyoshi, was around the corner and the Hosokawa had sided with Tokugawa Ieyasu. Ishida Mitsunari, the general of the Western Army and a man who proclaimed to fight in the interest of Hideyoshi’s son, Hideyori, had tried to persuade daimyou throughout the land to join his cause. The gap between the army strength of the two factions was such that any side could win and change the fate of the land entirely.

The minimal switch in allegiances, the ceasing of actions during battle, betraying that may occur during battle, anything could turn the tables in the blink of an eye. The Ishida forces had believed that if they could get hostages in the form of the Hosokawa household, specifically Tadaoki’s beloved wife, they would be able to force the Hosokawa to become their allies.

“Blessed are the gentle, for they shall inherit the earth.”

But Tadaoki himself had foreseen this in the past. Sayo knew the demands of the Ishida army wouldn’t be fulfilled. The men who had arrived hadn’t come to ask Gracia on how to proceed. They hadn’t come to help her escape. The mansion was surrounded. There was nowhere to escape.

One of the retainers spoke, “My lady. Master Tadaoki…”

Even in such situation, her face was impassive, and her voice had long stopped shaking as she talked. “I am ready. Please, everyone but Shousai and my maid leave the room.”

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.”

Ogasawara Shousai remained motionless. The rest obeyed, bowing one last time, every single one of them looking at her face, as if wanting to engrave it in their memories, the last thing they would see, as they left the room. But Sayo could see their shadows in front of the shoji door, acting as a barrier until the very end, ensuring no one in the enemy ranks would be able to take Gracia away.

“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.”

Gracia remained seated, in the center of the room. She joined her hands, her maid followed her actions, as she whispered the prayer she had been taught. “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name…”

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.”

Sayo remained at Gracia’s side, some force inside him making him look at her. Shousai’s head touched the ground, as he uttered something that was lost in her prayer.

“Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth, as it is in heaven.”

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.”

Shousai stood up, short decisive steps until he was in front of Gracia.

“Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.”

“Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

The maid prayed but her lips trembled, as she closed her eyes, trying to remain composed.

“And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”

“Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me.”

Shousai raised his blade, the faint light of the candles made the sharp edge glint. And then…

Gracia turned to Sayo. Her eyes were brimming with tears as she smiled, the same way as when they had met before, years ago in the hamlet. “Thank you,” she whispered, as she stared into his eyes, a myriad of emotions Sayo couldn’t understand flickered in the second it lasted, his vision blurred as he felt something welling in his own.

“Amen.”

“Rejoice and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great; for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

Shousai’s blade swung downwards and Hosokawa Gracia left this world.

 


 

 It was chance short of a miracle, as Sayo sat in the remains of the burned mansion, when one of the Hosokawa retainers had arrived to inspect the area. The man picked Sayo’s blade, unscathed by the fire, as it lay atop of the ashes that had once been the house he had lived before with a woman named Tama, later known as Gracia. The retainer couldn’t hide his surprise to find Sayo’s blade nor his bitterness as he saw only charred remains, faint proof of what had transpired.

By the time Sayo had realized, he had been given back to his Master.

 


 

 

Sayo sat on the sofa and touched his cheek, sudden wetness surprising him as he uttered a weak “Why…?”

Kasen couldn’t hide his surprise when he saw tears down the child’s cheeks, the only time he had seen them was back then, when he had been given back to their previous Master, when…

Aki sat next to Sayo, leaning close to him, though he didn’t react. “Why did she thank me when she…”

In that moment, Aki pulled Sayo close to her. Her face was understanding, probably she had figured out what Sayo had referred to. “I can’t be certain of her feelings but… I think I can understand her a little.” These words got Kasen’s curiosity, as he had long spent years wondering that. Every day since she had learned about Christianity, Hosokawa Gracia had always prayed to a God that, as far as Kasen was concerned, had never replied to her pleas. What would drive such intent that she’d keep on praying, even when her life was endangered simply for believing in such a God?

“Hosokawa Gracia spent most of her life persecuted. First for being the daughter of a traitor, then, for her beliefs. To survive, she had to stay confined to a house, unable to go outside. She was first blamed for something she couldn’t possibly be accounted for. The betrayal of Oda Nobunaga was something she couldn’t prevent, yet everyone cursed her and wanted her to die.”

Kasen closed the Bible and held it close to his chest as he listened closely. Sayo remained seated, tears falling quietly down his face.

“She probably saw herself when she heard about Jesus, someone persecuted in an unfair and cruel world. Yet Jesus preached of love and understanding, he was the son of a merciful god that rewarded the just and virtuous. To someone who had been trapped her whole life, whose life was full of misfortune and loneliness, such paradise became her solace.”

“How can you say so, when you’ve never talked or met our Master?” Kasen asked, his face was like a stone, his lips forming a thin line.

Aki lifted her face, her blue eyes were piercing and vivid, and for a second, Kasen thought of Gracia’s eyes, much to his bewilderment. “Because humans are capable of something. There’s a concept called ‘empathy’, it means identifying with someone else’s feelings or actions. Yes, I never talked to Gracia and yes, I never experienced her life, but I can relate myself to her somewhat. When you’ve lost everything, you desperately search for something to believe in, anything that can make the world less cruel. So she probably tried believing in the God of the Christians.”

Empathy. Kasen’s expression remained the same.

“But her life was never easy and according to history books, she spent the rest of her life hidden and trapped. I’m sure at many times, she doubted about her faith. If God is real and he’s all merciful and kind, why do I have to suffer? Why is there a cruel world? It’s a question many have asked for thousands of years, and no one has the answer. This makes you wonder, this makes you think that there’s simply no god. She probably asked herself a thousand times if God exists and she feared of the answer.”

Aki placed her hands on Sayo’s shoulders, the tanto lifted his face to meet hers. “You say Gracia spoke to you. This means she was a Saniwa or at least she could see spirits, just like I am talking to both of you. And meeting you gave her hope.”

“I am…” Sayo began, tears somehow falling from his eyes, though his confused face showed he didn’t understand anything. He and Kasen couldn’t understand Hosokawa Gracia and Sayo couldn’t understand whatever that he was feeling either. “I am a sword of revenge. I carry blood and hatred and…”

Aki ran her fingers through Sayo’s hair, her expression was the softest Kasen had ever seen. “I’m sure what Gracia saw was a young, sometimes a little creepy, boy who kept her company when she was alone. And I’m sure that she thought that… If someone like Sayo exists, then, God exists as well.”

“Why does it matter if a God exists?” Kasen asked, unconvinced. For some reason, he felt agitated, as he couldn’t understand such concepts. It didn’t matter if some being existed, what mattered was something else. If someone appreciates the arts, then they can...

“Kasen.” Aki’s voice was hard though it was neither cold nor cutting. “You don’t understand it, but humans have limited lifespans. We are born, we grow and we die. You have lived for hundreds of years but we don’t have that luxury. One of the biggest mysteries in the world is what happens after death. Is there something after it or do you just fade into nothing? To this day, no one has answered this question and every single religion has tried to address it.”

“I still fail to see what you are getting with this.”

“Try to not think everything with your values and desire of aesthetics, and put yourself in her shoes. How would you feel if your entire life was full of misery and then that’s it? What was the purpose of your life? To suffer? There is a reason why many converted to Christianity. Jesus was crucified. And he was resurrected on the third day. He preached a world where all who had died and lived his way would be revived and lived in eternal happiness. If this god doesn’t exist, then there is no paradise. When you have nothing, you’d do anything for even a faint chance of happiness, something that makes you feel that your life wasn’t a waste. It was through you and Sayo that Gracia thought that maybe she’d be free and happy in the afterlife.”

Kasen felt silent. There were many things going through his mind, these concepts were too strange for him to simply accept. It was all so surreal for him, perhaps because he was a tsukumogami and not a human like them.

“Hopefully one day you both will understand. Though, as a self-proclaimed arts appraiser, you should be more aware of empathy, Kasen.”

“And why is that?” he asked as he raised his eyebrows, since he knew everything that had to do with the arts and he didn’t like the tone that implied he had missed something.

“Humans sometimes do things out of empathy. You’ve probably written poems that look as if an emo teenager wrote them and someone went to read them. You’re read thousands of poems of love, of sadness, of anger, of grief. People sometimes read these poems and identify themselves with them. That way, they feel they aren’t alone in their struggle. Sometimes you just want to feel sad about yourself or you think that someone else went through something similar yet they pulled through, so maybe you can. Or sometimes you just share the feeling, and that’s enough to feel a little better. Unless you understand this concept, you won’t be able to either understand your Master or fully get the meaning behind the arts you are so fond of.”

Aki stood up and stretched her arms. “I don’t think we’ll get anywhere for now. You two can keep the Bible, though. It’s better if you keep it with you, Kasen. Sometimes the demons go play with Sayo and they might damage it. I’ll later give you bookmarks so you can keep a mark on the quotes you want to read.”

Sayo nodded as he wiped the tears off his eyes. Kasen just followed her with his gaze as she walked to the door. He kept the book close to his chest as he mulled in silence.

 


 

 Aki left the room quickly, as she was supposedly going to leave the books in the study and be back, and she had left Kanesan and Yoshiyuki alone. She was too deep in thought about this, wondering how long she had taken talking to the Hosokawa swords that she actually slammed into someone’s chest. “What the…” She grumbled as she lifted her eyes and met Souza’s mismatched ones. “Fuck, Souza, how long have you been there? At least stay close to the wall if you’re going to be doing whatever you were doing.”

Souza didn’t answer. Aki smiled bitterly and nodded. “Back to the silent treatment, okay… In that case, I’m-”

Suddenly, a large thud followed by the sound of something crashing into many pieces rang throughout the citadel, close enough to where they were, to where the storage was and Aki’s eyes widened. “Fuck!” she mustered, as she ran down the hall, screaming, “KANESAN, YOSHIYUKI, YOU MOTHERFUCKERS BETTER NOT HAVE DONE WHAT I THINK YOU FUCKING DID!”

Souza didn’t move from his spot. However, he took the book he was holding, eyes going over and over the title as he whispered to no one, “…Empathy.”

Chapter Text

Aki sighed deeply as she took the book that had lain in front of her for a long time. It was thick and by the looks of it, it couldn’t have been opened more than twice, if ever. She examined the cover, not that it was her first time seeing it, but she stared at it, mulling over something. Her hand hovered to open the book, but stopped in mid-air and instead she moved it away. She took a deep breath, still wondering what she would do when Mikazuki entered the room, carrying books and letting them drop on the table, a cloud of dust rising in the air.

“Ha ha ha, it seems like Master will be busy for a while reading these history books,” he said, offering his usual smile which turned into one of amusement as Aki didn’t seem to react. “Is something the matter?”

She rested her chin on her hand as her eyes posed on the sword. “Have you…” she began but she immediately shook her head. “Hmm, no, nevermind. Thanks for bringing the books, Useless.”

Mikazuki laughed, though it quite didn’t reach his eyes, always focused on hers.

 


 

Hachisuka Kotetsu huffed indignantly as he was forced to brush his hair off his face. He was appalled at the thought of being forced to do such a menial task as cleaning, when his delicate kimono could be easily soiled by dirt or stains of sweat. He had just arrived days ago and instead of being given the position he deserved, one which showed his elegance and status, he was stuck cleaning dusty rooms.

Another sigh was audible and Hachisuka smiled bitterly, a sign of camaraderie as the other person in the room, the self-proclaimed epicurean of the arts Kasen Kanesada seemed equally unpleased by this task. He kept mumbling something that Hachisuka couldn’t understand but with intent clear enough to surprise Hachisuka for a second. For a sword so deeply into the arts, Kasen seemed to have quite a volatile personality, not that Hachisuka could care at all. However, he could find some sort of bonding in their hatred of filth and cleaning duty.

Next thing he heard was a rather unpleasant to him laugh, one that he had quickly learned to discern in the myriad of noises that filled the citadel every day. Mikazuki Munechika entered the room, carefree as always as he smiled and waved at Hachisuka, making the Kotetsu sword frown too visibly but even then Mikazuki’s expression didn’t change. Hachisuka knew himself to be renowned and was very aware of his status. He was also aware of the title of the Tenka Goken, the five most beautiful swords in the land, of which Mikazuki was one of them and called the most beautiful of all.

Hachisuka couldn’t help but be surprised that he could actually be in the same room as one… who happened to dress in the most unfortunate choice of wardrobe, not the least displeased by the speckles of dirt on his face nor doing such a menial task of carrying some books to their Master. How could the most beautiful sword in the land not demand respect and to be treated as someone of his status, the highest ranked of them all, and be pleased with a simple assistant charge, dirtied in such an unsightly way? And wearing such a hideous bandana to boot.

“Excuse me, Mikazuki-dono,” Hachisuka opened his mouth, loud enough that even Kasen stopped his bitter soliloquy through his teeth. “As a genuine Kotetsu sword, I can’t simply accept being assigned to this menial task. Surely one of the counterfeit swords or tanto would be most fitted to this.”

Mikazuki’s smile never faltered, in fact, he laughed in the most obnoxious way in Hachisuka’s opinion. It was so carefree, as if the actual matter Hachisuka had brought up was completely irrelevant and insignificant.

“I’m afraid I don’t see what is so funny about this…” Hachisuka hurried to reply, unable to hide the angry tone of his voice but even so, such aggression was ignored by Mikazuki.

“Well, Master certainly won’t be happy if we don’t finish the job.”

Hachisuka forced himself to keep a polite smile. Last time he checked, their Master lacked any sort of refinement and elegance, and he quickly realized the issues Kasen sometimes mumbled to himself about her. With all due respect, not that he actually meant it, Hachisuka thought their Master was as close as one could be to an ignorant fool without any idea of grace and status. It was something not unexpected, as many humans had lived their lives without knowing their place in the world and how some were simply destined to be in a low level. Because of their inherent nature, those in lower levels would never come to even know of the existence of items of class, only vaguely heard about but never seen. Swords like Hachisuka or Mikazuki were only meant for the nobles and those of importance and high profile. A young woman who liked to swear certainly didn’t fit that type.

“It’d be unfortunate if she was displeased with our job, but perhaps you could have made it clear to her that this sort of handiwork is fit for a specific type of class. One that doesn’t befit either you, Kasen, or myself.”

There was silence, but Mikazuki kept smiling, and if Hachisuka wasn’t so upset, he might have thought there was some sort of amusement in the fine sword’s expression.

“Hahaha, I don’t mind doing this, but if you are being bothered so much, perhaps you should try conveying your emotions to her?”

 


 

Yasusada carried garbage from his room to the fixed vase that served as potential container. He dropped some papers, all filled with scribbles, having tried to emulate keeping records, something Okita sometimes did. Yasusada wasn’t as skilled with the brush, so every attempt at writing something looked hideous in his eyes and the garbage was the only place where they belonged. He had dropped some wrappings and filthy cleaning cloths, but his hands still held the book of world places. No one could say that Yasusada hadn’t tried reading it, because he had. It was, however, filled with such uninteresting topics, views that had no meaning to him, and therefore, were not worth of his time and attention.

“Hey, isn’t that the book Master got you?” Kashuu asked, having seen Yasusada so worked up as the sword clad in black and red walked by.

Yasusada knew that Kashuu wouldn’t like the answer he’d say, so he kept quiet.

“Don’t tell me you plan on throwing it away?” Kashuu looked at Yasusada straight in the eye, though both knew that Kashuu was right and Yasusada wouldn’t confirm or deny anything. “You should keep it, it’s something Master gave you.”

“I suppose you are so happy with your gift because you like to paint your nails,” Yasusada casually talked, purposely glancing at the pages of the book, but not paying attention to them, eyes focused on Kashuu’s reaction.

Kashuu simply shrugged. “Well, Master did give me a nice gift. This nail polish is of high quality, and my nails haven’t chipped in the slightest. I suppose she understands that it’s very important to be presentable at all times.”

“Aren’t you so happy she understands you so well? Perhaps more so than-”

Kashuu shook his head and arched an eyebrow. “If you dislike yours so much, just give it to Yoshiyuki. He seems more interested in the Western world than you. I won’t lie, though... I was surprised when she gave you that book. I think she just didn’t know what to give you.”

When Kashuu finished talking, there was no trace of Yasusada. Yasusada walked down the hall, hands clutching the book tightly as he thought to himself that yes, she didn’t know anything about him, and she’d never understand. If Okita had been a Saniwa, he would have known what to give Yasusada, something that fitted him as perfectly as the red polish of Kashuu’s nails. But Okita had long died in Osaka and all Yasusada wanted was to burn the book he still carried and scatter its ashes away.

 


 

Aki laughed for some seconds, quite loud and unrefined, making the motion of rubbing something off her eye. “Fuck, that’s a good one!” She rested her head in her hands, almost befitting of a businessman. Hachisuka looked at her, rather dumbfounded and furrowing his brows in a mix of annoyance and confusion because he had been quite clear about his status and how ridiculous it was for him to be cleaning. “Ok, look goldie, you have to do something to earn your stay here. You don’t seem to like the fields or horse shit, so it’s cleaning. If you don’t want the dust bunnies to wreck your pretty kimono, you can use some old clothes we found instead.”

“Excuse me, Master, but you have a rather unusual taste for jokes. You can’t honestly expect a true Kotetsu sword to be wearing rags.”

“Well, then,” Aki leaned in as a rather dangerous smirk was reflected in Hachisuka’s eyes. “You can then learn to clean properly so that your very expensive-looking kimono isn’t soiled by this unworthy dirt.”

 


 

Piercing eyes throughout the darkness, there was someone in the same room as Aki’s eyes fluttered open. She looked around, meeting a chilling gaze as she screamed.

“Master, who do you wish revenge upon?”

“Wha-” Aki began to say as it dawned on her and she finally recognized the tiny frame of Sayo, standing next to her bed, his face above hers, waiting for the moment she was awake. Waiting for the orders to kill that man or woman. But instead of one, the patient Sayo met her pillow as she groggily groaned, “Fuck, it’s way too early.”

Aki covered her face with a pillow when the question was repeated, no sounds indicating that Sayo had moved at all. “Go to bed.”

“Mas-”

“No.”

“If…”

“Go the fuck to sleep.”

There was silence now, but Aki could feel Sayo’s presence next to her. So she did the obvious, she got up, picked up Sayo (surprisingly light, perhaps he wasn’t eating properly) and plopped him in the hall, closing the door and bolting it. Sayo stared at the door, disappointed as he never got an answer and he couldn’t hear her uttering any name in her sleep.

 


 

Mikazuki entered the room and glanced at Aki’s slouched figure on the table, to which she lazily looked up, realized it was him and let her head fall back on the books on the table.

“A ha ha ha, did Master get enough sleep?”

“For a fucking kid, Sayo has a deadly stare, it took me forever to fall back to sleep.” She sat up and stretched, almost like a cat, making the bright red marks of the book covers in her face visible that made Mikazuki’s smile widen in amusement. “He entered my fucking room and like a murderous tiny cat asked me if I wanted to off someone.”

“A ha ha ha, and what did Master say?”

“To go to fucking sleep, but he didn’t so I threw him out of my room.” Aki yawned and pouted, face showing traces of weariness and lack of sleep. “Don’t fucking say a word, you’d have done the same if he interrupted your beauty sleep.”

Mikazuki merely laughed and sat down, picking up the closest books and flipped around the pages nonchalantly as he spoke, “Hmmm, well, if I heard right from the other swords, Sayo has endured a rough life.”

“Right, that revenge thing… Come to think about it, he mentioned it a lot but I don’t really know much about it…” Her voice trailed off and fell in silence, mulling over something. Mikazuki raised an eyebrow but said nothing.

 


 

“Here,” Yasusada said as he handed Yoshiyuki the book about the world, to which the cheerful man looked several times at the book and Yasusada, unsure if he should take it.

“Uh, don’t mean to be rude or anything, but didn’t Master give ya’ that book?”

Yasusada huffed and shoved the book into Yoshiyuki’s hands. “Just accept it, okay?”

Yoshiyuki laughed bitterly as he took the book and glanced at it. He couldn’t deny that the book was very attractive but it was something given to Yasusada and not him. Even if Yasusada didn’t like it, he felt like it had been given to Yasusada for a reason.

“Well, if ya’ say so… but well, let’s just say ya’ just lent it to me… And if ya’ change ya’ mind, I’ll give it back if ya’ want it back.”

There was a fierce determination in Yasusada’s eyes as he shook his head. “No, I won’t be needing it. Consider it your own, Mutsunokami Yoshiyuki.”

And without any more words, Yasusada left and Yoshiyuki sighed. The book had so many pictures and so many interesting tidbits about places he had never seen or even heard about, and he and Sakamoto Ryouma had heard a lot of things about the world. He had been a little envious that Yasusada was given this book, but now it seemed more like it was Yasusada’s loss.

“Those Shinsegumi guys never change…” he said to no one as he exhaled deeply and looked at the sky.

 


 

“Sayo,” Aki called as she walked into the garden to where the tanto were running around, playing with an insect, or rather most were trying to get away from Midare’s attempts to put it in their clothes. When the murderous tiny cat-like sword looked at her, he went to where she was.

She knelt down so that she was to his level and breathed deeply. “Okay, Sayo… I’m uh sorry I took you out of the room, but you have to understand it’s rude to interrupt others while they are sleeping… or stare creepily at them in the middle of the night.”

Sayo merely blinked and nodded once.

“About your uh, thing…” Aki said as she scratched the back of her head, visibly uncomfortable. “Please, don’t ask me about it anymore… It’s very, ugh, just stop it, okay?”

“…But…” Sayo looked at Aki with fierce eyes, those that would pierce through one’s soul. “There is something Master wants, Master’s wish, someone Master wants to die!” There was unusual determination in Sayo’s words, in how he clenched his tiny fists, shaking as he spoke.

“Yes, there is but... Goddammit!” Aki shook her head, irritated and unusually pale. She inhaled slowly, as if to calm herself and then grabbed Sayo gently by his shoulders. “Ok, just fucking listen to me, kid. Yes, there’s someone I hate. Yes, I fucking loathe that motherfucking piece of shit and I wouldn’t fucking bat an eye if he died. But no, I do NOT want to take revenge.”

There was a glint in Sayo’s eyes and his expression changed, one that showed confusion at some contradiction to him, something he couldn’t really understand at all. Aki groaned.

“A long time ago, someone just… Someone hurt me, okay? And I’ve hated him ever since. I… I spent many days, years, thinking about killing him, making him pay for what he did to me but one day I just… I just realized… That man, he stole my past, but if, if I kept on thinking about him, in making him pay… He’d steal my future too.”

Sayo looked at her, furrowing his brows so much, thinking too hard to try to understand what she was saying.

“I don’t know what your other Master wanted, but… When you ask me that… I’ve fucking tried for years to not think about it, to not go back into wanting revenge. And when you bring it up, it makes it harder. So, just stop please.”

“…I… I… will… But what is his…”

“I’m never telling you his name. If I did, you’d go and try to find him, and that’s… somehow cute, I suppose but… You shouldn’t be burdened by my problems. This is something I have to deal on my own. Last thing I need is a kid wasting his life over someone else’s problem.” She took out a bag of rainbow-colored candies from her pocket and placed it in Sayo’s hand. “Do what a young brat should be doing. Play with the other kids and eat these candies.” She ruffled Sayo’s hair for a moment and then, quietly stood up and left.

Sayo stood up a long time, staring at the candy bag that suddenly became soaked by the tears that began to flow.

“Why? I don’t understand…”

 


 

“So…”

Aki had been so busy making notes on maps that Mikazuki turned his head to face her, not sure if she had talked just then. She didn’t look him in the eye, at first, her gaze focusing everywhere but on Mikazuki, seemingly in thought to put her ideas into words.

She took the book, that one Mikazuki had seen the other day, and handed it to him. “I-I got this book when I went to do the report.” Her voice was unusually wavering, almost unsure of what she was saying. “It’s a book about well, you. All of you.” She shrugged her shoulders, a thin smile on her face as she waited for him to respond.

Mikazuki tilted his head and passed by some pages, full of descriptions and images, some featuring scabbards, others blades. “Ha ha ha, if it’s a book about swords, shouldn’t you have read it already?”

“I…I haven’t read it.”

Mikazuki arched an eyebrow as he looked at the index.

“I’ve been thinking… When I was in Tokyo, I thought I should buy it to, you know, know more about you. We were given preparation before, but they just sometimes mentioned things about you, the courses were more about history and battle strategies, they didn’t go into detail about who you were or by whom or why you were forged… So I thought this book would be of help but…”

She stopped for a moment and closed her eyes.

“I only looked at some pages but then I realized… well, I knew almost nothing about you, just the basics like Yoshiyuki and Ryouma and the Shinsegumi swords but… it occurred to me that you know nothing about me.”

“Nothing about you?”

“You only know my name and that I’m your master. But who I am, or things about myself, you’ve never asked and you don’t know. You can’t just ask the bureau to give you info on me… And if I have this,” Aki weighed the book on her hand. “I don’t think it’d be fair. I’d know all about you but you’d still know nothing about me.”

“Hmmm, that is something I hadn’t thought of… I don’t particularly mind if you read my entry.”

“Well, I supposed you’d say that but… I… I wouldn’t want others to read about my entry and I don’t know if the others feel the same way as you do.”

“I doubt any of the swords in the Citadel would mind if you read the book or not.”

“You might be right but… I think I’ll ask them for their opinion.”

“Ha ha ha, when you put it like that, it’s almost as if you are asking people for their input on something.”

“So, you mean I shouldn’t do it?”

Mikazuki just laughed.

“Whatever you think, I’ll just do it. You can have that book if you are that interested in reading what others wrote about you, not that you give a fuck.”

There was Mikazuki’s placid smile as he put back the book on the table. “I don’t mind if Master read this aloud, but perhaps another day. You look as if you want to do something.”

Aki snorted and looked at him, half of a smirk in her face. “Yeah… Just gather the swords and tell them to come here one by one. I should probably get a notebook.”

“A ha ha, if you say so.”

Chapter Text

“Ok, this sounds out of nowhere, and it’s fucking weird so I’ll just ask it. Do you have something you’d like to share about yourself?”

There was a long silence, drawn out by the slow blinking of the person being asked, smile never fading but still full of that disdain and questioning. Aki waited for a moment, then arched an eyebrow as she added, “You can talk about anything, if you want to do it, anyway.”

But that reply never came, and Aki simply sighed as she looked at Souza’s eyes, always distant and clouded.

“Ah well, it’s not like I expected you to say anything. You’re free to go, Souza. Please tell whoever is next that they can co-”

“Why?”

Aki stopped striking down Souza’s name on the list on her desk and lifted her head.

“Why what?”

“Asking questions, even when you know the result.”

“Maybe you had something you wanted to say.” She shrugged and finished drawing the stroke on the page. Unlike the previous ones, this one was devoid of anything, no notes or comments, nothing, like the expression in Souza’s eyes.

“For what purpose?”

“Short answer: to get to know you. Long answer: I thought it’d be better to ask you about yourself instead of reading what was written in a book that might or might not be the same as what you saw, not to mention I might be intruding into business I wasn’t supposed to know. I know you think no one gives a shit, but I’m trying to know at least how to talk to you and the others.”

“Would you want to hear a story about a demon who brought death and fire wherever he crossed? A demon capable of bringing hell to earth, laughing as thousands burned and pleaded for help?” Souza leaned forward as his voice grew softer, almost mixing with the silence in the room, with that gentle smile with an edge of madness and despair.

She didn’t back off, nor did she avoid this eyes as she replied quietly, “Would it help you then? If you cursed his name and told someone of the hell you had lived?”

“You are a strange one.”

“I can say the same about you.”

There was a moment when Souza just stared vacantly, devoid of any comment, until he stood up and quietly left. She looked at the birds flying outside, away from the world.

 


 

Hachisuka huffed in exasperation as he dusted his kimono off, but the harm had been done. The mud stain had already spread and he would have to wash immediately for it to disappear. Even if it was at the bottom, Hachisuka would be able to see it clearly, and he was upset to taint garments of such fine quality with mud. He looked up and glared at Yamanbagiri, whose clothes were full of marks of dirt and grass, partially worn off, some tears in his white-brown cape. The cloaked man simply looked back as he said, “I told you, light clothes will get stained in the mud.”

“Excuse me, but I shouldn’t be doing this and you know it. This is not something I should do. It fits the likes of you, but not a true Kotetsu sword.”

Yamanbagiri didn’t reply and just went back to pulling out weeds, and this act of defiance enraged Hachisuka even more. It was one thing that he was forced to do such ridiculous duties but it was an order from Master (an order he had to fulfill or else he’d be forced to take care of the stable and the newest horse addition). Now, to have some common dirty boy ignoring him, that had to be a joke.

“Have you been listening? Don’t you know you should reply when you are talked to?”

There was a loud sigh, entirely done on purpose to piss Hachisuka off as Yamanbagiri just glanced up and replied, “I’m just doing my work.”

“Are you talking back? Do you even realize who you are talking to?”

Yamanbagiri shook his head, irritably as he threw weeds to the ground. “Just finish your chores and talk to Master.”

Hachisuka got up and walked to where Yamanbagiri was kneeling and kicked the weeds and dust on Yamanbagiri’s pants. He looked down, to meet the annoyed, partially covered green eyes of the sword, and said in a disdainful tone, “Do not change the subject. You should know your place, you worthless imposter.”

For the first time, something flashed in Yamanbagiri’s gaze, as his eyes narrowed dangerously as he looked up. “What did you call me?”

“You know damn well what I said. A fake sword like you should just rot if you can’t understand your place.”

Yamanbagiri stood up, slowly, but his hands curled into fists were trembling, having to look up to Hachisuka, as he was shorter. The look in Hachisuka’s eyes was undeniable, even if standing, Yamanbagiri was the inferior one, the fake. “I am not a fake! I’m -”

Hachisuka closed the space between them as he hissed, “A counterfeit, the worst of the swo-” But before he could say anything, Yamanbagiri’s fist connected with his face.

 


 

Aki stretched and yawned, as the tail of one of Gokotai’s tigers disappeared from the doorframe. She tilted her head, hoping for a bone to pop, but nothing of the sort happened.

“It seems Gokotai was the last one,” Mikazuki said in a placid tone, smiling at her attempts to relieve stress. She had been taking notes for the past days, and now, after several hours of looking at her notebooks, she seemed to have a stiff neck. He had found the idea of a series of interviews amusing, but nothing she would actually go through. He had now seen how much of a stubborn person she was, though he couldn’t say he hated it. On the contrary.

“Why are you smiling?” Aki asked, raising an eyebrow, not hiding the questioning look in her eyes.

“I was just thinking that Master is a very intense person. To go through such a long process of talking to all the swords in the Citadel for hours, instead of reading a book. A ha ha ha, someone would think Master doesn’t like reading.”

Aki rested her face on her hand. “Ok, you can stop mocking me, you fucker. You’re the last one, Useless.”

“I believe I have said before I don’t mind if Master reads my entry,” he said casually, though he sat on the same spot the others had been before him, and he seemed quite interested in participating in the process.

“Right, right. You just happened to sit there and look as if you are ready to talk about your life. Didn’t you say you were an… old man…?” There was a sign of hesitation and a subconscious frown from her part that Mikazuki found endearing.

“A ha ha ha, does Master mind if I’m merely over thousand years older? I believe old men can prove to be full of experience and knowledge. I wouldn’t mind teaching Master about the ways of the world and of the desires of humans.” Mikazuki’s smile was pleasant, and full of deviousness which became more obvious as Aki’s cheeks turned deep crimson.

She just blinked repeatedly and Mikazuki continued, “Even if I have come to the realm of the physical for a short period of time, I believe my expertise is unparalleled.” His smirk widened as Aki sat unable to say anything, just staring astonished at Mikazuki. He laughed pleasantly as he leaned over the table, so close, dangerously, to her face. “Even an ordinary place like an office can prove to be adequate to satisfy the-”

Without saying a word, and glaring at him with the same intensity of the redness of her face, Aki pinched Mikazuki’s nose, to which he laughed with amusement. “You fucking-!” she stammered but was unable to keep her voice calm, and let go of him. Mikazuki went back to his place and sat as if nothing had happened, but that smile of his was proof of how he was pleased with himself.

It took a moment for her to calm down and gather her thoughts, though her face still showed signs of flustering, as she grumbled, “You can talk about something else!”

“A ha ha ha, in that case… I was born on a pleasant day full of blooming cherry blossoms, I quite enjoy the tea Master gave me weeks ago and I don’t mind rough forepla-” Mikazuki casually leaned to his side as he evaded the flying pen Aki had just thrown at him. “I like to be taken care of, but I think Master knows this by now. Oh, Master has become quite adept at tying up my clothes, you have my deepest gratitude. I’m sure Master enjoys our daily ritual as much as I do.”

Aki buried her face in her hands as she groaned to which there was only laughter as his reply. “Goddammit, do you enjoy making me frustrated that much?”

Mikazuki sat innocently, but there was a dark glee in his eyes which she was fortunate to miss.

“God, you have such a beautiful face and your mouth is full of filth!” She let out a long sigh and slammed her face on the table in defeat.

Mikazuki leaned to look at her, but her long hair covered everything, as she remained still. “Master?” He asked, but since she didn’t respond, he picked up the book nearby, the now infamous one about them. He flipped through the pages once more, though he stopped at one in particular, as if he was going through a family album and he had stumbled upon a younger self.

Mikazuki Munechika, a tachi crafted by Sanjou Munechika. It was crafted in 989 CE… So if today it’s year 2206, then that means… A ha ha ha, I’m just 1217 years old, I wonder how old Master is… Its name comes from the pattern of the edge of the blade, in the form of crescent moons. I think I’ve told Master this already… Oh my, it has my measures. Maybe we can discuss this later, privately,” he added with a chuckle as he shifted to sit more comfortably.

There was a genuine glint of interest in his eyes as his fingers traced his own figure printed in the pages of history. When he caught that Aki was peeking slightly, curiosity getting the best of her, he just smiled and pretended to not notice. Perhaps she had thought he wouldn’t say anything about himself, or perhaps she thought that whatever was written in the book was all she would know about him. The look on her eyes told Mikazuki she had stayed true to her word and hadn’t read anything.

Because of the pattern of the blade, it has been called the most beautiful of the Tenga Goken and is considered a work of art. However, the center of gravity of the blade is ill-placed, rendering it useless for combat.

Aki furrowed her brow as she sat up and looked at Mikazuki, but his eyes were on the book. She was deep in thought for a moment, confusion apparent until something clicked, reflected in her eyes. Her face grew immediately serious and worried as she mumbled quietly, “Wait…”

As such, it has been argued that the sword has never been used in battle, and therefore, never been soaked in blood. Hmph, well Master did say the book could have discrepancies from what I recall. But that’s enough of history for a day,” Mikazuki said, his tone remaining the same as he shut the book and looked up to meet her surprising and unexpectedly pale face.

“…Wh-what do you mean by mistakes…?” She asked as her voice hesitated.

“Hmm? Well, I did engage in combat, but the man who was my Master back then was killed. I did get stained but not by the enemy’s blood.”

There was a sudden somber silence where they only looked at each other. Mikazuki’s placid smile was the only thing dissonant with the atmosphere, color had fully been drained from her face and her lips were drawn in a very thin line.

“…What about the… cente-”

“Master! Master! We have a problem!” Aizen burst into the room, as he huffed for air, seemingly having run to reach them. He was covered in stains of dirt and grass, some twigs as if he had fallen on the ground and rolled as he dashed. “Yam-Yamanbagiri and Hachisuka are fighting in the fields!”

“What?!”

“The other tanto are trying to stop them from fighting, hurry Master!” Aizen looked on the verge of falling on the floor as Aki rose up and rushed to the door, not before glancing at Mikazuki for a moment, almost as if saying she’d be back, and disappeared.

 


 

“Ghyahhh! Please!” Imanotsurugi cried, tugging Yamanbagiri’s cloak as Akita tried to keep the uchigatana’s legs pinned to the ground.

“Let go!” Yamanbagiri struggled to throw off his shoulders the clinging Gokotai who had done it out of desperation. “Let me go, I’ll kill him!”

“I should kill you, you fake bastard! How dare you even lay your filthy hands on my face!” Hachisuka hollered, pulling his arm away from Midare, in vain, and Sayo valiantly pushed his tiny body against Hachisuka’s in an attempt to slow him down.

“Nggh! Master will kill you both!” Midare shrieked, but that fell in deaf ears as well as Gokotai’s scream as he flew away, his arms finally giving out and he fell with a thud.

“Gokotai!” Akita yelled, and his distraction was enough for Yamanbagiri to rush forward, cloak slipping off his body with Imanotsurugi falling on his face.

“Imano!” Midare screamed and was shoved to the ground, with Sayo thrown on top of him. Before they knew what had happened, Yamanbagiri had slammed his fist in Hachisuka’s face as Hachisuka hit him with his knee in his stomach.

They parted away, Hachisuka spitting out in disgust as Yamanbagiri got into a fighting stance and lunged forward. There was a flash of blue and black as something kicked Yamanbagiri, sweeping him on the floor, shoving him to the ground. Before Hachisuka could even react, he was equally swept on his back and slammed onto the dirt. The tanto flung themselves on top of the fallen uchigatana as the sudden black phantom stood up and looked down on both of them.

“What the fuck do you think you are doing?!” Aki’s voice resounded on the field, neither of them dared to turn. “So are you going to play fucking dumb now?”

“W-we heard people arguing so we came…” Gokotai began and timidly got off Yamanbagiri’s back. “W-we just tried to stop them!” The tanto nodded and moved away. Both swords finally got up but Hachisuka just looked to the horizon and Yamanbagiri put on his cloak, covering his face.

“Aizen told me that. But that doesn’t explain what these fuckers were doing. Hachisuka Kotetsu, Yamanbagiri Kunihiro, are you going to tell me what happened or should I just punish you both.” She folded her arms but none of the swords decided to talk. “Fine then, I’ll talk to both of- What the fuck are you doing now?”

Without a single answer, both swords left the field.

Akita and Gokotai looked at each other in confusion, as Aki tapped her fingers against her arm. Behind her Midare and Imano whispered to each other, “Master is going to murder them…”

 


 

Hachisuka grabbed the nearest cotton ball he could get, as he tried to clean his face. His clothes, his hair, everything on his person was a mess. He had skipped lunch and couldn’t get to the bathroom to wash himself, so he was stuck on trying to clean whatever he could with just cotton balls and bottled water. He wasn’t on good terms with anyone and he doubted he’d be receiving help. At this point, Aki would have probably told everyone to not talk to him.

He let out a long sigh. A genuine Kotetsu would starve to death in his room over a fight with a counterfeit, that was a pathetic end.

There was a knock on his door, but he didn’t reply. Whoever was coming to laugh at him could die waiting forever, Hachisuka would be no one’s show. Not that it stopped the person, as he could listen to the door opening and with that, the smell of food.

The food in the household was meager but this seemed delicious, come to think of it, he hadn’t eaten properly since the morning, having skipped their meager breakfast. But he had a sense of pride and wouldn’t be bought easily with food. It was in that moment he felt something warm and wet placed on his head.

“If you are going to skip on the bathroom and food, at least clean yourself,” Aki’s voice was behind him and left the warm towel. She then took the tray from Horikawa’s hands and placed it on Hachisuka’s small table. “Yagen told me Yamanbagiri already used the bathroom if you want to avoid meeting him. Thanks, Horikkun, you should go back to see if Kanesan isn’t breaking something.”

Horikawa just smiled, gave a small nod and left the room, closing the door as he disappeared in the hallway.

Hachisuka didn’t turn, but picked the towel from his head and quietly cleaned his face, smudges of dirt fading from his face. At the very least he looked far more presentable and if he could use the bathroom, once she would leave, he’d rush to clean himself properly.

“The kids told me you called Yamanbagiri a fake.” Aki’s tone was calm and surprisingly, not accusatory. Hachisuka would have sworn she would attack him and punish him severely, especially since she had picked the blond as her starter, and he was the oldest of the swords in the citadel. “Your kimono is stained, is that the reason you called him a fake?”

“I can simply not be made to take care of the fields! My clothes are all dirtied and they reek of grass and sweat!” Hachisuka couldn’t contain himself any longer as he showed the specks of dust on his clothes and the now filthy towel in his hands. “How can I be put in such duty and with a fake, that’s not a work for a genuine Kotetsu! It’s only fitting for the likes of that imposter.”

Aki raised an eyebrow but other than that, her expression, her calmness didn’t change. “Hachisuka… You seem to be mistaken. While it was unfortunate that your clothes got dirty, it wasn’t his fault.” To this, Hachisuka merely huffed. “And I know you are someone who values status and rank, so I am surprised you think Yamanbagiri is a fake.”

“There is a Yamanbagiri sword, is there not? And that is not that country bumpkin who likes to play in the dirt.”

“Well, Blanket is an idiot, but make no mistake. Yamanbagiri Kunihiro is not a fake nor a counterfeit. I believe you simply didn’t know of this fact. Actually, he was requested. Someone by the name of Nagao Akinaga requested for him to be created, and everyone acknowledges him as a replica. He was never intended to be passed as the original Yamanbagiri.”

“He… isn’t?”

“Nope,” Aki shook her head slightly. “Surprisingly, even if he doesn’t look like it and he’s honestly a mopey moron, he is highly valued as the masterpiece of Horikawa Kunihiro, the smith not our Horikawa. I know you value worth, so you will understand that. I hold nothing to you because it was something you didn’t know, or else you’d not misattribute him as a fake. So I please ask you to make amends. In any case, I’ll be off. Do try to eat before it gets cold, or Kasen will begin a tantrum.”

Without saying anything else, Aki got up and left the room as Hachisuka looked at himself in the mirror.

 


 

Yamanbagiri rolled on his bed as he tried his best to ignore everything, the stinging in his face, the hunger he felt. He clutched his cloak as he muttered to himself how he wasn’t a fake, he was Kunihiro’s masterpiece. But no matter how much he said those words, people would only look at him as if they were looking at that sword. Yamanbagiri Kunihiro was doomed to be seen as a fake…

“Hey Yaman, it’s me, can I come in?” Aki’s voice was on the other side of the door, not that Yamanbagiri bothered to reply. As he expected, she entered without warning, followed by Yagen, who carried a tray with food, something resemblingomurice and something red, some seasoning Yamanbagiri had never seen. Yagen put the tray on a table and left, probably to take care of his siblings, Yamanbagiri could only guess, but that left him and Aki alone.

“Okay, get up.” Yamanbagiri reluctantly did it and she examined his face, brushing his hand away as he tried to cover it with the blanket. “Shush, you idiot, I need to see if you got hurt when I shoved you to the floor.” Without anything else, she took some cotton balls, poured something on them and rubbed on some cuts, stinging immediately as the smell of alcohol filled the air. “We don’t want anything to get infected, so it’s best to treat it as soon as possible.”

There wasn’t much he could do and he had learned it was sometimes best to just let things slide, the sooner she’d leave and he’d be finally alone.

“I know you hit Hachisuka because he called you a fake.” He didn’t respond. “Look, I know you are upset about this, and it’s hard to brush it off.”

“You don’t have any idea! Everyone compares me to him! You see me as his duplica-” Yamanbagiri began and quickly was cut off by Aki smacking his head lightly.

“Ok, I’ve already told you but I’ll repeat it again. The only Yamanbagiri I know is this dumb one in front of me, with cuts and a weird interest in gardening. And who’s to say a duplicate, a copy has to be inferior?”

“Are you trying to mock me?!” He replied but Aki just patted him in the head.

“Easy, grumpy cat. Have this instead…” She handed him the bottle of the red liquid he had seen Yagen carrying. “You ate Kasen’s omurice the other day, right? Put it in your rice.”

Yamanbagiri did as told, reluctantly, hoping that he wouldn’t get poisoned by the weird looking seasoning, and to his surprise, the combination tasted good. He could get a faint taste of tomatoes but there were other things there he couldn’t tell apart that somehow made the rice richer.

“I don’t think we ate this before, but this is ketchup, or as some might call it, tomato sauce. It has been around for a long time, so much that no one can agree on even when it got its stupid name. I won’t bother you with the details but the concept of mashing disgusting shit into some viscous sauce comes back from China and then people decided to mix and see if shit worked. Eventually, someone got the bright idea of using tomatoes.”

Yamanbagiri looked at the bottle and then at Aki, with a bored look on his face. “So?”

“Well, tomato ketchup was born and it was delicious. Everyone in the United States, some country on the other side of the world, liked it except there was a tiny, small problem with it. You know how tomatoes don’t last long, you’ve seen them rot easily, right? Well, ketchup was made of them so… The sauce didn’t last long. And to make it last longer, people who made ketchup added weird, harmful things so that it could last more than some days.”

“Why are you telling me this?”

“Shut up and eat your fucking food, Yamanbagiri,” Aki replied as she shoved the spoon on his mouth. “Anyway, there was some guy by the name of Henry John Heinz. And he wanted to make something healthy and good. He of course used the base, he copied the recipe of how people made tomato sauce and then he added things like vinegar and other shit. And, surprise, while it took him a fucking lot of time, he did it. He got the shit you are eating right now.”

It was in that moment that it occurred to Yamanbagiri to look at the bottle, and his eyes met the label with large letters spelling “Heinz”.

“Heinz’s recipe was a success. It lasted longer, it tasted better and it was popular. It is still popular now and this guy did it around the start of the 1900s. So, before you ask, my point is that everyone knows this fucking sauce is a copy, Heinz didn’t make the original recipe. But Heinz and his staff improved the recipe and this one ended up being the superior, the better one. So I’ll give you this fucking bottle, but please don’t eat it alone because that’s fucking disgusting. I’ve already told Hachisuka that you are not a fake and that you deserve the credit and the dumb shit he cares about. So please, fucking apologize for hitting him. We all are stuck here and the fewer issues we have here, the better. If you’re laughing at his idiocy in bringing fancy clothes, at least do it discreetly.”

 


 

“I- I admit that I misjudged you,” Hachisuka added, in the least contemptful voice he could handle. “I didn’t think nor know someone like you was a renowned sword and I shall treat you as someone of your caliber deserves. I’d demand compensation for the kimono soiled but Master has already taken care of that. So I hope we can get along as renowned masterpieces.”

Yamanbagiri nodded and the tanto peeking from the bushes smiled in relief as Master let out a laugh and got close to both swords.

“Well, I’m glad you two have settled your differences. This was an unfortunate mistake.” Aki put a hand on each sword’s shoulder and suddenly bashed their heads against each other, so hard that they fell on the floor, disoriented and Akita and Imanotsurugi fell on the floor from the surprise, while Midare observed everything with unexpected great glee. “But you two motherfuckers have just forgotten that you got into a fight in the first fucking place and you left me talking when I was asking you what had happened. So, you two are in deep fucking shit because I haven’t forgotten what you did.” Aki kneeled down and smiled pleasantly as she said, “And you will fucking pay,” to which both Yamanbagiri and Hachisuka looked at each other in horrified kinship and the tanto kids scattered away, not before Midare snickered and mumbled to himself how right he was in that Master was going to murder them.

 


 

“A ha ha ha, a group of terrified children happened to say that they had stumbled upon a most nightmare-inducing scene, but I believe everything went smoothly with both Yamanbagiri and Hachisuka?” Mikazuki cheerfully greeted Aki as she entered to his room, way past midnight. He set aside a book he was reading and smiled pleasantly. “Though I have to ask, what brings Master to my room? Does Master want to discuss in great detail about my measures? I’d be happy to help.”

Aki groaned , fighting a red tint in her cheeks, not that she was successful, and instead sat down on Mikazuki’s bed. He arched a curious eyebrow as she took a deep breath.

“You- you said something earlier… Well, you read about… About the center of gravity of your blade,” she replied looking at him in the eye, blush having faded and replaced with a serious look, full of guilt.

“Hmm? Well, I do recall reading about it earlier, I didn’t think Master would remember it.”

“I wanted to apologize to you.”

The smile on Mikazuki’s face faded for a brief second. “Apologize for what?”

“I-I know I’ve called everyone nicknames and… and I called you ‘Useless’. It only occurred to me today that… that I might have hurt your feelings. I didn’t know and I never wanted to make you upset or imply that you-” Mikazuki pressed his finger against her lips and a faint smile was traced on his face, one she had never seen before.

“I know Master never meant harm, so there is no need for an apology.”

“No, I offended you, so please forgive me about what I said. You are very valuable and diligent, you’ve been a great help in handling matters in the Citadel and in sorties and expeditions… So I’d like to… start again, U-, no, Mikazuki. M-my name is Wakatsuki Aki, pleased to meet you, Mikazuki Munechika.” Her eyes were full of remorse and shame, as she extended a shaky hand, trying to make amends in the clumsiest way but struggling hard to keep formal and collected.

Mikazuki smiled and instead intertwined his fingers between hers. Aki looked down, puzzled at this, at his closeness, and in the briefest moment, Mikazuki pressed his lips against hers.

“My name is Mikazuki Munechika. Please take care of me.”

Chapter Text

Kasen’s loud groans were audible, done in such a way that it was impossible to tell if they were faked to make a point, or if Kasen felt his hardships were that extreme to elicit such discomfort. The swords next to him looked at each other with stiff smiles and casual shrugs almost implying to let Kasen be, even if his antics were directed at exactly two people. The first one, Aki, just rolled her eyes as she kept eating in silence, assuming Kasen would have something to complain about. The second one, the actual culprit this time, wolfed down the meal, completely unaware of the dangerous eyes that had been posed on him for a long time, enough that his younger brothers exchanged nervous looks, undecided whether they should tell their brother, the newcomer Namazuo Toushirou, of what he had done.

Eventually, Kasen grew tired and slammed his hands against the table, hard enough that some of the cups spilled the liquids in them and the surrounding swords braced themselves.

“I refuse to work again with the horses or with Namazuo,” Kasen said, raising his voice so that it was audible for Aki, though she didn’t bat an eye. Everyone else had stopped eating but Aki lazily put a spoonful of food in her mouth. “I cannot be working with a crass person who attempts to throw horse excrement at me!”

“I only throw horse poop at those I hate! I worked perfectly fine with Doudanuki and Yoshiyuki the other day,” Namazuo replied and pointed an accusatory finger at Kasen. “You kept yelling at me to stop singing in the bathroom, but no one tells you to stop reading your boring poems!”

“Singing? You mean that dreadful noise akin to the screams of a dying beast?”

“Don’t come complaining when I throw poop at you next time!”

“I’ll break your hand if you do.”

The reply, quiet and in such an eerily calm tone, froze most of the swords in place, with only a few looking at Aki with an amused glee. Aki kept eating without lifting her eyes to see Namazuo and it was only the sudden tension in the air that was proof that she had in fact said something.

The wakizashi blinked and then laughed heartily, “Haha! Master is such a prankster.” He turned to look at those next to him, unaware of the deadly white hue of Kanesan and Yoshiyuki’s faces, how Yamanbagiri seemed to blend in his white blanket or the perfectly frozen apparently calm face of Hachisuka, the ultimate sign of composure betrayed by a twitch of his fingers, one of pure terror. “That’s a good joke!”

His younger siblings, Akita, and Gokotai, shook their heads furiously but Namazuo kept laughing as he took a piece of bread as if nothing had happened.

 


 

There was a jump of surprise as Mikazuki held the unaware and busy Aki as she was writing down the final touches of the report she was supposedly going to hand in, but now she’d have to redo it due to the splash of ink she had just made. Mikazuki chuckled so close to her ear, watching with amusement the way she struggled to move away, blushing face extremely apparent.

“A ha ha ha, Master has been acting shy in the past days, could it be that it was Master’s first kiss?”

The blush on her face deepened, but she refused to say a word about it, only looking away, which increased his curiosity.

After moments of silence, she whispered, “I-I haven’t dated anyone…” She rubbed her arm sheepishly, not looking at him as she spoke. “I-” That was the last thing she said.

Mikazuki arched an eyebrow, sitting beside her, but he didn’t reply either. While he had been joking about it, he had noticed her behavior had become distant, nothing too obvious but something that told him there was something amiss. It was the faint sign of indecisiveness, one telling that Aki was uncomfortable about something but not that he was the cause of it. For the bold and outspoken woman, such silence was unbecoming.

She stayed still for a few moments as Mikazuki merely waited for her to say something. A sorrowful sigh left her lips as she said in a quiet voice, “The kiss… I-I can’t do anything about it, not when you…” She turned her eyes to the ground, her bangs covering her face. “Not when you don’t really know me.”

His smile never faded but there was a faint glimmer of concern in his eyes. His hand stroked her cheek, her eyes were closed, almost savoring his touch yet trying to refuse it. “I’ve lived for more than a thousand years, I’m-”

“It… It’s not about time.” Her voice faded and with that, Mikazuki nodded in silence and stroked her face one last time before leaving the room. When she heard the noise of the door shut, she held herself tightly against the darkness.

 


 

The unresponsive eyes of the new sword were enough for stiff coughs and stiffer smiles, especially when Honebami’s response, devoid of any emotion or attempt at courtesy, became visibly clear. The younger tanto were glad to meet their sibling once again, but they had not expected a blunt comment about how he couldn’t remember anything, one that froze them on the spot. It was only Akita who looked at their Master, who seemed more unfazed than angry. She rolled her eyes and let out that sigh meaning, “Oh god, another one.” From the looks of it, she seemed to be used to a variety of uninterested responses from people to newcomers a like.

The only one who came forward, perhaps the only one who could possibly had known beforehand about this, was Namazuo, clinging onto his brother while cheerfully welcoming him to the citadel.

At the very least, the variety of personalities in the citadel gave everyone an idea of how he was like. Most of the non-Toushirou swords quickly realized he was to be treated similarly to Souza and Ookurikara, who were best left on their own, with extremely particular exceptions.

However, Honebami was never alone, for a lone, cheerful Namazuo would keep him company, except for the times when Namazuo was sent to finish his punishment tasks for that one time he threw horse excrement at Kasen and almost hit Aki instead.

 


 

“Ahhh, Master didn’t let me near the horses,” Namazuo sighed as he followed Kanesan to wherever they were going. She hadn’t been very clear on what they were going to do, only that they were not allowed near the stables in a 15-meter radius, with the promise of both getting their faces shoved into horse poop if they dared set foot there.

It was an amusing threat, similar to that funny tale of someone who had been knocked out with one blow because he tried to play smart, among other stories that leaned on the hilarious and surreal type of punishments. He couldn’t believe something along the lines of cleaning toilets with a toothbrush or having to pretend to be a scarecrow for 10 hours straight. They didn’t seem very well-planned or actually threatening, despite the insistent warnings of everyone. It was actually cute to see the sudden whispering when it was determined that he would have to spend the rest of the week with Kanesan to make up for the poop incident.

“Of course she’d not let you do that, you almost hit her back then. What were you expecting her to do?” Kanesan replied as he squinted his eyes, trying to read the instructions written on a piece of paper as he struggled his way around the Citadel. “Hmmm… laundry… That’s on the other side of the house…”

“Isn’t that where we came from?” Namazuo asked as he recalled somehow listening to this exact line before.

“No, no, no, we came from somewhere else.” Kanesan shook his head with conviction. “That’s uhh, a room in the house, clearly.”

“…Right.”

And before they knew it, they were back at point one, but the laundry room had eluded them both.

“I wonder if this place is cursed, the laundry room is nowhere in sight,” Kanesan mustered to himself, deep in thought.

“Maybe it was the room with the white blankets…”

“No, no, no, that’s the blanket room, we are to do something in the laundry one. Trust me, I’ve been here more than you, I know this place like the back of my hand,” Kanesan said, inflating his chest with confidence, the same Namazuo hoped was actually true and not simply misplaced.

“What kind of ‘something’?”

“Who knows.”

“Shouldn’t you know?” At this point Namazuo stared at Kanesan but Kanesan was far too busy still trying to make out the map, already turned around three times and without an idea of where they were. “…Exactly what do you do when you are sent to do chores?”

“Someone of my talent clearly supervises the rest of the swords,” Kanesan laughed heartily, indifferent to Namazuo whispering to himself, “So they do all your work, so that you don’t get in the way…”

In that moment something clicked in his mind and Namazuo let out a sigh. “...So this might be…” He forced a smile, might as well try to be over this charade, and he asked to Kanesan, “Hey, what do I have to do then?”

Kanesan blinked surprised, perhaps because he forgot Namazuo had to be doing something while he supervised, and then his face lit up. He fished in his sleeve and pulled out a paper. “Oh right, Master told me to give you this. She said it had your instructions.”

The letter was small, barely half a piece of paper folded, it but it weighed more than Namazuo could imagine, and bitterness took over his face as he unfolded it.

Enjoy the rest of your week, you fucking dick. Make sure Kanesan doesn’t get in trouble.

 XOXO,

Aki

P.S. I’ll murder you both if you go to the stables, but Kanesan is smart enough to not go there because it smells like shit.

Namazuo closed the paper, and smiled at Kanesan, then his smile turned into laughter, so much that he actually shed some tears. Now everything made sense and he had realized Master was a sadistic mastermind. Because, for some reason there was no way Namazuo could hate Kanesan for being himself, and he was stuck with babysitting the oversized toddler and being unable to get even at him.

 


 

There was a look of surprise on Mikazuki’s face, one that was seen rarely, if ever. Just as he and Aki were finished giving the last instructions to the squad which would go on an expedition, he caught a glimpse of short faint lilac hair and he couldn’t contain himself to wave at the sword. Having been caught up in a lot of work, whether it was intelligence gathering or going as the chaperone to help train the weaker swords, he was among the few who had missed the two new swords.

“…Oh! Is that you, Honebami? How nostalgic.” His voice was unusually loud and vibrant, all teasing deviousness cast aside, the kind of excitement of seeing someone one had missed for a long, long time.

But all his happiness was abruptly cut when Honebami’s blank eyes stared at him, as a vacant voice replied, “Who are you?”

“How heartless of you. Were we not once displayed alongside each other as treasured swords of the Ashikaga Family?”

Honebami avoided Mikazuki’s eyes and his voice wavered, guilt in every word as he replied, “…Sorry. I don’t have any memories from before I was burned…” It was in that pause in between words that Mikazuki’s smile disappeared.

“Ah… I see.” Mikazuki’s voice was for once solemn, perhaps the first time since he had arrived to the citadel. “In that case it was my bad. Well, don’t worry about it.”

“Did you know the previous me?” Honebami’s eyes rarely showed anything but this time, it was a mix of nostalgia and burden of not being able to remember himself.

However, Mikazuki’s expression softened, at first with a tinge of nostalgia. “Yes. For quite a long time…” There was a small pause, as he looked at Honebami with an expression the wakizashi wouldn’t be able to understand. Before Honebami could say anything, Mikazuki smiled again and in a more cheerful tone he added, “From here on, let’s get along with each other once again.”

If Honebami wanted to say something, he showed no signs of it. Even if he was reserved, the quiet hesitation in nodding was proof that the topic had touched a soft spot but he still nonetheless agreed in his own way and before anything else could be said, he left off, probably to find Namazuo, since his duty with Kanesan was most likely over. Mikazuki turned over his shoulder and smiled to himself as he thought he saw traces of long hair disappearing in the hallway.

 


 

“Did something happen?”

Namazuo’s voice broke Honebami’s thoughts and hestopped looking at the sky and turned to his brother. The usual cheerful smile on Namazuo’s face was gone and instead, there was an expression of understanding. “You seem deep in thought, you didn’t even blink when I told you about the last thing Kanesan did.”

Honebami didn’t say a word and instead looked back at the sky.

“Right, is that why you walked here then?” Namazuo’s eyes didn’t look at the sky but at the fields instead, having followed Honebami and let him decide where they’d spend their free time before going to bed.

“Why are we doing this?”

“Huh? No clue, you brought us here.”

“…That wasn’t what I meant.”

Namazuo breathed deeply and let out a long sigh. “You are asking the wrong person.”

It wasn’t an unexpected answer, so Honebami closed his eyes, feeling the soft afternoon breeze, one which would grow colder as time passed. They stayed like that for a long time, before Honebami whispered something more to himself, “…There is something about this place.”

“Hm?” Namazuo seemed to understand, a faint feeling as if realizing something was important but unable to recall what it was or why. He looked at his brother, almost deciding if he would hold him or try to cheer him up, but Namazuo knew better and had not the intent to even try to feign what he did not feel in front of Honebami. Honebami would know better than anyone, so instead, he dropped that smile and looked at the fields, with a mix of melancholy and strangeness. “Yeah, there is, but…”

“…We cannot remember it.

 


 

Mikazuki glanced at the bright crescent moon as he inhaled the scent of the fresh green tea he had just prepared. There was something pleasant in that silent chill of the night, too late for anyone to be up, the type of quiet which would evoke nostalgic memories, those that preferred to be reminisced over in silence. He let the steam dissipate in the air as the memories surfaced in the liquid’s reflection of the moon. He was not one to think constantly about what had already happened and had no way of changing, but sometimes nostalgia could be welcomed. The richness of the tea in his mouth just deepened the feeling in his chest, but it wasn’t shown in his calm expression. There were far too many memories a sword that had existed for so long could gather, all as ethereal as the moonlight, as faint as the cold breeze.

Then, something warm embraced him.

He looked to his side and saw the darkened colored blanket, one that would look red in the day but seemed cold crimson at this late hour, draped over his shoulders as a slender figure sat on the veranda, close enough to him.

“You will get a cold if you stay like this for long,” Aki replied softly, as she took a quiet sip of her beer.

“A ha ha ha, a sword like myself won’t fall ill. However, if Master drinks something cold in this weather, perhaps Master will be the one in bed tomorrow.”

Aki smiled and gulped down her beer, swirling the remaining liquid in the can. “I’m used to the cold.”

Mikazuki looked up to the darkened sky, almost devoid of light except for that of the moon, so faint and distant.

“Are you alright?” He could hear her voice, as Aki joined him in watching the moon. “I heard you and Honebami talking.”

“A ha ha ha, I didn’t know Master liked to eavesdrop,” Mikazuki said, looking at her with a devious smile, one to which Aki turned away, slightly embarrassed because she couldn’t exactly deny it.

“I-I didn’t mean to… S-sorry… You don’t have to talk about it if you don’t want to.”

Mikazuki let out an uncharacteristically soft laugh as he set the cup down, the tea already grown cold. “Humans experience so many events in their short lifespan, but there is just so much one can remember. I thought it would be different for us, but it seems that we can also forget.”

“Hmm? Do you feel sad now that he-”

“There is nothing to be done about what was lost, and there is no need to afflict him more with that which he no longer remembers.” Mikazuki’s voice was different, similar to when he talked with Honebami, serious but this time more melancholic than what his calm face suggested.

Aki tugged a strand of hair behind her ear, pausing a little before talking, with a more gentle voice, “But you do. And you are thinking about the time you spent together in that household, aren’t you?”

Mikazuki turned to look at the moon, at first seemingly reluctant to say a word, but then they came out as a whisper. “I heard something described once. There is a feeling of something that was lost and will never come back, something weighing on the soul and surfacing for a moment, one that we treasure. Perhaps I finally understand what it means. After so many centuries, I’ve recalled those I’ve seen disappear with time.”

Aki raised an eyebrow, unable to hide her surprise, perhaps as she hadn’t taken Mikazuki as the melancholic, reminiscent type, and such behavior was surprising. “This is no longer about Honebami, is it? There was someone else… um, Yoshiteru, right?”

Mikazuki looked at her with an amused expression, equally surprised she would actually mention that man. “A ha ha ha, Master has been reading books,” he threw back at her but his laughter wasn’t as jovial as before, tinted with a faint emotion which made Aki avoid his eyes.

“Do you miss them? Honebami, the other swords you were with back then? Your Masters?”

Her tone was quiet, almost hesitating to ask so that Mikazuki chuckled softly. “My my, I didn’t take you as the jealous type.”

She snorted with an awkward smile, one with traces of perhaps guilt and something Mikazuki couldn’t really tell what it was. But Aki said nothing and finished her drink in quiet sips. When she was done, she put the can next to her and her hand was close to his, almost as if she wanted to move closer but was reluctant to, mere millimeters which were so close and so distant.

Memories came back, slowly, one bringing the next, as if all were bound by invisible thread. Happy idyllic moments, those about loss, those which had been happy once but the learnings about Honebami made their interactions tainted with a faint sadness, one where he was the only witness about the Ashikaga and Yoshiteru, Hideyoshi and Nene.

“I’m sorry about what happened,” Aki broke the silence and placed her hand on top of his, as if trying to reassure him of something she wasn’t sure of.

Mikazuki raised a curious eyebrow, eyes fixed on her hand and smiled softly at her. “I’m sorry about what happened to you.”

He felt her hand freeze as he saw something glitter in her eyes for the first time, her expression becoming overwhelmed by a complex emotion, fierce yet unknown to him before she turned away.

“…I’m supposed to cheer you up.”

“Is something the matter?”

Aki fell silent, tucking another strand behind her ear before standing up with a restrained abruptness that hid something. “You should go to bed, it is late.” Her smile was forced, trying its best to hide the thousands of thoughts and feelings going through her mind, but before Mikazuki could even reply, she vanished from the room, leaving him alone under the faint light of the moon.

Chapter Text

The Toushirous were by far the largest family in the Citadel.  True, there were what could be considered other families. They had Sayo and Souza Samonji, the Kunihiros Yamanbagiri and Horikawa, the Sanjou group had Mikazuki and Imanotsurugi (none of the kids knew Imano was so old, especially with how he acted), Kasen and Kanesan of the Kanesada, and the sword brothers of the Shinsengumi (these weren’t exactly family, but the Toushirous weren’t picky in how they lumped people together). But only if all these families were added together would their numbers surpass the Toushirous.

 


 

There was a glance directed at her, perhaps too discreet, that made Mikazuki wonder if Aki had noticed it or not, whether her lack of reaction was due to her stubbornness to not acknowledge it or absent-mindedness. Her eyes were instead fixed on the sword in front of her, as they could hear a high-pitched voice.

“Well, well, since it has come to this, an uchigatana from Kamakura period, Nakigitsune is here.”

A young man wearing a mask, carrying a fox was in front of them.

Mikazuki could tell she was about to say something, question perhaps the absolutely unfitting voice the sword had, but from the bitter frown that immediately settled, it was as if she had recalled Yagen and stayed quiet, and instead decided to sip from her drink, as a pre-emptive measure for whatever upcoming headache the new forge would be. It was then that an ill-timed, “I am his accompaniment fox!” followed by a deep voice, Nakigitsune’s, added “......Please take care of me,” was so shocking to her, causing her to choke on her beer and robbing her of the ability to make a snarky remark, though Mikazuki doubted she was in any shape to do so. Her eyes only showed bewilderment, revealing she was not expecting a talking fox.

It was doubly-confirmed, once she had regained her breath after Mikazuki patted her back to help her, when she added with a raspy and wheezy voice, “The fuck…. The fox talks….” She even turned unconsciously to Mikazuki, only to find that he himself wasn’t surprised at all, and it was her reaction which was the more amusing, at least to Mikazuki.

“Well, Master has already seen Konnosuke. Surely you haven’t forgotten that?” he asked.

“Who…” Aki blinked once and then her face lit up, as if something clicked in her mind, perhaps something she preferred to have blocked. “…I did…not…” she mumbled. “Fox kid, did you-”

“Nakigitsune is not good at communicating with others, Aruji-dono, so I gladly help him.” The fox on Nakigitsune’s shoulder stood tall and proud, most likely attempting to become a link between them. Instead, Aki could only raise an eyebrow, followed by covering her face with her hand, in a futile attempt to process what was going on. Mikazuki was about to laugh, but instead simply chuckled as low as possible, an attempt to not mortify her further by virtue of being the only one surprised by this.

“Master is cute when she looks so distressed over a talking fox, when she has seen swords turning human and mythical creatures like Shishiou’s Nue,” he said softly, however, as he did believe such small teasing might break the tense mood which had arisen between them ever since that night.

“Sh-shut up! Gokotai’s tigers don’t talk and the Nue doesn’t either!” She glared at Mikazuki and pointed at Nakigitsune’s fox. “The fucking fox looks normal, no one expects it to talk.”

Mikazuki covered his smile with his sleeve, glancing at her with mischievous eyes, and an even worse tone as he said, “You keep forgetting about Konnosuke. I might inform him of this later.” However, he looked at her intently, hoping this was enough, as she folded her arms and huffed, turning away from him. It was only then when she realized Nakigitsune had his hands extended in front of them, looking distressed as if begging them to stop.

“Nakigitsune-” Aki jumped when she heard the fox, having forgotten somehow how it was capable of speech, “-worries that we are the cause of your fight, Aruji-dono.”

“Fuck, I’m not getting used to this,” she groaned and took a mouthful of her beer, though the bitter frown on her face didn’t fade. “It’s only 2pm…”

“What our Master means to say is… Welcome to the Citadel, Nakigitsune and Nakigitsune’s fox. Master is delighted to have both of you in our forces.”

However, Mikazuki was sharper and quickly realized, as she left the room with an awkward glance at him, no words exchanged even after a moment of hesitation, that it would be naïve if he thought a simple talking fox would be able to shatter whatever wall she had been adamant in building.

 


 

A sharp scream tore the stillness of the early night, high-pitched and desperate. Gokotai jumped off his bed, followed by a flash of 5 white balls and darted outside his room to crash onto the chest of his brother Yagen.

“Yo, Gokotai, what is the matter?”

“Y-Y-Yagen!” Gokotai managed to say as his shaking finger pointed at his room.

“Hey~ What’s going on?” Midare’s head popped from his door, followed by a curious Akita.

“Th-there’s….!” Gokotai tried to explain himself but the words couldn’t leave his throat and instead, he cautiously put himself behind Yagen, as Yagen and the curious Midare walked to where Gokotai had pointed at.

Leaning forward, to one corner near Gokotai’s bed, Yagen looked closed for anything unusual. “Huh? Is there anything in he-” But soon he found Midare falling on his back while screeching and crawling away as fast as he could.

“S-sp-spider!” Midare yelled as he pointed at a large, black spider, the one that most likely had scared Gokotai minutes ago, confirmed by his shivering figure behind Yagen. “K-kill it!”

Now, Yagen actually saw the spider, with a puzzled Akita next to him. Yagen adjusted his glasses, as he muttered, “I wonder what type of spider it is… I don’t think I’ve-”

“What are you saying?! Kill it!” Midare yelled, standing up, as far as he could be from the spider, and then turned to Akita. “Akita, kill it!”

But Akita didn’t really listen to Midare as he looked intently at the spider, and instead drew a finger close, so very close to the body of the spider, until the arachnid moved, almost as if it had sensed something and Akita lost all courage he had. In less than a second, he was right next to Midare, followed by Gokotai.

“Hey, what is going on?” Namazuo’s cheerful voice came from across the door, and sooner, both he and Honebami had joined the group, both eyeing the camp of the scared swords and the group apparently led by Yagen inspecting the spider. “Huh, what are you looking at?” Namazuo chimed as they walked closer.

“A spider,” Honebami answered, though it was more stating the obvious, with a slight hint of confusion at the state of the other three. It was almost deadpan, which was not lost on Midare.

“It’s ugly! And big! You should kill it!”

“Haha, what are you talking about?!” Namazuo laughed, leaning closer, more than anyone had, and smiled brightly. “It’s really cute!”

“Are you crazy?! It’s not cute, it’s scary, you should kill it!” Midare yelled, and put on his best charming and pleading expression. “Honebami, please?” he asked, doing his best to hide the terror and be as compelling and adorable as he could so that anyone would just do what he was begging offhand.

Honebami sighed but didn’t show signs of moving or even wondering how to kill the spider. Instead, he looked at how awed Namazuo was. Naturally, at this blatant failure, Midare puffed his cheeks and dropped the pleading cute act.

“Akita you shou-”

“No!” Akita replied before even Midare could finish the suggestion and Gokotai joined him as well before he was the next candidate.

“We should keep it,” Yagen mustered as he put his hand under his chin, deep in thought, to the trio’s chagrin. “We can examine it for a few days and note down everything we can learn about it. We could even see if it’s poiso-”

“P-poisonous!?” Gokotai shrieked and turned at Yagen. “B-but I sleep here! I don’t want it to…”

“If you don’t bother it, it won’t do anything to you, Gokotai.” Yagen replied as he fished in his pockets and took out a small notebook. “I shall start my observations…”

“I-I don’t want to sleep here with the spider…”

“Hey, I sleep here too!” Akita interrupted, realizing he also shared the room with Gokotai now and he would also be stuck with the spider.

“What are you all yelling at?” Aki’s sudden voice startled the group of the scared Toushirous, but the elder ones simply turned at her. “It’s late, you should all go to bed. I could even hear you screaming from my office.”

“Master!” Gokotai almost cried as he stood up in a flash and the next moment he was by her side. “Th-there’s a spider!” He said as he pointed with a trembling hand, once more at the big black arachnid.

“Spider…” Aki mumbled.

“Ah, General. I was about to request permission to keep this speci-”

In the blink of an eye, Aki had grabbed one of Gokotai’s pillows and slammed it three times against the wall. The first hit had been spot on and the other two only turned the former spider into a big mess of blackness.

“So that’s a no,” Honebami said, as Namazuo gaped in sad shock at the remains of the spider, and Gokotai’s face turned blue as she handed him the pillow, now covered with some brownish stain. When everyone else refused to grab the pillow, he just dropped it, as far as he could away from him.

“That solves the thing. Go the fuck to sleep.”

“B-but Master,” Namazuo turned at Aki just as she was about to leave the room. “What if it wasn’t poisonous?!”

She stopped, pretended to think for half a second, and replied in a deadpan tone. “What if it was poisonous? I’m not taking chances. If anything, Coroner Yagen can examine its corpse. I’ll buy you a new one, if it wasn’t poisonous.”

 “Hmmm, that would have been the case, but the General used too much force, it’s completely squashed. It’s no good for research,” Yagen replied, kneeling down next to the remains of what the horrible spider had been.

“Yeah, I know. Tough shit. Now sle-” Before she could say anything else, Gokotai, Midare, and Akita hugged her tightly as they all thanked her in a chorus. “W-what are you saying…” She mumbled, slightly agitated and flustered. “I just killed Namazuo’s new friend. J-just go and hug him instead…”

 


 

Aizen didn’t have a fixed place to sit when they ate. Normally, he would sit wherever there was space, and he didn’t mind who was his eating partner. He didn’t have someone who could be his sparring partner, like how the Shinsengumi had each other, Imanotsurugi and Midare, Sayo with some of the Toushirous, if not with Souza, and… Well, Aizen had himself and he could adapt to whoever a sparring partner was. He also had a lot of things to do, like his figurines and it was something he could do by himself!

That was what Aizen told himself, perhaps now more often than ever, after the arrival of two more Toushirous to be of a grand total of 6 plus the related uncle-like figure, to the one sole Aizen.

He looked at the other side of the table. The ones sharing the same smithing family were equally distributed, three on each side. Nakigitsune was a little further, but nonetheless close. They talked happily about happenings in chores, mocking each other about some incident with a spider, Namazuo’s adventure with Kanesan, that time Gokotai’s tigers were missing…

Aizen let out a sigh. The only consolation being on the end of that table was that not many others would be paying him attention. Ookurikara was eating on his own, in front of him but also as if he wasn’t really there. To his side, Doudanuki didn’t seem interested in any talk and was more invested in eating as fast as he could to go back to train. He was surrounded and at the same time by himself.

Aizen had a long look at the Toushirous, lips forming a thin line as he then shook slowly his head and decided to focus on the meal in front of him.

 


 

“A-a-ah~ I’m so tired,” Midare said as he threw the damp cloth on the floor, and plopped down with a long weary sigh. “We’ve been cleaning so many rooms… They are endless!”

“According to the General, only 20 rooms are left to be cleaned. That is hardly infinite,” Yagen replied as he took the cloth from the floor and undusted it.

“You know you’re no fun, do you?” Midare pouted at Yagen, but the elder sibling simply brushed it off with a laugh.

“W-we don’t have to clean all of them,” Gokotai interjected, with a reassuring smile. “M-master said we only had to clean two for today. Tomorrow, she’ll assign others on cleaning duty.”

“TWO?! That’s too many!” Midare yelled as he sprang up, and with steely determination in his eyes, walked to the door.

“Where are you going?” Gokotai asked, just as Namazuo and Honebami were about to enter the room.

Midare smiled, grabbed Namazuo and Honebami’s hands and pulled them as he went to the hall. “I’m going to complain~ I’m sure Master will listen~”

“Hey, why are you-”

“Let go off m-”

“Na-ah! You’ll just have to agree with me, the more, the merrier!” Midare silenced whatever qualms Namazuo and Honebami had, and kept on dragging them. His brothers had no choice but to follow, albeit extremely quizzically of the plan.

“You know the last time someone tried to rebel, it didn’t work out at all, right?” Yagen said dryly, as he watched Midare’s back from the doorframe.

“Heh heh! I know how to persuade Master! I’ll just have to make use of my charm~!”

“Midare has charm?” Namazuo whispered to Honebami, and soon they weren’t in the hall anymore.

Yagen leaned against the wall and let out a deep sigh.

“Yagen-niisan… Do you think…?”

Yagen folded his arms and shook his head, preferring to do that instead of rolling his eyes at Midare’s idea. “How many times has someone complained about chores and has been successful?”

“Uh… well…” Gokotai was about to close his eyes to concentrate, but the answer quickly came to him and instead he wasn’t able to stop himself from frowning. “T-there’s no hope, is there…?”

“…Leave Midare something to clean.”

 


 

Aki rolled her eyes as she rested her face against her hand, bemused expression as she listened to the confident Midare speak up. Her eyes drifted between Midare’s determined gaze, one which gave her the hint that he was actually being serious, a huge contrast to the indifferent stare of Honebami and the skeptical bitter smile from Namazuo. Perhaps because one of them had been recently punished, he was the keenest one to know that this wouldn’t end well and refrained from supporting Midare. In fact, Midare was quite oblivious that only he was trying to make a failed point.

“And so! Since we’ve been working ve-e-ry hard… I think Master would agree to let us rest for the rest of the day! Master can order Doudanuki or Mikazuki or the bigger swords to do the hard work, while we get some rest.”

Aki sat properly, feigned a concentrated nod, and said seriously, “You make a valid point. Lemme think about it…” Not even one second had passed when she curtly said, “Nah, denied.”

Midare was smiling until it hit him that his result wasn’t what he actually expected. “W-wait! Why? We’ve been cleaning rooms where no one sleeps in? If a new sword arrives, they can just clean their room later. We don’t have to do the work before, since we don’t know when anyone new is coming any time soon…”

Aki let out a long sigh, rubbed her temples, as she realized Midare was too stubborn and she wasn’t getting away with this one easily. “Before I get this through your thick stubborn skull, go tell everyone to gather on the dining hall. I better get this over with before I get another group led by some slacker trying to skip their fucking duty.”

 


 

Once upon a time, there were two gods walking around the earth, for I don’t even know what reason (Midare, sit. You can leave after I’m done). They had been walking for a long, long time and were very tired. Luckily for them, they were near a village and asked the people for asylum. However, they were dressed as normal people, and not gods and everyone in that village was kind of a fucking asshole. So, when they knocked on the doors, the owners told them to fuck off and by the end of the day, they were tired and starving (No, Kasen, I’m not going to change the fucking prose for this fucking story. Shut up and listen.).

(You’ll understand why Kanesan, just shut up).

Anyway, they kept on walking until they found a very old and poor house, and they were received by an old couple. Even if they looked like they barely had anything to eat and seemed to be in a worse situation than the fake-poor-people gods, the old couple let them in. In fact, they were kinder to them than any of the assholes of the village (No, Yagen, they didn’t know these guys were gods, they were just cool old people.). They were so nice they gave them the food they had and the little wine they had kept and the gods ate. And ate. And they kept on eating and drinking (I’m just about to explain that Kasen, stop nitpicking, it’s part of the fucking story.).

Before I was interrupted, the old woman noticed this not-really-plothole and realized that no matter how many times they served wine, it wouldn’t run out. And they realized that the two “travelers” weren’t normal people and were gods, since the concept of all of you didn’t really exist then and other magical creatures were too much of a bunch of jackasses to pull this shit off. Now, before any of you ask, the gods in that mythology were assholes. There was one who caused the bastard son of her cheating husband to murder his wife just because, there was another who turned a woman into a spider because she was jealous of the human’s mad weaving skills, and I could go on. So, the old couple had every reason to be afraid because they had housed gods and their household was poor but they couldn’t help it.

They begged for their lives, the old man was about to kill their pet animal to offer them better food and they were ready to get done in for their sin of being poor (Yeah, I forgot to mention they had a pet, it was poor too. You are far too nitpicky in this goddamned story, I should be the same when you do your work). But for fucking once, the gods instead stopped the pet-killing and told the old couple to leave their house and climb a hill. Now, the old couple obeyed the gods (Kanesan, you can’t disobey them. They’ll kill you immediately.) and as they got to the hill, well, the gods destroyed the town with a fucking flood because the villagers were assholes to them (I don’t make these stories, damn it.). Anyway, not only did they basically murder everyone in the village, but the gods were nice and turned the old house of the couple into a really nice and posh temple and they told the couple they would be the guardians of it. They would also grant a wish to the couple, so they actually wished that when one of them died, the other would die at the same time so that neither would have to mourn the other.

In the end, the gods left and when the couple passed away, they turned into trees, and it’s supposedly the reason why these two in particular have their branches intertwined (No, I don’t know the names of the trees, Akita. You can look that up later).

 


 

Aki finished talking only to be greeted by a huge range of expressions; some like Kanesan and Midare were confused about the whole thing. Others like Ookurikara just wanted to go home, Kasen was dying to make a huge critique on the entirety of the story, but others like Yagen and Yoshiyuki seemed more deep in thought, as if they were trying to understand it. She let out a long sigh and folded her arms.

“Look, you have to understand something. Thousands of years alone, traveling was really dangerous. It was even more than when you would follow your masters and they would go from one city to another. It could take you days to reach a place and you would have no food or water or a place to sleep. You could also be attacked by animals and get lost, and you could even die on your trip. That was why the decent thing to do was to offer shelter to people who traveled. I mean, if you were a traveler, you’d pray someone would do the same for you. I know there are assholes out there, but it’s the right thing to do.”

Kanesan raised his hand and asked, trying his best to not sound like he was lost on the lecture, “So why are we… uh…”

Aki took a deep breath and shrugged. “Well, aside from the first swords here, when you arrived you had a room to stay. Wouldn’t you want the other sword to have this when they come? You didn’t sleep on the floor when you came here, so why would they either? If we have spare rooms to clean, and now that we have more people, you all can do something. It’s not like you do this only for the others, the others are doing things for you. Even if Midare wants to slack off and not clean, he still eats the crops that Blanket and whoever is helping him have been taking care of, and he sleeps in a room Sayo and someone else cleaned before.”

Now more swords were sharing that thoughtful look, even if they weren’t voicing their opinion but Aki made no attempt to make them speak either or confirm if they had understood anything.

“And if not, you can just think of that story in this way: Be kind to strangers, or you’ll get wrecked by a god in disguise.”

 


 

Midare wasn’t thrilled to get back to cleaning, but at least he hadn’t made a comment ever since he and his siblings had gone back to the room they were taking care of. Since that talk had taken too long, they were let to just finish the room and call it a day. And as a sign of camaraderie, none of his siblings made a comment about the talk or his attempt at skipping duty. In a way, it was as if the conversation had never taken place.

Midare did, however, and out of his own volition, go to the forge when Mikazuki told them a new sword would be arriving soon. The other Toushirous joined, more interested in this unusual reaction from him, rather uninterested in seeing their new comrade appearing for the first time if he wasn’t the smithing attendant. However-

“... My, my. To be called into this world... I am Taroutachi. I am a sword made for combat that humans should never be able to use. As you can see from my appearance, my large size makes it so that humans should not have been able to use me. Thus, I was a sword dedicated to the gods-”

Taroutachi stopped and blinked slowly as three small tanto children threw themselves on the floor, shivering in absolute terror as they threatened to pull the remaining older 3 children down with them. The oodachi turned to Aki, who simply shrugged and casually put her hands in her pockets.

“Master… Is…?”

“They are just terrified of vengeful gods, don’t think too much about it.”

 


 

There was nothing to be said as both were sitting on her office. Aki was reviewing the last pages of her report, Mikazuki was making sure all important papers were in order. However, he knew they were all ready, they had been hours ago, but it seemed that Aki going over and over them was her way to cope with whatever she was feeling. He could imagine it being a mix of stress and dread. What she was afraid of, he didn’t know, wouldn’t ask and even if he did, she would not reply. But he could tell it was something that weighed deeply on her, in how her lips were tightly pressed, how her gaze was far away even if she meant to be reading what she had written.

In a matter of hours, she would be sent to the capital for her revision. Aki had always been very stressed by it, and it all followed a similar schedule of her being stressed, then the actual time spent there and when she came back, she’d be exhausted but was unwilling to show it until she seemed to forget or pretend to forget about the revision. Mikazuki had seen her the first time and that scene had repeated itself, with a larger weight of an invisible burden on her shoulders. Even so, she wouldn’t say a word. He was surprised at this stubbornness, in how her silence had managed to go unnoticed by many swords, unaware something was ailing her but at the same time, she asked for no help. Mikazuki sometimes asked himself if she liked being independent or if outside circumstances had forced her to be so.

And so, with each time that cycle repeated, she needed more time to forget until she was severely affected as she was now before the appointed revision, and not after it.

She looked up, eyes with a vivid gaze as if she wanted to say something. But there were no words, no exchange, she had lost whatever courage she had tried to muster. She dared look him in the eye, Mikazuki’s eyes had always been warm and understanding, he wouldn’t force her to do anything she didn’t want to, and for some reason, she was even more affected by this. She quickly averted her eyes and tried to remain as composed as possible, but her hands were shaking and she could never stop her lips from quivering.

“Master…” Mikazuki’s voice was soft and tender, and to help her, he refused to look at her, giving her a sense of privacy and security. “Perhaps it is time for you to rest? I will handle the rest and everything will be ready tomorrow morning.”

He arranged some papers, from the corner of his eye casting some glances at her, seeing her face contort in confusion and pain. Aki stuttered for a moment, and even after, her reply was even quieter, “I-I might… But if I sleep now, tomorrow will arrive faster…”

“Even if staying up seems to be affecting Master’s health?”

He had chosen his words carefully, but it was obvious to her what was behind that concern and she didn’t reply. She was sitting, same as she had been the entire afternoon, thoughtful eyes fixed on her desk, on the report, but clearly not reading the contents.

Of course, this didn’t ease Mikazuki’s worry but there was little to be done, and forcing an answer would vex her further, the last thing he wanted to do.

“…I don’t want to go.”

“Should we meet with the-”

“…I just want to stay here…”

“Would it be alright if I stay here with you?”

There was a long pause. Mikazuki gently turned to her, serious expression as he saw her, eyes tightly closed and hand covering the rest of her face. He wanted to move close to her, but sensed her state would be even more altered if he tried to do so and instead stayed where he was. He thought of a possible farewell statement if she dismissed him as he presumed could be the case, but then-

“Thank you…”

 


 

It wasn’t her request but it was almost as if she had asked for it. The younger Toushirous could sense some sort of foreboding, reflected in restrained wishes and anxious faces. Even if nothing had been said, if Master would be coming in three days, they could tell something was amiss. They could only watch as the men in the black suits carried whatever luggage she had brought and slowly walked out of the Citadel, but most of the time their view was fixed on her back.

When they were ready to go, she finally turned to them.

She smiled at them, but there was no joy in it, and they couldn’t tell what it meant. Gokotai was about to ask but a glance at Yagen made him desist. Instead, Aki walked up to where Mikazuki was, further from the Toushirous and leaned forward so that only he could listen.

“…If I come back, I have something important to tell you all.”

Mikazuki’s eyes widened as she looked at him one last time before fading into the darkness.

Chapter Text

There was a hollow noise, one of footsteps resounding in the empty hall. It all was vacant, cold, dead. The whiteness of the floor, the distant sky barely visible from the windows, all served to isolate anyone crossing through the buildings. Aki wasn’t alone, always guarded by so many of these men in the black suits. She thought she saw a new one, the one at her back, one who constantly looked at her, gaze torn between confusion and doubt. She no longer cared, but it didn’t mean it was pleasant for her.

The Ministry of Justice was so close, with every step they took and each movement, each breath, the handcuffs on her hands felt heavier and heavier. No matter how many times it went like this, she couldn’t get used to it. She wanted to sleep and forget.

 


 

Mikazuki looked outside, at the bright blue sky. The cup in his hands had been there for quite a long time, enough for the green tea to be cold now. He couldn’t force himself to smile, there had been something in that smile on her face, a hidden sense of fatality behind her last words that wouldn’t leave his thoughts. The tanto didn’t hear her and for that he was glad, he was also fortunate to have been blessed with a talking skill by which he could hide his worries, even if he barely had any these days, and in turn, not cause the others worry. They had been used to revisions, for them it was just a period without a Master, and if they behaved well, they’d get gifts. And this cycle of sorts would repeat itself.

But Mikazuki had lived long enough to know that smile. Her attitude these days had been hiding something, a burden he couldn’t honestly decipher and now he found some ironic punishment in waiting. He took a sip of the cold tea, perhaps he has finally being subjected to the anxiety of waiting, no, he has been subjected once more after so many years. And like last time, there was little he could do.

Compared to before, he was wise enough to understand the limits of his own power, he knew now the extent of himself, as opposed to having learned it harshly. He didn’t blame himself nor curse at the situation. But even then, the wait was hardly pleasant. And he found that the uncertainty was different, denser and more uncomfortable in a sense. In a way, as terrible as the certainty of death was, as Yoshiteru faced his last moments and Mikazuki finally found a sense of mortality, this time, there was no way to know what he was up against. He could only make educated guesses, imagine it was something serious to have affected her emotionally and physically, something stressful and serious but at the same time, entirely vague.

And now, as the secretary and as a faithful sword, he could only wait for her return.

 


 

The young girl was crying again, completely surrounded, and trying desperately to wipe her tears, but they kept flowing. She wanted to look back at them, to pretend she didn’t care about what they said, that she was strong but no matter how much she tried, she couldn’t stop her tears and that only increased their mocking.

“She’s crying! She’s crying! Why don’t you tell the spirit of the well to defend you?”

“Hahaha, but Aki can’t! There are no spirits!”

Aki tried to tell them they were wrong, she could see the spirits and they were always there, but no one would listen, and no one could see them either.

“If you want attention, make up something better! Even the grown-ups are tired of your stories!”

“You’re annoying all of us! I’m tired of being up early in the morning because you saw something!”

“I-I’m not lying!” she finally managed to muster, in between the tears and cracking voice. “I saw-”

“I saw a ghost!” The kids yelled in unison and burst out laughing at her face. “But we all know you are crazy!”

She felt so helpless, no matter how much she said anything, they couldn’t see the spirits. They would never believe her. She wasn’t making anything up, they were real, she wasn’t crazy. But it wasn’t just them, their words hurt so much because it was true. The caretakers in the orphanage no longer listened to her when she asked them to help her cross the hall because there was an old statue guarded by a scary old spirit. She could see them rolling their eyes before putting on a stiff polite smile as they told her everything was alright and that “there was nothing there”.

She was alone, so alone and couldn’t stop herself from crying.

“Hey, leave her alone!” A young kid, older than her, with mysterious green eyes and brown hair, broke into the circle and stepped in front of her.

“Huh? Who are you?”

“That’s the new kid, Aki-”

“Ichinomiya Akira,” the kid presented himself as and looked at them with cold eyes. “And now, if you bully this girl behind me, you’ll have to go past through me.”

The other kids looked at each other, all wearing annoyed expressions, but decided to leave them. Aki could hear them whispering to each other, but she couldn’t make out the words and soon they stopped mattering. She wiped her eyes once more, her tears were less by now, and she gave her rescuer a meek glance.

“Th-thank you…”

“Stay behind me, I won’t let those kids hurt you.”

Aki could only return a weak smile as she fervently nodded, looking at the first smile in a long time that was directed at her. However, in between her tears and newfound hope, she failed to see that such a smile failed to reach the boy’s green eyes.

 


 

Even if she was sitting in front of a high-ranking officer and this wasn’t her first time doing so, the men in black suits never left her. She chided herself in silence, as the officer read her. She was naïve to think anything would change after so many revisions already, in fact, they made it clear that this would go on over and over. Aki clenched her fists as discreetly as she could, never once daring to lift her gaze. She wasn’t going to run away, she hadn’t done so, but it was to them as if she would do it at any second. The heavy gazes on her were always there, so upsetting and tiring.

But Aki couldn’t say anything and instead had to bite her tongue and press her lips tightly. She could only wait, and at times it felt like the officer was taking his time revising her written report, on purpose. And there was nothing she could do.

“Wakatsuki-san, your achievements could be improved on. However, that is something to be revised by the Ministry of Time, and it doesn’t concern us. Director Hasegawa will surely give you his opinions on your progress. In any case, let us proceed, your report shows no signs of any rebellious conduct nor unacceptable behavior. It might be my impression, but you have been acting as the arranged conditions specified. As such, there is no issue on our behalf to allow you to continue with the terms of your plea bargain. Depending on what the Ministry of Time committee decides, and Director Hasegawa’s evaluations, you will be taken back again to Chuzenji. Finally, please, remember that the moment you or your actions prove to be rebellious and against the plea bargain, we will immediately remove our recommendations and all evaluations will cease. Furthermore, you will be transferred back to-”

She couldn’t help wincing in pain at those words, and nodded silently as she stared at the ground. If she had ever learned anything, it was that in times like this it was better to obey and nod. The intimidation tactic she knew had managed to strike her harder this time, even if the threat had always been known to her. It was as if the officer was reminding her that there was no hope and she was just merely deluding herself.

And she probably was.

 


 

She put her hands in her pockets, as she saw the three young men run away to the closest station, as fast as they could anyway, with how hard she had kicked them. One was even limping, she had almost hit him in the knee and if that person hadn’t been so lucky, he would have gotten his knee broken. Akira had a large laugh, as he looked smugly at the figures disappearing, the sight of them escaping like that, one even limping, seemed to have distracted him from the punch he had received in the mouth. At least that would improve his mood, Aki thought to herself though she didn’t feel particularly happy.

Truth be told, it was becoming tiresome to be fighting in this sort of domain war, and she had to be careful from now on. If the high school or orphanage authorities heard of her involvement, she could find herself facing juvenile prison. She didn’t have Akira’s excellent notes to back her up, if he was in trouble, his position as one of the best students could be some sort of leverage for him. But Aki failed most of her classes and it was a miracle on its own that she was still allowed to study.

She wanted to protest, but instead, she let out a long sigh and looked at the time. Thirty minutes before curfew. Well, hers at least. Akira seemed to have sensed her pressure, as he turned to her, “Relax, we’ll get there in time. They won’t even notice we’ve been out this late.”

“Easy for you to say. You’re not the one on permanent watchlist.”

“Ah, well, that is because it’s me we’re talking about,” Akira said with a smirk. “We both know you’re not on my level and you can’t convince anyone worth shit. But if you’re so worried about it, we should get going. I wanted to do more things, but oh well… Can’t be helped.”

She rolled her eyes and started walking to the avenue, the shortest route to the orphanage. But she hadn’t even taken three steps, before she felt Akira grabbing her arm, making her see him.

“Oh? What’s this, the short route?”

“Thirty minutes,” she added impatiently, trying to making him move, but Akira laughed harder.

“I thought you would learn to love some challenges, if we take my route, who knows, we might make it in 29 minutes, 28 if you get moving.”

Aki huffed and squirmed to be free, but Akira held her arm more tightly, laughing as she tried until she finally succeeded with a harsh move that after a moment caused her shoulder to ache.

“Oh, I’m sorry princess. Fine then, do as you wish.”

Aki bit her tongue and tried her best to not frown as she resumed walking, with Akira soon taking the lead. His antic had annoyed her this time, even though he had intended it all to be a small joke. She had never found it funny, but Akira had insisted it was and she had no choice but to suck it. Perhaps her lack of humor was part of the reason she wasn’t able to make friends, she sometimes thought so, and she tried to lighten up but Akira holding her like that would still upset her no matter how many times she tried to think of it as “just a simple joke.”

 


 

She was home and the first thing Mikazuki noticed was the shadow in her eyes. She avoided his, but he could see a faint flicker, what seemed to be thousands of emotions suppressed. He stood silently in front of her, without anyone else in the room. She had arrived earlier than the last few times, usually long past midnight but this time, all the swords were around. It was actually surprising she hadn’t bumped into anyone, but Mikazuki quickly corrected himself. She had just avoided them all.

The silence was dreadful. He knew she had something to say but she couldn’t do it. He stepped closer to her, she shifted her weight uncomfortably.

“Welcome back, Master,” he whispered, so that only she would hear him, preventing anyone else from noticing her arrival. Aki nodded, a bitter yet thankful smile on her face, probably having understood his intentions. His eyes drifted, her hands were tightly clenched into fists, trying to steady themselves but unable to hide the faint trembling that came with either nervousness, fear or both. Her eyes still refused to look at him and she opted to close them and then breathe deeply. Her tremors didn’t stop.

“…Mikazuki…” she began, her voice an attempt of steel but she couldn’t stop it from shaking, or her hesitation from showing. “…Please….” She held her breath, mustering all of her courage and looked at him in the eye. He could tell she was trying her hardest to not run away. “Please gather everyone. I have something….”

 


 

“… important to tell you all.”

Without any notice, Aki’s words rang throughout the room and the swords looked at each other confused. Mikazuki was the only one looking at her discreetly, right at her side, but most of the swords gathered that he was as much in the dark as the rest of them were. Even so, the air was dense and no one knew why but they all tensed at the steely tone of her voice.

Gokotai and Akita were the most confused and quickly turned to Yagen, who tried his best to smile but couldn’t hide a foreboding gaze. Namazuo and Honebami nodded to themselves, possibly thinking something serious was about to happen. Nakigitsune shook his head quietly and the fox didn’t reply when Aizen, having no one to talk to, turned to him in hopes of an answer after Kasen had blatantly ignored him. On another side of the room, Midare, Imano and Sayo stood quietly, no one daring to look at each other for confirmation of anything, as Souza simply gazed in front, eyes clouded as if he had been through something like this in the past, a possible speech that would change everything.

While the smaller ones held mostly confused faces, the faces of the veterans were more serious. The Shinsengumi group exchanged a serious glance between each other, one where they were asking if something severe had taken place, if the Retrograding Army had advanced so much their position was in danger. Yoshiyuki looked at the from afar, unable to hide a bitter smile. Yamanbagiri and Hachisuka were standing next to each other, but only with glances they could tell something was off. Doudanuki stood there silently, almost as a general, and Ookurikara’s vacant gaze at nothing was a mix of both aloofness but suspicion. The air was so tense that Shishiou almost wanted to ask and break the silence that was becoming suffocating, but Taroutachi put a hand on his shoulder, preventing Shishiou from doing anything else and letting him know he should endure it.

Aki’s gaze was piercing and to some of the swords, terrifying. She took a moment before speaking again, and then, without any warning.

“My name is Wakatsuki Aki. I’m serving a lifetime sentence for the charge of murder in the first degree. You can be transferred to other citadels if you wish so, inform me of this tomorrow. That is all.”

The room erupted in wordless, loud chaos.

 


 

Everyone stood for a moment in shock as Aki’s words slowly crept in, completely incomprehensible no matter how they were looked at. Those who had looked at others for support exchanged the same look, and without any notice, Aki left, furthering the chaos in the room. Immediately, the next target became Mikazuki, as Kasen was the first to ask, “Mikazuki, what is the meaning of this?”

For once Mikazuki wasn’t wearing his usual smile, replaced with a barely visible frown, almost as if he was attempting to stay impassive while the rest of the swords succumbed to their emotions. “This is the first time I have heard of this.”

For a moment, the room almost fell back to silent chaos, though it was too soon for an ill-timed “M-murder…? Wh-what does Master mean by-” from Gokotai, one meant for only Yagen and not the rest of the quiet swords, caused them to erupt into confused statements and allegations.

Seeing there was no way to calm them down, even less without any answer or explanations he himself lacked, Mikazuki quietly walked to Yoshiyuki, one of the apparently less affected swords, and whispered quickly-thought instructions, dismissing them all for the day and letting them think about Master’s offer, puzzling as it was, as Mikazuki himself went to look for her. Yoshiyuki was about to protest about the futility of having them ponder, though he quickly realized that Mikazuki didn’t want collective hysteria to take over. After promising to try to persuade them to leave in groups, Mikazuki left the room in a hurry.

He quickly pondered where Aki would have gone, one place out of reach to everyone or a place where she in theory was less likely to be found. He quickly discarded going upstairs to her room, it would be the first place anyone would imagine she’d go, as he saw from a corner three flashes, most likely Akita, Gokotai, and Yagen, who would go look for her instead of to their rooms.

Instead, he went along the hallway. He thought of the fields and the stables, where no one would be around, even less at this hour. There were also vacant rooms she could have hidden in. To make sure she wasn’t steps ahead of him and used expectations to avoid being discovered, just like she had avoided all swords earlier, he went to her office, only to find it empty. The noise from the meeting room had decreased considerably, and Mikazuki presumed most swords had either gone to their rooms judging by the hurried footsteps that resounded throughout the building, or were looking for her. He decided to keep looking around and walked in direction of the fields.

By now, it was dark outside and he couldn’t see any lights obviously betraying the presence of someone hiding inside a shed. The fields were hidden in the vastness of the night, and the faint lights from the lanterns next to the building weren’t enough to be of use. Mikazuki closed his eyes and breathed deeply as he thought about his next destination. He was sure that if the other swords had found Aki, he would quickly learn of this from the commotion which would arise. It was more likely she was hiding in the shed or the stables given this darkness, but it was even easier for him to accidentally give away his presence as he looked for her with or without any lights to guide his search, and she could run away. The fields were the more difficult of the two places, so he would first discard the easier option.

With the determination to go to the shed, Mikazuki turned to fetch a lantern or flashlight to ease his travel when something caught his eye. Through the open part of one of the lanterns, he saw a figure moving, of someone trying to stay outside of anyone’s field of vision. For a moment he thought it was her, but he quickly rejected this idea and instead, quietly and close to the walls of the hall, he walked closer to the figure. It was the swordsmith.

This was an unusual situation, given that the swordsmith was an envoy from a higher plane, and not a proper human of sorts, he hardly interacted with anyone outside of the times Aki or Mikazuki himself had tried forging a new comrade-

Mikazuki’s eyes flashed and as quietly as possible, he crossed the hall with a new place to search, one he hadn’t considered before.

The forge was located on one of the ends of the citadel, a place that in retrospect, was usually deserted. As he came closer to it, there was a faint smell of tobacco filling the air, one that was not from the smith himself, and to confirm his suspicions, he found that the forge was faintly lit. It had been done so in an attempt to not catch the attention of any passerby but also to not put oneself in the darkness, which would bring nightmares and fears as well. He entered the room.

Aki was sitting on one of the material boxes, near the fireplace, her eyes fixed upon a lit cigarette she was holding with one shaky hand. She was so small, trembling and scared, in contrast to what she had just said. In fact, she was so concentrated on the item in her hand that when she realized Mikazuki had been in the room, she almost dropped it as she jumped from her seat.

“…Master…” Mikazuki’s voice was soft and gentle, so much she avoided his eyes, even more so since she knew why he was there. There was no way to bring it up without any awkwardness. “About what you said…” His words trailed off, but the deed was done.

She stood up and her expression stiffened, though she couldn’t do the same in her gaze, with eyes like a broken mirror. She brought the cigarette to her mouth, taking a deep puff followed by the immediate coughing of an amateur, and not of someone who was already in the habit. Her eyes watered as she cleared her throat, but Mikazuki knew the real reason for those tears.

“…Ah, right…” She said after calming down, her words deceptively dismissive yet restrained and forced. “It is as I have said. I was accused and charged with first degree murder.” She closed her eyes as she spoke those words, those more befitting of a briefing on their next strategy except for the trembling on her hands, how she crushed the cigarette between her fingers and that almost imperceptible crack in her voice. “Life sentence,” she said and her words were mechanical and cold, technical and detached. “I served my time in juvenile prison, but was about to be transferred to the capital when I agreed to a deal to come here. That’s all there is to it.”

She threw the cigarette on the cold floor with such an apparent calmness after saying those words, almost eerily, but Mikazuki could feel the anger and sorrow as she stepped on it, almost as if trying to destroy something else. He had listened to her in silence and as soon as she looked up, defiant and detached, he stepped so close that he was merely centimeters away from her. Her face was frozen, not calm in the slightest but every trace of emotion hidden by impassion, except for that reflection of abandon and resignation in her eyes. It was one look of having braced herself for anything, yet refusing to show any weakness whatsoever, even less of being hurt.

“Did you do it?” Mikazuki asked quietly, looking at her in the eye.

She blinked, astonished, needing some seconds to blab, “What…?”

“I don’t believe you did it, but I’ll ask you. Did you kill that person?”

“…H-how… How can you…?”

“Because I know the type of person you are.”

In that moment, Aki opened her eyes wide and that stoic façade crumbled into a thousand pieces, gaze overcome with emotion as she fought back her tears. Her lips, her voice shivered, trying to find the words seemingly forgotten and unheard for years. “I-I… I didn’t…” She wasn’t able to finish her sentence before her throat closed and her hand grazed her eyes.

“I believe you.”

She froze in place and could only look at Mikazuki before his imaged blurred with water, shutting her eyes tightly to keep everything in. However, she felt him pull her close to him, arms holding her gently against him, as he whispered, “You’ve endured it for far too long.” His hand stroked her head softly, comforting, not hesitating once at her stiffness. Words were caught up in her throat, as she needed a moment to take it all in, for the weight of his words to reach her heart, before she buried her face against his chest, so small and fragile, and her hands gripped desperately at his clothes.

Tears fell.

 


 

Aki sat next to the low table in Mikazuki’s room, wiping her tears off even though they kept falling, threatening to disturb the hot tea she had in front of her. “I promised myself I wouldn’t cry…” She confessed, every word with a deep sense of shame. “The first night I spent in prison, I wanted to cry the most…” She swallowed hard and her words were deeply bitter, hands gripping the cup so hard, even if the ceramic was too hot to touch. “I swore I wouldn’t… I wouldn’t…” She choked on her words, eyes watering once more when Mikazuki took her hands in between his.

“A sturdy tree can withstand so much until it breaks beyond repair,” he said so gently. “Even a blade can be destroyed if enough pressure is forced onto it. I have long learned that crying isn’t a sign of weakness nor is holding everything in a sign of strength.” He looked at her with compassionate eyes, holding her hands tightly. “It is when you know the moment you need to cry that makes you strong.”

Her lips quivered as more tears rolled down her cheeks, but this time, she didn’t stop or wipe them away. “T-thank you…” She took a deep breath and looked around, as if trying to find the right words. “I-I can’t stop crying…”

“You were alone all this time.”

“Ha…” She laughed bitterly, not even fighting that grim smile formed by her lips. “You figured that out…”

“After a trip to one’s hometown, one would talk about the people they met, especially if one hasn’t seen them for a long time.”

“You’re too smart…”

“It comes with age.”

She sniffed, trying to compose herself without much success as she broke from Mikazuki’s warm hold and took the cup in her hands.  She looked down at her reflection, to be looked back by a blurred, pathetic vision of herself. “…No one listened to me. No matter how much I explained myself… Everyone just decided I had done it… I never had many friends, no, thinking back on what happened, I didn’t have any friends. Only a few acquaintances and the people at the orphanage I grew up. When I was convicted, I only got a letter asking me to not contact them. Bad reputation for the orphanage, they said.”

They fell into silence, as she sipped her tea in between sobs. It had grown cold but she still found it soothing, even more with Mikazuki not leaving her side.

“You’re the first person… who has even asked me if I did it… You even said you believed me…” She shut her eyes as her words drowned in her throat.

“In this time we have known each other, I’ve come to know the type of person you are. Someone who wishes to put us swords in the same level as you, even if you are our Master. That was why you asked about us, why you went through all that effort in those interviews. It must have weighed heavily on you, to be the one holding all this information while we were limited to know about you, something you deemed unfair. It was why you made that announcement earlier to even things out, though your choice to do so has caused chaos between the swords. In fact, you could have simply never told us and no one would have questioned a thing. I find it hard to believe someone who is as innocent and unusually caring in these matters would be able to commit murder.” Mikazuki offered a kind smile as he tugged her bang behind her ear. “Truth be told, I had pieced together things about you but I could not understand what was causing you much suffering, until now. I was surprised by your statement, even now I think you could have expressed it better. For someone who is terrified of being rejected once more, your wording was poor and almost counter-effective.”

Aki’s eyes widened with both disbelief and surprise, surprise quickly leading to mild embarrassment and hesitation, reflected in her voice. “I, uh… W-what will… you do…?” she asked.

“I will not leave your side, Aki.”

The decisive honesty in his words caused her cheeks to taint faintly pink, in spite of her pale, weary complexion in that moment. Tears fell once more.

“I’m scared… I’m scared of what they will say.”

Mikazuki placed his hand on her cheek, though he didn’t wipe her tears, choosing to caress her gently instead as he looked at her. “You first have to explain things properly, though I believe most of them won’t even question nor reject what you’ll say. We swords have belonged to humans and in our lifetime, we might have had murderers for masters. We might have been used to take lives as well. It is not my intention to dismiss your feelings, but there might be a difference in perception, and what is serious to a human might not be the same to a sword. I can’t speak for everyone but I don’t mind. However, I understand how important and painful this confession has been to you.”

“Will you be with me… when I explain myself?”

Mikazuki chuckled softly as he continued to hold her face lovingly, moving aside her bangs to have a better look at her. “I told you, I will stay by your side. I won’t explain things you should do yourself, but be assured I will support you in any way I can.”

Aki fixed her gaze on Mikazuki’s face, tender eyes looking at her just as her own were brimming with tears. She tried to say something but everything failed her and without any warning, she threw herself at him. Mikazuki was startled for a second but quickly held her close to him, as she buried her face on his chest once more. He thought he heard a “Thank you, Mikazuki,” though it was muffled with her sobs. He ran his fingers through her hair, no intention of leaving her alone and before they knew it, birds were chirping outside as the faint sunlight crept through the window.

Chapter Text

The Shinsengumi swords had gathered in Yasusada and Kashuu’s room, after much coaxing from Yoshiyuki. The atmosphere was apparently calm but everyone in that room couldn’t hide their restless expressions. Kanesan and Horikawa exchanged grim looks, those of being unable to find anything to say, when words failed them to even prevent what was bound to happen. Yasusada instead looked outside the window, with a quiet disapproval, barely glancing at his comrades, with something almost feeling like resentment. Kashuu sat on his bed, running his fingers through his hair, attempting to look collected and serious, but the twitch of his hands and the nervousness of his eyes quickly gave him away.

“…Hey…” He asked, using everything he could to steel his voice without any success. “…About what Master said… Does that mean… I-is she trying to hint she’ll… aband….”

“Who cares about that?” Yasusada replied coolly. “She said she had murdered someone. Who would want a Mas-”

“I care!” Kashuu yelled as he looked at Yasusada, unable to restrain himself, nervous breakdown finally taking over. “Is she implying she doesn’t love me, that I should instead choose to ‘leave’!? Is it happening again?!” He turned to Horikawa, almost on the verge of tears, and when Horikawa avoided his eyes, he tried to find an answer in Kanesan.

“I-I don’t know! I’m confused by this as well, why are you asking me?” Kanesan blurt out, though he quickly shook his head, partially ashamed of his thoughtless reaction. “I-I mean, she didn’t say that we had to… so uh…”

“Maybe…” Horikawa quickly interjected before Kanesan’s silence could be interpreted the wrong way by Kashuu. “Maybe she meant something else… And…” Horikawa looked at Yasusada for help, but he found that he wasn’t interested in saying anything favorable, so he rushed to think of anything.

“She probably just meant to say something else…” Kanesan replied, with too much hesitation to ease Horikawa’s worries.

“What something else…?”

“I-I don’t know, maybe it’s the government, I-I mean, she just said this after coming back… So what if it’s them trying to force her to…?” Kanesan was grasping at straws as he tried to make his statement compelling, one he didn’t even think it could be true and something he had just said in desperation. But somehow, Kashuu nodded quickly, a look in his eyes the same as one who is trying to convince himself of something impossible.

“It, it must be that…” Kashuu repeated to himself. “We have to ask her.”

Yasusada rolled his eyes and opened his mouth but he quickly met Horikawa and Kanesan’s glares, and instead he huffed and avoided their gaze, looking once more at the window.

“Everyone must be trying to ask her the same,” Horikawa added with more confidence now that Kashuu seemed to be calmer. “You should try to rest and we will ask her tomorrow.”

“Right… right…” Kashuu covered his face with his hands. “I have to rest… It won’t do if I look hideous tomorrow…. I, I can’t let her see me like this…”

“You look… pretty okay…” Kanesan added, not sounding as confident as he wanted, but whatever that kept Kashuu from going insane was something he’d try, and soon he and Horikawa tried to compliment and suggest him to dress up even more tomorrow, always anxious Kashuu could relapse. From the side of the window, Yasusada looked at them at times, disdain clearly in his eyes. His lips were drawn in a fine line as he uttered to himself, “What a joke…. Okita would have never…”

 


 

“Hmmm? What is the matter, O-Sayo?” Souza asked as he glanced at the sibling scratching his hair, then shaking his head, restlessness in every movement, in spite of the quiet time the two shared. They had been among the few who went straight to their room and hadn’t spoken to each other for a long time, almost preferring to listen to the chaos from outside their walls.

Souza didn’t feel a fraction of the agitation of the rest, he had been already too jaded for such outbursts of emotion the other swords were fond of. He had been surprised by the news, but it was more the unexpectedness of the reveal than the contents themselves which had elicited a faint response from him. Truth be told, he didn’t feel much for the confession, he had already been under the command of a demon, so a mere murderer wouldn’t be a difference to him. The more surprising part of it was the alleged choice of changing masters, something Souza was too suspicious to believe as something ‘simple’. If anything, Souza had seen, there was something bound to those words. Whatever deceit it was, he couldn’t tell, but Souza wouldn’t accept such a proposal was as easy to make by just saying “Please.”

“I don’t understand…”

Sayo was different, of course, with his mind clouded for hundreds of years with thoughts of revenge, loyally binding himself to the wishes of their Master. Souza couldn’t relate to that desire and of course he wouldn’t be able to understand that confusion, because he and Sayo would see things differently, but he didn’t wish for his sibling to torture himself with the words of another.

“Yes, O-Sayo?”

Souza sat closer to Sayo, hand carefully ruffling his sibling’s hair as he waited patiently for Sayo to speak, even if, from the looks of it, Sayo wasn’t sure of what he wanted to say.

“I don’t understand why Master was making that face…” was eventually Sayo’s reply, though it seemed far less complicated than what Souza expected. It was perhaps too simple for that long silence.

And unlike Sayo, Souza’s reply was much quicker to be delivered, and with that bluntness of his, even though Souza had tried to restrain his words, not for the humans in question, but for Sayo himself. “Humans are complicated beings, you can never tell what lies behind those masks. At least, it was always the same with that person.”

This was something Souza had seen many times in the past, how humans were easily able to hide whatever they wished under thousands of faces, only to reveal their true selves in the solitude of their rooms, and maybe when they had obtained whatever they sought and no longer needed a charade.

“Did Master mean that…?”

That was a good question, Souza had thought to himself.

“Who knows?”

Truth be told, he didn’t know the answer and he didn’t care much for it either.

“But her eyes….”

“Hmmm?” Souza looked at Sayo, surprised to find the tanto hugging himself and with a more painful look in his eyes, he didn’t imagine that the question was able to bother Sayo so much.

“They glinted with something… but… but I don’t understand… I don’t know what that is…”

A glint? Such words made Souza frown, he hadn’t seen anything of the sort in that mess of a speech. He tried to remember, but he only could recall the sound of her voice and nothing else, so a mysterious look was something out of his memory.

Deep in thought and unable to find a solution or a possible answer, Sayo scratched his head again, but this time, Souza took his hands gently.

However, he said nothing more and patted his head. Had Sayo seen something he missed? No, he quickly corrected himself, he hadn’t even looked at her enough to even notice something.

 


 

The silence in the dining hall was too dense.

“Huh…”

Even that sound, which was meant to hint that he was about to say something didn’t do the trick.

“Ummmmm…”

No reply.

Aizen frowned and bit his tongue, resisting the urge of yelling at the other swords to notice him. Doudanuki and Taroutachi were sitting at his left and right so they had to listen to Aizen’s attempts at communication. Okay, perhaps Tarou was too tall to listen to him, but Doudanuki could have said something, Aizen thought.

“So…” Okay, now the lack of a reply, now that he had raised his voice, was getting annoying. “OK SO…”Aizen now raised his voice too much and both Taroutachi and Doudanuki looked at him, and Aizen immediately lost all of his courage to speak. “Ah, uh, well… I… okay what just happened?” He decided to be straightforward, because to be honest, he was quite unsure at what was going on.

Doudanuki’s eyes were fixed on Aizen for a moment, then he looked away, folded his arms and let out a sigh. Aizen waited attentively for an explanation, hands on his lap as he leaned to listen better.

“Who knows?”

“Huh…?” Aizen couldn’t hide how his mouth contorted into something resembling a bitter smile or a disappointed frown but he quickly shook his head and turned at Taroutachi. Sure, the sword had arrived a few days ago, but he had to be wise or at least provide a better answer than Doudanuki.

Taroutachi must have felt Aizen’s burning gaze, as he looked down and blinking slowly, he shook his head. “I’m afraid I’m of no use. I have been rarely acquainted with the matters of the earth below.”

“What earth below….” Aizen mumbled as Doudanuki shrugged and somehow now Doudanuki felt like the more reliable of the two, which was saying something. But Aizen cleared his throat, feeling he would have to drag the subject to an explanation. “Master said something about uh…” He bowed his head and fell into silence. The other two didn’t reply and Aizen was actually thankful now, somehow finishing that sentence felt wrong. He wanted to know what was going on but at the same time, he didn’t-

“Haah? Why are y’all here? I thought I told ya to go to y’ar rooms?” With strong steps, Yoshiyuki came from the door and quickly sat in front of Aizen, folding his arms as he nodded to himself. “Man, ya’re all so stubborn, I had to chase away the Toushirou kids only to find ya here. So, what’cha doing then?”

Yoshiyuki turned to all of them, only to be stared back at with blank faces from the taller swords and a rather confused smile from Aizen. “Well, that doesn’t seem fun.”

“I kinda didn’t know where to go…” Aizen said, figuring out at least Yoshiyuki seemed better to talk to. At least, he had been the one to tell everyone to go to their rooms, so Aizen assumed he had to know something. Furthermore, he was being honest, Aizen didn’t share his room with anyone, given the huge mess it always was, and he didn’t have anyone to ask questions. Even if they were kinda useless, being surrounded by Taroutachi and Doudanuki made him feel slightly better.

Yoshiyuki sighed, even more exaggerated than Doudanuki’s previous one. “Sounds rough…” he said, voice cracking slightly as he stretched, seemingly tired after all he had been doing since Aizen last saw him.

Some footsteps were audible, and Yamanbagiri entered the room, stopping right at the entrance as he saw Yoshiyuki’s contortion act, and was seemingly about to leave when-

“Hey, Yamanbagiri! Why are ya’ here, I thought the order was to go to y’ar room.”

“You’re here as well,” Yamanbagiri replied dryly.

“Mahahaha, ya got me there!” Yoshiyuki didn’t seem very affected and instead pointed at an empty seat. “Why don’t ya join us then?”

Yamanbagiri stood in the entrance for a moment, Aizen imagined he was weighing his choices and was betting Yamanbagiri would leave instead, so when the man sat down, he was actually surprised at this turn of events. He didn’t reply or anything, and Yoshiyuki didn’t look like he was going to say something else.

Instead, he sighed and tapped his fingers against the table. “Ya know, what Master said was really somethin’.” At his words, every sword, Aizen included, turned at him. The atmosphere in that moment had never been relaxed but Aizen could feel how the tension quickly rose, making him uncomfortable.

“What was the meaning of it?” Yamanbagiri asked, surprising Aizen, as he had assumed he would be able to know something, but it seemed he was as much in the dark as Aizen had been.

“Dunno. Master looked pretty serious, but I couldn’t find her anywhere. Mikazuki’s probably talking to her, if he found her. I just tried to get everyone to their rooms.”

“Uh… about what she said….” Aizen began, but his voice trailed back again, hoping that at least Yoshiyuki could realize what he was referring to without having to voice his thoughts.

“About killing someone? Or us leaving this place?” Yoshiyuki asked and Aizen shifted uncomfortably in his seat.

“I don’t really get all of this,” Doudanuki scoffed, as he turned his gaze away from the swords. “We have fought monsters, so what? You don’t make a ruckus about it, so-”

“I don’t think it’s the same…” Aizen mumbled, but from the corner of his eye, he could see that Doudanuki’s expression had grown strange.

“Who cares? We’re weapons, we fight the enemy. Does it really matter if our Master killed someone? Ah right, most of you weren’t taken into battle, so you wouldn’t know.”

Taroutachi nodded solemnly, as he spoke. “I had once been carried into battle, but it has been long since those days.”

“Haah,” Doudanuki arched an eyebrow, seemingly interested in what seemed to be a new discovery. “You don’t say…”

“In any case, I’m afraid I don’t understand the current situation. I had believed our Master was some sort of general. Isn’t it necessary for a soldier to eventually take someone’s life?”

“Exactly what I think. I don’t get what’s all of this about.”

“Well,” Yoshiyuki interjected. “This place seems different, ya get what I mean? I don’t know how things were when ya’ll fought in the battlefield, but at least with me, our conflicts usually had less dead people.”

“I-I don’t think it’s supposed to be like that now…” Aizen mumbled, fidgeting his fingers.

“Yah, seems like that. Around Sakamoto’s time, swords weren’t used anymore. I don’t mean to say people killed each other only with swords, but it was less common, and only some could. Ya’d think with how the world changed, kiri-sute gomen  would fade away too.”

“I guess…” Doudanuki shrugged, partially convinced at Yoshiyuki’s explanation but not convinced about the gravity, from what Aizen could tell in his nonchalant expression. “I don’t care, but,” he turned to Aizen, and the tanto felt the hairs on his neck rising, “What about you? Do you mind that, a killer master?”

“M-me? Ah, uh…” Aizen laughed nervously, but he couldn’t bring himself to reply. He was about to curse Doudanuki’s rather unfortunate spot-on comment, though maybe it was Doudanuki being straightforward than him realizing Aizen’s true feelings, as the uchigatana then looked at Taroutachi and repeated the question.

“No.” Taroutachi’s reply was simple yet decisive. At first Aizen was surprised, Taroutachi being a sword offered to the gods, or something like that, but then he had mentioned he had been in battles… So, of course he wouldn’t really mind, he thought.

“Yamanbagiri?”

Yamanbagiri had stayed quiet the entire time, looking fairly serious but also unwilling to share his views unless he was asked directly, it seemed. He thought for a moment about the question and then quietly replied, “As long as I’m not compared again, I don’t mind.”

“Man, you’re a simple one.”

“I could say the same about you,” Yamanbagiri replied with a bored look at Doudanuki, but the rough warrior merely laughed.

“Yeah, you’re right. Anyway, what about you, Yoshiyuki?”

“Well… I think it’s too early to say anything? I have the feeling we’re missing many things.”

“You’re avoiding the question,” Yamanbagiri quickly commented, as he looked at Yoshiyuki without any visible expression, except perhaps mildly annoyance.

“Mahaha, who thought Yamanbagiri would be this sharp!” Yoshiyuki smiled at Yamanbagiri, but the blanket man didn’t react. “Yeah, well… I believe men should solve their problems through words. Sakamoto never killed anyone, so I’d rather we kept this that way, but I won’t condemn her if she did something bad. And before saying anything, I’d like to hear what Master has to say anyway.”

 


 

Kasen was sitting calmly, brush mid-air as if he were thinking of the right words for a poem. Shishiou felt chills down his spine as he saw that serene expression, one almost distanced from the previous reunion. He was calm and if the situation weren’t so serious, Shishiou would have laughed at how unaware and relentless Kasen was with his pursuit of the arts. Instead, he shivered as he recalled that infamous story about Kasen’s previous master, the one who in a fit of jealousy beheaded 36 people, or something like that. Shishiou was fuzzy on the details but he would rather not find them out or have the actual sword correct them either.

He also seemed to ignore Ookurikara’s deep glare since he had been dragged to the study, when the aloof sword would have rather gone to his room, as usual. Ookurikara had been reluctant about the discussion Shishiou wanted to have, and now that they were all gathered, Shishiou couldn’t bring himself to ask the topic when Ookurikara showed less than any attempt of cooperation. True, Ookurikara was never the friendly person and Shishiou might have pushed him too far, so he could get why anyone would be slightly angry.

That said, Shishiou felt that Ookurikara was less angry at him and angrier at the walking mess throughout the study, Hachisuka going from one end to the other, visibly in thought and holding a frantic discussion with himself. It was how much noise he was making somehow, as opposed to Kasen’s silly stillness and how Shishiou had sat put, which seemed to drive at Ookurikara’s nerves. Shishiou didn’t know how to bring a discussion up, when two seemed like they couldn’t care less and the other was too self-absorbed.

“This simply will not do!” Hachisuka stopped abruptly and his voice was so loud as to even interrupt Kasen’s deep thoughts on nothing. Hachisuka also casually ignored Ookurikara’s glare. “Preposterous! Inconceivable!” Hachisuka continued with a rather long list of all ridiculous words to showcase exaggerated disbelief. Ookurikara frowned more and more with each long word.

“What is it, Hachisuka?” Kasen interrupted the rant, still with the brush in hand. “Your long string of artless complaints distracts me from my poem. I had just found the perfect word for this piece after ‘mind-boggling’ and your endless talk made me forget it. If you are going to complain, at least order your thoughts so that your petty remarks have a beautiful and elegant flow.”

“Excuse me? I would have assumed you would understand the gravity of this situation, Kasen Kanesada. The latest announcement is unacceptable! How dare our Master suggest she’ll discard me, a true Kotetsu, like garbage, like a filthy fake!”

“Huh, what?” Shishiou couldn’t stop in time and soon found himself on the receiving end of Hachisuka’s glare.

“Were you not listening? She said so herself, she is going to send us to a different citadel. Perhaps changing owners like some cheap merchandise to be thrown away suits you, but I absolutely refuse this! A true Kotetsu, a sword of the highest caliber and craftsmanship is to be admired, not given away like this.”

“Technically, Mikazuki is the one of the highest cali-”

“Are you going to nitpick on the smallest details instead of looking at what’s important?!”

“But you said-”

“Listen, Shishiou, I am too insulted by this inconsiderate behavior! True, I hadn’t expected her to appreciate my worth with her rather limited knowledge on fine arts, but at least she could keep me-”

“What, what, wait, you’re confusing me!”

Hachisuka stopped to roll his eyes and huff in annoyance, turning for a second at Ookurikara who seemed even more infuriated, of the cold, repressed kind, not that Hachisuka would think he was the cause of it.

“That ignorant foolish woman will send me to some filthy and strange citadel, and I cannot tolerate this!”

“What? When did she-”

“Weren’t you not listening?! It’s the third time I have to repeat myself!”

“S-slow down,” Shishiou begged, looking at Ookurikara for some help, but the aloof sword simply stared at them, perhaps engaging in schadenfreude as this was some sort of payback for making him stay. “I, I thought she said something more like “If we wanted to change citadels, let me know?”

“Did she?”

“She did! Besides, you’re angry at that?” Shishiou uttered exasperated. “You’re not angry at the whole killing thing?”

“The what?”

Shishiou looked in agony at Kasen, but received no sympathy in return.

“M-master said she killed someone and uh, the whole changing citadels, if we wanted to. That was all, I don’t get why you are so upset, I thought you could stay here if you wanted.”

“Is it really true, Kasen?” Hachisuka turned to Kasen, as the poet simply sighed and put down his brush, rather dramatically as if the two swords had killed the most perfect poem in the world with their idiot banter.

“That is correct. That woman certainly mentioned something around those lines.”

“Is that why you were so calm all this time?”

“Well, Hachisuka Kotetsu, I would prefer a Master who is educated and literate but our current household isn’t terrible. I don’t see myself asking for a transfer tomorrow.”

“Is that so…” Hachisuka wondered out loud, but then lowered his voice, meant for his ears only but he still was too loud such that the others could listen. “So, so, she’s not discarding me, a genuine Kotetsu…”

“Oh, so you do care about her then?” Shishiou remarked and Hachisuka huffed, quickly turning away.

“Don’t misunderstand me, all I need is a Master who appreciates my worth. Anyway, I have lost my precious time here, if you need anything, I will be in my room.” And with that, Hachisuka stormed out of the room.

“There he goes…” Shisiou said as he saw the ends of Hachisuka’s hair disappear beyond the door frame. “Must be nice, only caring about that.”

“Hmph, so you brought us here to ease your conscience,” Ookurikara growled, hands folded on his chest.

Shishiou didn’t turn to meet Ookurikara’s eyes but he couldn’t stop himself from frowning. Truth be told, he was unsure of what to make of everything and hoped that by talking to anyone, he could find… solace, relief? He wasn’t really sure. The terms of life sentence and first-degree were too grave for him to dismiss, unlike Kasen and Hachisuka. He wasn’t sure of how the modern world worked, but he thought they meant something bad, a breach of justice, a killing that should have never happened, not one expected in wars.

And he had to be honest with himself, he was confused. Master didn’t seem like a bad person, but this news was too extreme. He sighed.

“Do you mind, Ookurikara?”

“I don’t have any reason to tell you.”

“Will you ask to be transferred?”

“What I do is my own business, pick your own choice.”

And with that, Ookurikara simply left.

Shishiou sat on the ground, seemingly ignored by Kasen, but now he didn’t mind and instead kept thinking about what he had to do.

 


 

“Y-yagen-niisan…” Gokotai’s voice trembled as he shifted in his seat, trying his best to not sound as worried as he was.

Yagen had been staring at the floor, so deep in thought that he didn’t react immediately, only realizing Gokotai had asked him something just as his brother was about to ask again, albeit with less confidence. “What is it, Gokotai?”

Akita turned to Gokotai, apparently having an idea of what was to be asked and possibly something which was clearly troubling him as well.

“Uh… well… M-master said some… scary things tonight…” Gokotai’s voice trailed off and Yagen nodded ceremoniously, as if he knew that sooner or later that talk would arise.

“…That’s right.”

“I-I don’t understand….” Gokotai began, stopping suddenly as if to organize his thoughts. “P-prisons are for bad people…. But...”

“Is Master a bad person….?” Akita asked, finally gathering courage to do so. However, his face was pale and he seemed both confused and pained, as if having mulled over something too complicated and serious for him.

“What makes you think Master is a bad person?” Yagen asked as calmly as ever, pushing his glasses up.

“Well… Murder is bad… Or that’s what we heard….”

Yagen took a deep breath. He had long thought about it, not the murder dilemma but the one his brothers faced in that moment.

“Do you think Master is a bad person, Gokotai?” And at Yagen’s question, suddenly directed to him, Gokotai jumped in his seat, scaring two of his tigers away.

“Uh… well… Master is… nice… Sh-she is scary at times… And she doesn’t smile often, but she’s nice to you, and to Akita and to me…”

“What about you, Akita?”

“Ah, uh… Master has never yelled at me... even if I’m inexperienced. And every time she leaves, she brings us nice things, like that tower puzzle. I sometimes ask her about birds, and even if she doesn’t know their names, she tries to find out what they are.”

“Do you think she is a bad person, Yagen-niisan….?”

Yagen closed his eyes for a moment. There was a fundamental difference between him and his siblings, the same which caused them to pale as Yagen didn’t blink at all. His expression had been serious this time, not for the sudden revelation but the complications and events that arose with it.

“Is our Master a bad person?” was a thought that had never crossed his mind, after all, he had been with a demon on earth, the same which made Souza scowl every time his name had been even alluded to. He had even talked about Oda Nobunaga once with Souza, only to quickly confirm that Souza still resented Nobunaga and soon it became a topic to not mention. But just as Souza found Nobunaga nothing but a boorish fiend, Yagen had always been loyal to his previous master and had never questioned his actions, following them all as diligently as possible, until the bitter end in that fateful fire in Honnoji. So, it would be silly if he suddenly worried and perceived a young woman as a worse demon than a self-proclaimed one.

But Yagen also knew that his siblings were different, never on a battlefield and only gifts meant for good luck and protection. In a way, they were pure and such purity was able to make them question the current events with a child-like naiveté. Yagen didn’t believe humans should be simply reduced as good or evil, because even as a demon, Nobunaga’s intentions had always had a clear goal and surely this murderous act should have one as well. But to ask his siblings to suddenly not care about this was as impossible as asking Souza to forgive Nobunaga.

Yagen shook his head slowly as he ruffled both Gokotai and Akita’s hair.  “I don’t think the General is a bad person,” he said with certainty. “Whatever she means about prison, we can ask her to explain it to us. There might be something more to what she just told us, after all.”

Yagen wasn’t sure if there was, but some things didn’t add up, at least to him. But they were things he didn’t mind, being the sword of a warrior, and all of them, in a way, have been murderers as well. It was something a protection sword would never understand until faced with that event.

Gokotai and Akita didn’t say anything else, but they both smiled faintly after Yagen’s gesture. They agreed silently that it was time to go to bed when-

“Wahhhh….” Imanotsurugi burst into their room, followed by a panicked Midare.

 


 

Imanotsurugi sometimes wondered why adults were so complicated. Many times he had failed to understand why Yoshitsune had done the things he wanted to do, but Imanotsurugi had stayed by his side, no matter how confused he was. If he suddenly went back, because he didn’t understand his Master, well, he wouldn’t be able to call himself a loyal sword.

It was why he was so confused and wandered around the halls, as Yoshiyuki had told him to go to his room. If Iwatooshi had been there, he would know what was happening. But sadly, Iwatooshi had not arrived to the citadel yet and Imanotsurugi was alone. Well, he wasn’t exactly, he had Midare and the other Toushirous, but even they were very puzzled about what Master had said.

He wanted to ask Master what was going on, why she had just mentioned that thing about prisons, since Imanotsurugi knew they were for bad people, something even he had heard about way back with Yoshitsune. But he thought for a second that maybe Master didn’t want to talk about a grown-up topic with him and if he asked Mikazuki about it, his request would be denied. It was why Imanotsurugi was right there, face against the doorframe, so hidden in the dark corridor but at the same time frozen. He wasn’t scared, it was more something akin to worry, he thought.

Nevermind that in between the sobs he heard, something in his body moved and he found himself giving his position away, standing silently in front of them, Mikazuki holding a very small and crying Master. For a moment, Mikazuki looked at him and Imanotsurugi was about to beg for forgiveness, he hadn’t meant to do wrong when he sneaked behind Mikazuki and had followed him in his search for Master. He hadn’t meant to-

But then, Mikazuki shook his head gently and placed a finger over his lips. Master was still unaware, Mikazuki’s long sleeves hid her from view but he could recognize her voice in those sobs.

Imanotsurugi looked down, he wanted to say something but he understood. He looked down, he was disappointed but he hoped he could see Master the next morning. And just as quietly as he had reached the forge, Imanotsurugi left, mulling over and over what he had heard and suddenly a thought flashed through his mind. He had for a moment thought Master had done something bad. What if other swords had thought the same?

Imanotsurugi felt guilty, he wanted to say what he had heard but he recalled Mikazuki’s fingers to his lips. But, even so, he wanted to at least say she was not a bad person, hopefully the others would just trust him on that and as soon as he was out of reach such that his footsteps didn’t reveal he had been nearby, Imanotsurugi ran as fast as he could.

 


 

“Hey…” Namazuo asked as he leaned against the window, eyes at the sky but not looking at anything in particular. Honebami sat on his bed, but didn’t react enough, not that Namazuo would mind it. Sitting on Namazuo’s bed was Nakigitsune, impassible as ever, a sharp contrast to Midare, who was the closest to confusion in the room. Midare had lost Imano along the way and felt like he couldn’t be around Yagen and the others, so instead he had tagged along with his older siblings. But neither Namazuo nor Honebami had mentioned much about Aki’s strange announcement, and Midare was lost.

“How do you feel about this?” Namazuo asked aloud to no one in particular, but Midare felt as if Namazuo was talking to him, not that he would answer out loud.  How was he supposed to feel about it?

There was a long silence, perhaps no one else knew if Namazuo was talking to them either, when-

“Nothing in particular.” Honebami’s reply was blunt, so much that Midare turned to look at him, perhaps the only one seemingly surprised by this. Perhaps there was something Namazuo and Nakigitsune understood that Midare didn’t, because they carried on in silence, without any questioning looks or wondering mumbling. Midare envied Honebami a little, to be able to be disinterested in many things while Midare himself didn’t understand it, how could someone be so strange, when he had been the sword of someone who had eventually started a war?

“Are you transferring?”

Honebami finally turned to Namazuo, and in the same voice, though Midare could tell there was something different in his words, he replied back, “Are you transferring?”

Namazuo didn’t turn, but it seemed he had his eyes closed. “You know that answer.”

Midare huffed and turned away. Whatever they were planning to do, they would be together, that was for certain. Their cryptic self-contained conversation wasn’t much help to him and Nakigitsune didn’t seem to care to be included either. Instead, he gently patted his fox, resting quietly on Nakigitsune’s lap. It was as if he didn’t care particularly for anything, and if Midare had to guess, perhaps Nakigitsune would simply stay in that citadel.

But the question remained to Midare, why did he have to make a decision?  Why was this important at all? It was something silly, and perhaps it was why he had avoided Yagen. Yagen was smarter than them, he would simply know the answer and Midare didn’t want to put himself as a silly younger sibling who didn’t know how to tell the gravity of the situation. He had made a mistake a few days back and had been on the receiving end of a lesson, and he didn’t want to do that a second time.

Feeling like this talk would get him nowhere, he couldn’t admit he didn’t understand why everyone was making a huge fuss of anything Master had said, he left the room quietly.

In that moment, the messy figure of someone passed by him. Midare couldn’t look well at him, but as the figure moved away, without any direction, it suddenly clicked in. It was Imanotsurugi. And what was most distressing to Midare was… it seemed like he was crying.

 


 

At one point in time, she had fallen asleep, though it hadn’t been for long, since she had seen the faint sunrise and right now, the sunrays were stronger. She was in Mikazuki’s arms and he had made no comment when he noticed she was awake from that rather short nap. She sat up properly, rubbing her hands against her eyes, tears finally dried, but now she could imagine her eyes were puffy. She frowned bitterly and with a painful expression she didn’t even try to hide, she whispered, “I guess… it’s time…”

She bit her lip, trying to seem strong as she lifted her face but couldn’t face Mikazuki straight on, sudden fear creeping through her entire body, as if her chest had been stabbed and a dreadful sensation spread over, making it harder to speak or even think.

However, she soon felt Mikazuki’s hand on her cheek, and she could feel his warm gaze on her. “I won’t leave this room until Master feels safe enough to be on her own while I gather everyone.”

Her eyes filled with water, as she held his hand and kept it pressed against her cheek. Aki wanted to thank him, but her throat closed and she could only shake her head as she didn’t let go of his hand for what seemed to be an eternity. She didn’t want to be alone, but she knew she had to, even if it were minutes seeming years. She held on close to Mikazuki’s hand for a long moment, and then, mustering everything she had, taking a deep breath to prevent her from running away or beg him to stay, she finally let go and nodded silently.

 


 

In a moment, everything changed.

She had entered the large living room, wandering around as she waited. The old man from that house was going to help them get away, that’s what she’d been told. She was skeptic at first, but the more she thought of finally seeing the beach, of finally leaving those dreadful streets of Tokyo, the more excited she felt, even though at times something inside told her to stop for a moment.

Still, she wanted to believe.

Maybe the previous misunderstandings she had had with Akira were both a mix of her own distrust and the stress of everyone against them becoming too much. After all, he had always supported her, so she believed she had been too rough with him. She might have overreacted back then, and Akira wasn’t going to hurt that man, if she had waited enough. She curled her lips in bitter realization that she had been unfair to her only friend, the one who was going to fulfill her dream of a new life.

Akira had gone upstairs and he was taking too long, she thought. Deciding to go ask if they were done, she walked up to the hallway.

A sharp scream tore through the silence of the house, all of the hairs on her neck rising as instinct took over and she rushed upstairs. Dread, dread, dread, it was all that took over, as she tried to remember they were there to meet someone and-

Sounds of things falling, something like glass crashing on the floor, and agonizing screams fading as she got closer, as she arrived in what seemed to be a large studio.

“-Aki…ra…?”

She froze on that door, as her vision grew darker, the surroundings growing cold but the splattered blood everywhere somehow stood out most, stains on everything on the floor, the broken items, thrown books and trinkets. Her eyes wandered to the figure on the floor, meeting cold open eyes belonging to a dead man whose face was covered in red, lying on a crimson pool. And next to this man…

It was as if a demon was in front of her, standing up so slowly, and turning to her, a pocket knife in his hand, sharp end pointed towards her. He tilted his head as his green eyes glinted with something she had never seen before but strong enough to send chills down her spine, enough to paralyze her right there even though everything inside her told her to run.

“Ah, you found me out.”

“…What did you…”

She tried to step back but in one moment, Akira was next to her and without any notice, he pushed her to a nearby desk, chest crashing against the edge, forcing her harshly to expel her breath, falling to her knees. She clutched her hand against her chest, gasping for breath, trying to get up desperately in spite of the excruciating pain but something kicked her in the stomach, causing her to bend and lose all of her strength in her legs. She fell to the ground, but even so she struggled crawling away, to put as much distance between them even though she could feel him next to her, laughing cruelly.

If she was crying, her vision had blurred now, she couldn’t feel her tears against her skin. She couldn’t feel anything in an instant and then, a hideous flood of regret and fear took over, dread everywhere as she wondered how to get away from that nightmare, trying to stand up once more.

However, soon, everything changed as a huge bolt of electricity ran through her body and she fell into darkness.

 


 

 It was something hitting her face which woke her up, vision disoriented and blurred figures surrounding her, many lights pointed at her eyes, and she looked around, confused. They were yelling something, yelling at her but she couldn’t make sense of anything, she tried to ask only to be silenced by a hand against her cheek.

Something held her by her hair, forcing her on her chest against the floor as she felt her arms pulled to her back and cold metal stuck in her hands. Two figures then pulled her up, as she looked around aimlessly, but she couldn’t see their faces clearly, everything was too blurry and warped to make sense.

She couldn’t walk, it was as if half of her body was numb, being dragged by these men, down a long set of stairs, where she tripped constantly, to the point of falling to her knees only to be forcefully brought up once more. Then, she saw a large opening, light coming from there, red and blue and before she knew it, she was thrown inside a car. Two men sat by her sides, she wanted to ask what was going on but neither looked at her, and then she felt a hand against her head, pushing her down. If she tried to lift her face, the hand would shove her down harder until she stopped resisting.

In between, her sight became clearer by the time the car had stopped moving, though her world felt like it was constantly spinning, her legs shaking the entire time and now finally feeling water against her face. The men took her out of the car, then inside the building to a small room, and she was shoved against a chair there. Her entire body hurt, her head was killing her and her eyes kept watering. The buzz in her ears was still present but she found herself asking why she was there, somehow managing to string that sentence coherently.

“Waka--- Aki----- accused -- murder ---. Save --- th- trouble --- admit it. ---”

“I-I didn’t do anything!” She screamed, only to be hit in the cheek with the back of one of the men’s hand.

“You --- say th--.”

“I-I swear I didn’t!”

But without any other word, the two men left the room and Aki was left alone. She looked around, cold unnerving white walls surrounding her as she prayed for this nightmare to be over any time.

It was just beginning.

 


 

Aki stopped for a moment, avoiding all gazes as her lips trembled so much, shutting her eyes to compose herself, though the tears hadn’t stopped flowing. Mikazuki was right by her side, though she gestured him to let her try to be strong.

“I-I was put on trial… The attorney… he didn’t even try, even if he was supposed to defend me… Before I knew it, I had heard the mallet of the judge as he said, ‘Guilty. Sentenced for life.’ I was alone. I-” She couldn’t stand it any longer and covered her face with her hands. “I’m sorry… I should have told you since the beginning but I…”

“Master did nothing wrong!” In between the sea of swords, Imanotsurugi walked forward, pushing some as he tried to make his way and when he was in front of Aki, he knelt and held her legs. She lifted her tear-stained face, only to meet Imanotsurugi’s glimmering eyes. “I heard a little of what Master told Mikazuki… I’m sorry! But Master was hurting by this, and it hurt so much she didn’t want to talk about it, that’s why I don’t blame Master at all!”

Before Imanotsurugi was done, Aki found herself surrounded by the younger Toushirous, every one of them with tears in their eyes, trying to hold her close. But in between the sea of tanto, Yagen stood up in front of her with a serious expression, as if analyzing something.

“General,” he said with certainty. “What were your reasons for not telling us before?”

Aki shivered, and for a moment she looked smaller than the teen-look-a-like in front of her in spite of being a young woman. Her voice cracked for a moment, she cleared her throat trying to steady herself. “…I was worried… you wouldn’t even want me. But then, I learned more about you… And I knew it was not fair that I knew these things about you, but you didn’t know me… ”

“If that is so…” Hachisuka forcefully interrupted, as he shoved Shishiou and Yamanbagiri out of his way, standing demandingly in front of her, ignoring the upset stares of the tanto surrounding Aki. “Then why are you giving us away?!”

“I-I don’t want you to leave!” Aki hollered as tears rolled down her cheeks. “I want you to stay! But… I can’t force you to stay here if you don’t want m-”

Someone took Aki’s hand and held it tightly. “Does that mean you won’t abandon me?!” Kashuu could no longer contain himself, all the make-up to hide his dreadful face was mixing with his tears, it was unsightly. His hands, no, his entire being was shaking uncontrollably.

She looked at him in the eye, and, too overcome by emotion, such that she couldn’t speak, she shook her head furiously as water blurred her vision, tears increasing as she felt the Toushirous hold her harder and as the other swords came closer to her, trying their best to hold her close, even though there were others as well. Aki covered her mouth, wails muffled as she felt one tender hand in the sea of swords and everyone holding each other tightly. Mikazuki patted her head gently, never leaving his place next to her, as he gave her a long, warm look. Even Honebami was there, though it seemed to be Namazuo’s doing. Hachisuka was too immersed he didn’t even complain about others staining his clothes. Doudanuki, usually doing things on his own, had even decided to show his support. Mikazuki’s faint smile was one of reflection, trying to tell her that if even these swords were there, there had to be a reason for it. A sword’s biggest joy is to be loved by its master, and a sword will always try to return these feelings in full.

Only a few swords stayed behind. Souza had nodded to Sayo, who had tried his best to get close to Aki, and he looked without any expression at the display of affections and swords trying to soothe their wounded master, most now overcome by emotion and crying as well. Ookurikara was in one corner, glancing at times but without any attempt to move nor to leave the place. Kasen watched with interest, thinking about something, only to mumble, “Hmmm, I didn’t expect her to be a simpleton… Nor everyone to be this…” But even so, he showed a faint trace of wanting to approach, but the almost comical size of that group hug was perhaps too inelegant and he’d prefer a private alternative. And at the end of the hall, in the same position as Kashuu but on the other extreme, Yasusada curled his hands into fists and turned away without saying anything.

Chapter Text

Mikazuki sat next to Aki after leaving the small tray with tea in front of her. She mustered a weak smile as she took a cup, and whispered, “At this rate, I’ll have tea flowing through my veins.”

“A ha ha ha, well, Master might become addicted to it, but I’m sure Master will appreciate the soothing properties of this tea, even if its taste is not to Master’s liking.”

“It’s not bad…” she started, but her voice trailed off as her eyes wandered around the office. “…I never expected to find myself liking it…”

“Well, life certainly has its way of turning around our expectations, similar to how this place has become Master’s home.” Mikazuki poured a cup for himself and looked at the fading ripples on the surface of the tea.

“…Home…” Aki repeated faintly as she lowered her gaze, deep in thought about many things but not saying anything after.

“Humans certainly spend large periods of their lives looking for that place, the one to call home.”

“I don’t know if that’s the same… I just agreed to be here, to the Saniwa thing, if I was let out of prison. I’ve yet to be released and they tell me they can throw me back anytime if I do badly. I don’t think it applies here.”

“Hmm…” Mikazuki wondered, though his tone showed that he was hiding something Aki didn’t see herself but he was going to keep that knowledge to himself. “In any case, Master is surely an interesting person, to have come to this forsaken place. A person wishing for freedom would have tried to escape the moment they could. It’s not as if our citadel is surrounded by the military and in between the forest, the lake and the mountains, Master could have tried leaving this place and grasped her freedom.”

She huffed and spoke with mild annoyance after taking a sip of the tea. “I gave my word, of course I have to stick with this.”

Mikazuki stared at her for a moment, then laughed softly, covering his mouth with his sleeve, though his action was obvious to her, causing her to frown and direct a minor glare at him.

“A ha ha ha, please, do not get offended by my reaction, but I can’t help but find Master rather innocently adorable.”

“Is it so weird, you jackass? I-I mean, it’s not like I can get anywhere and if I’m caught, they’ll throw me back into jail.”

Mikazuki’s smile didn’t fade in the least, and his gaze made her flustered, to which she just put the cup to her lips and drank. When she least expected it, he patted her head softly.

“I believe deep down Master knows this answer.”

She huffed once more, but looked away, trying to hide the faint pink tinge onof her cheeks.

“In any case,” Mikazuki continued, pretending to not notice her attempt, and went back to drinking his tea, with an elegant posture as if he hadn’t been aware, “Master arrived at this place based on an agreement, was it not? To accept such terms, Master is quite a bold woman.”

Aki shrugged and rested her chin against her hand, gazing down instead of up, not apparently thrilled about what she was going to suggest. “It’s nothing special… I-I mean, I had nothing to lose. There were many rumors about the Saniwa intervention, but I figured anything would be better than…” Her voice trailed off for a moment, and her eyes were seemingly absorbed in the wooden lines of the table, though there was a melancholic glint in them. “…I just wanted to leave that place.”

“Perhaps it is as Master says, but to take such a risk, there is courage behind that decision.”

Aki looked at Mikazuki with a bitter smile, trying to seem nonchalant, even if he didn’t buy it. “I’ve always made stupid decisions.”

Mikazuki’s pleasant expression faded, growing more serious with each word, and as she finished her sentence, his smile was gone. “Do you believe that?”

“I blindly trusted a monster. I did many things I didn’t want to just so that he… just so that he didn’t leave me. There was a time… I thought he was going to harm me, but I couldn’t, no, I didn’t want to listen to that voice inside me… And look where that got me. Since I was little, I had no friends. I had terrible grades, I was problematic and I ended up being accused of murder. Prison was another nightmare… it just drove the point that everything I did, every decision I took was a stupid on-”

Mikazuki took her hand and looked her in the eye with an intense and serious gaze, so much that she flustered for a moment. “Master, please stop hurting yourself over past mistakes and over things you had no control of. How long have you tortured yourself over this? If you want to express your feelings, I will gladly lend an ear, but I won’t stand still as you harm yourself more over things that can’t be changed, nor will I feed that warped image you have of yourself.”

She avoided his eyes and instead turned her attention to his hand holding hers. “I know I am a failure,” she whispered with a resigned tone as she closed her eyes. Mikazuki let go of her and she smiled bitterly, only to be surprised when he held her close to him.

“I’ll share a secret with Master. I have yet to encounter anyone who has never made a mistake. Even us tsukumogami can and are making mistakes as we live. But Master can grow from these mistakes, whether it was trusting a demon or believing the lies about yourself. One is only a failure when one has not learned a thing from the mistakes they have made. I think Master has a lot of learning to do, but I hope Master can be kinder to herself the way she is with us. I know Master is a person who treasures fairness and the way she is acting to herself is unlike her beliefs.”

Without a word, Aki buried her face on his chest and Mikazuki gently stroked her head, shielding her from the world with his sleeves.

 


 

 Shishiou stood in front of the door, a moment of hesitation freezing him in place. All of his courage disappeared, and even worse, the words he had spent the entire night putting together now sounded shallow and fake. His hand was about to knock on the door, but stopped mere centimeters away from the wood, almost a sign he should leave, at least not come back until he had prepared himself bett-

Suddenly the door opened, and Shishiou had to look up to meet Mikazuki’s eyes. He was about to ask why he was there, though he quickly remembered that he was the most likely to be in the office in the first place, and now his presence made him extremely self-conscious. Mikazuki didn’t seem surprised to find him standing, as if he somehow expected him to be there. Shishiou was about to excuse himself when Mikazuki turned to the other person in the room.

“Well, I’ll take my leave and inform Master of today’s results.”

And just with that Mikazuki left the room, but Shishiou caught a faint knowing smile on Mikazuki’s lips before the man disappeared in the corner of the hallway.

As if this was a queue, Shishiou straightened his body and excused himself, now that Aki had noticed him standing in front of the door and he had no place to go.

Unlike Mikazuki, she had a brief flash of confusion at him being there, but she didn’t comment about it. She put down the pen and the papers she was holding and waited for him to begin.

Shishiou felt his mind go horribly blank, his eyes focused on her desk, somehow deciding mentally stating the names of each item on the desk was a better idea. He shifted uncomfortably in that awkward silence.

An eternity passed, before she broke the ice. “Did something happen?” was her question, with a tone that Shishiou couldn’t really decipher but he could tell at least she wasn’t kicking him out after he just went there unannounced and was now sitting wordlessly.

“Are you al-“

“Please forgive me!” he said, hands tightly gripping his clothes, unable to meet her eyes, as he lowered his head.

“W-what are you talking about…?”

Shishiou felt sweat down his forehead, chiding himself for being too formal but at the same time, he couldn’t think anything less was acceptable given why he was there. He still couldn’t lift his face, and his reply was too low, too hard to put properly into words, wishing for a moment he had Mikazuki or Kasen’s skill with them instead.

“Back… back then… I…” He forced himself to look at her face. “I-I doubted Master… I thought Master had done it…” He could see a flash in her eyes and it was enough to make him look down once again, feeling more weight on his shoulders and chest.

She didn’t say anything.

“But… but… I should’ve believed in Master!” Shishiou spoke, a reply deep from his heart. “I couldn’t trust Master even… …even after all Master has done for us.”

“I didn’t do anything.”

“I never thought that Master would give me that book… the book about my old man… I just forgot what Master did… not for me but for all of us… So… so…” Shishiou put his hands over his knees and leaned forward, “I’m very sorry, please forgive me! I’ll even work in the fields-”

“There’s no need.”

Her voice was soft, perhaps the softest he had ever heard her and Shishiou dared to glance at her, her face with a complicated expression, though without a trace of anger or contempt.

Without thinking, Shishiou slammed his hands against the desk, quickly saying, “Thank you, Master!” before springing up from his place. “I-I’ll go help Yamanbagiri then!”

He almost crashed into Aizen as he left the room, but he didn’t look back. He now had to try his best.

 


 

Aizen held the small piece of paper, once flat and now crumpled and slightly damp, in one hand, a red apple in the other. It wasn’t like him to be this nervous but he couldn’t help it, never having done something like apologizing for not trusting his Master. The words on the paper, a small apology which took him a while to write, were blurry, and he didn’t want to read them out loud but he knew he was going to do just that.

Next thing he knew, Shishiou suddenly left Aki’s office and almost slammed into him, looking a lot happier than how he had been the day before, almost as if he were relieved. However, Aizen shook his head because he couldn’t get distracted, and he forced himself to enter the room, only to find Aki looking at him, arching an eyebrow, not hiding her surprise.

It suddenly dawned on him that had made a huge mistake, entering without permission. With stiff movements, he felt like a robot, he exited the room before Aki could say anything, closed the door, and then knocked on it.

He could hear her sigh and before he even asked for permission, she said, “Aizen, just come in.”

Aizen obeyed and the walk to her desk was unusually long. He wondered if he could run a thousand laps around the citadel instead. He sat down, put his crumpled paper on the desk and when he caught her questioning look, he realized he had messed up again and quickly swapped the paper with the apple, crying inside that he had made another mistake again.

“MasterI’msorry.”

“What?”

“MASTERI’MSORRYFORNOTTRUSTINGYOU” Aizen replied, too fast and too loud, and almost immediately he wanted to melt and disappear through the floor when he saw her for once at loss for words.

She blinked once. Opening her mouth to say something, she scratched the back of her head, a hard to read expression clearly visible.

“Don’t worry about it. …What’s the apple for though?”

“That’s a memento-wait no that’s not the word it’s a, uh….”

Aizen’s words failed him and the tanto looked at everything, desperate to find the words as the awkward silence grew more uncomfortable with each passing second. However, Aki took the apple and tried to muster a smile, a little stiff but smile nonetheless.

“J-just go and do whatever you have to do for chores or play with the other kids…”

 


 

 “Yo, Master!”

Aki stopped in the middle of the hall to the kitchen, when the running figure of Yoshiyuki came to her, seemingly trying to catch up with her. Yoshiyuki was alone and Aki couldn’t help but feel that the situation was unusual, as he didn’t seem to be on his way to the kitchen and the time to report their daily progress was long past.

She eyed him suspiciously, to which Yoshiyuki blinked and laughed loudly. “Gahahaha, Master has a keen eye! I should have expected that.” He finished his sentence with a mix of a snort and a funny sigh. “Well, Master wouldn’t have known but, sorry Master.”

At those words, Aki could hide neither her interest nor her bitter expression as she had an idea of what this was about. “Ya’ know, when Master told us that, I wondered if Master was a bad person. I mean, Master wasn’t really clear about things and we didn’t know a lot but…” He folded his arms and nodded once to himself. “I should have had more faith in Master. When I think of it, Master can be really scary, but… ya’re also really kind. I think ya try really hard to have us happy, even if things have been rough for ya, Master. So, sorry.”

“…That’s unexpected….” Aki finally said. “You don’t have to apologize. I-I wasn’t clear about things...”

He gave a hearty laugh at a small pat to Aki’s back, though the sound of his hand against her shoulder was too loud and Yoshiyuki smiled sheepishly.

“My bad, my bad. Anyway, I understand a bit why ya wouldn’t want to mention a lot of things, and why ya’d not be really clear. That night, Mikazuki did ask everyone to calm down and wait for ya to explain things. Or well, he asked me to tell everyone, and then he went off. Gahahaha, he probably knew more things, or maybe he didn’t but he trusted ya nonetheless.”

“You don’t say,” she replied softly, but instead of adding anything else, Yoshiyuki gave her a knowing, bright smile.

“Anyway, I guess I must make up to Master then. Lemme know what you want me to do!”

 


 

 Aki looked at Mikazuki with a questioning expression, though Mikazuki’s smile didn’t falter as he casually poured tea in the ornate teacup. He pretended to not notice her staring, though she frowned as she leaned closer.

“You knew what was going to happen…” she said, in a slightly accusatory tone, though Mikazuki merely laughed.

“Well, I might have imagined that some of our comrades would have a heavy heart and decided to apologize for doubting Master.”

“…No one has apologized to me before. I’ve always been in the wrong…” her voice trailed. “This is something new I guess...”

She stayed in silence for a moment, her lips drawing a thin line. She took her teacup but didn’t drink the contents, pondering at something for a long moment. When she finally gained the courage to ask, she hesitated for a moment, as if she was scared of an answer she wouldn’t like.

“Did… did you ever doubt me…? I mean, you said you believed me but…” She swallowed hard and avoided his eyes except for a single glance where they met and Mikazuki could see a frightened glint she was unable to hide. “Did you ever think I was… guilty?”

“Hmmm…” Mikazuki put down his teacup and turned to her. “I did ask myself if Master were capable of doing such thing. Of course, I fully believe with all my heart in Master’s innocence, but one would do well in asking oneself about how well one knows the other. I thought about Master’s behavior and personality and pondered if such an apparently rough person could commit murder, and the answer would be ‘Perhaps’.”

Aki’s face grew dark, biting her lip in silence, but Mikazuki’s smile grew warmer instead, as he continued.

“However, that would only be a superficial answer, as I have been by Master’s side for a long time now, enough to see a hidden side of her, the one of a gentle woman hiding behind that rough exterior. I have mentioned this before, but a kind and innocent, if not naïve, person as yourself, considering what others would call “subordinates” on the same level as you, would hardly have the heart to take someone’s life. Even more with how Master adheres to a rather enchanting and chivalrous code which does not benefit her in the slightest.”

Aki shifted her weight, cheeks growing faint pink but her lips drawn in a thin line. “If that is a compliment, I don’t feel really flattered.”

“A ha ha ha, in that case I’ll just say I’m rather enamored by Master’s kindness and innocence, even if Master tries her best to hide one and is unaware of the other.”

She stared at Mikazuki, eyes vivid, unable to hide her bewilderment, though she quickly grew seemingly interested in the tea reflecting her surroundings. The color on her face didn’t fade and quietly grew deeper, when he gently tucked her bangs away from her face, her soft hair against his fingers.

“In any case, I am quite relieved to hear and see that many swords who had a faltering moment have strengthened their resolve and liege to you.”

 


 

 “Hey…”

Yamanbagiri tried calling again but when he was ignored, he sighed loudly. “How long do you intend to be here?” he asked, annoyed, at the three swords, who simultaneously lifted their heads from the field of crops hiding them from view.

“Well…” Shishiou scratched his head.

“Master didn’t tell us what punishment she had for us…” Aizen replied, cleaning some dirt from his face, though he smeared it all over it instead.

“So, we figured to help you here,” Yoshiyuki ended the statement with a confident smirk.

Yamanbagiri stared at the three swords, and they returned the look for a long time until Yamanbagiri sighed again.

“Go help Kasen or make food instead.”

“Gahaha, Kasen already kicked us out,” Yoshiyuki replied with a pleasant smirk, making Yamanbagiri arch an eyebrow. “Kasen lost it when Aizen dropped the clean sheets-”

“That was after you accidentally ripped one of them!” Aizen interjected.

“And…?” Yamanbagiri turned to Shishiou. “What did you do?”

Shishiou threw his hands behind his head. “Kasen threw a fit so he banned us from being near the laundry room.”

“What about watching over Izuminokami?”

“Horikawa is already babysitting Kanesan,” Aizen said with a snicker.

“The kitchen?”

“It’s also Kasen’s territory. Man, and to think I can use the microwave,” Yoshiyuki replied, with a wistful sigh followed by a casual shrug.

“Cleaning the rooms?”

“The Toushirou kids have been earnestly cleaning them. I’m not sure what’s gotten into them, but they were very intense,” Shishiou finished his sentence by throwing away a weed he had just pulled.

“Doudanuki?”

The three swords shook furiously their heads in unison.

“Anyway, we thought you’d need help, so we decided to come here,” Yoshiyuki said, though he had turned to look at the citadel. “I guess everyone’s feeling sorry for doubting in Master, so they’re trying to make up for it. Well, most of them.”

“I guess,” Yamanbagiri replied, though he quietly fixed his cloak to cover his head. Sure, he had admitted he didn’t mind a master who had committed murder, though he couldn’t help but feel a prang of guilt, just a slight one, as not minding was not the same as believing in someone.

He didn’t add anything else, but for the rest of that day, at least, Yamanbagiri let the three swords try to ease their guilt.

 


 

 “You know…” Aki rested against the open window, back turned to the forest in front of the citadel. She snorted, as if she had recalled a joke and smiled faintly. “I tried to play smart when I got sent here.” The wind blew her long hair, fading with the darkness of the sky. “I had heard that according to your progress in evaluation, you’d be sent to specific citadels.”

Mikazuki poured another cup of tea. “I wouldn’t be surprised if Master got here on purpose. Master can be quite devious when she plans to be.”

She snorted again, as she tried to suppress an awkward smile. “Well, I tried… the best students would get sent to Tokyo or Kyoto, quite advanced and almost armed. I figured a place like this would have less security. There were many rumors that provincial citadels had higher death rates, so everyone studied hard. I tried to do enough to get placed in one that wasn’t a hellhole nor a fancy prison, except…”

“Seems like Master’s plan didn’t go as expected.”

She shrugged and turned to the sky. “I’ve never been good with tests. My mind always goes blank when I see the questions… And then I get nervous trying to remember everything I had studied. I had to pass in the first place to set a foot outside, so I couldn’t really calm myself. Actually, it was a miracle that I didn’t flunk…  I think I got one of the lowest grades, but that was okay with the government. I guess they expected me to starve here.”

Mikazuki joined her by the window, eyeing the surroundings of their citadel, the faraway town beyond the forest, and on one side the ending of the Irohazaka. One lone car was stationed there, as if it was acting as a guard to enter the holy place. Mikazuki chuckled to himself and turned toward Aki, teasing her by playing with her bangs.

“Well, considering you are quite lively telling me this fancy story of a mischievous punk, I would say that Master’s plan went better than expected. Perhaps a better citadel would have restricted Master’s movements and relationship with us? After all, I have noticed that outside of some faraway mobile objects with people dressed like the rather frightening ones who come to fetch Master every month, there is hardly any surveillance.”

“They are called cars, dumbass. You probably heard that word when you arrived at the Museum.”

“A ha ha ha, I’m glad to see Master is feeling better.”

“I guess they never expected me to get this far.”

“Master would do well in remembering that it is those of whom the least are expected who the ones who change history.”

Aki blinked for a moment, then burst out laughing. “No, I am content like this. I can sometimes forget that I’m still a prisoner. I have no attempts of anything grand, I guess that makes me a terrible leader.”

“In that case, I don’t mind a terrible leader.”

She turned away as her cheeks turned faint red. “Hey… it’s not supposed to be a good thing.”

“A chance of pace once in a while doesn’t cause harm.”

He traced her cheek with a single finger.

“I have confidence Master can achieve many things, but if Master is content with enjoying this gentle night for now, I wouldn’t mind joining her.”

She casted a few glances at his smiling face, her own turning deeper crimson, but she took his hand and didn’t let go.

Chapter Text

Mikazuki had finished giving his report, and Aki sighed in relief at seeing that for the most part, everyone in the citadel had continued to do their chores, some with unexpected vigor. She had been unable to suppress a loud groan and the incoming headache when she heard of the swords’ antics, most of them done with unexpected willingness to help. Guilt was a funny thing and a powerful motivator, it seemed, though Kanesan could really use less guilt and avoid trying to clean the kitchen. His latest attempt to help would have ended up driving Kasen to a fit of rage, perfectly capable of destroying whatever mood he had for cooking. Thankfully, Horikawa and the dutiful Toushirous (excluding Namazuo and Midare) had managed to take Kanesan somewhere else before Kasen had renounced to his unofficial role as the Citadel cook. Even Imanotsurugi and Midare had tried to behave better than usual, though Doudanuki had reported they still kept trying to avoid training. Taroutachi seemed to have adapted better to the calm life in the citadel and Kasen, while initially complaining about making food, had taken zealous care of the kitchen.

She set her teacup on the small dish and looked at the pile of papers left to work on and nearby books, though her gaze wasn’t really interested in them.

“A ha ha ha, it seems something has occupied Master’s mind. I would advise Master to voice her thoughts, even if Master considers them silly.”

Aki blinked rapidly, not expecting that answer and shook her head, though it seemed to be an automatic reaction. She waited for a moment before asking, “I-is it alright…?”

“Of course it is. I believe that wanting reassurance is an important thing humans seek.”

“…I… I guess you are right…” Aki finally replied, ending her sentence with a sigh. “It’s hopefully the last thing, I prom-” However, she couldn’t finish that sentence when he held her hand between his. Her cheeks flushed when her eyes meet his, and she caught the soft smile he was directing at her.

She coughed and cleared her throat, flustered. “Well, uh, I… I’m sorry. I’m sorry I can’t do much for you guys, going to expeditions or the battlefield. Especially since I’m staying here, even though I guess I could go to fight.”

“Oh?”

“Well…” She laughed nervously as she tucked her hair behind her ear. “I like to fight. I think it’s the one thing I’m really good at, but…it had always been against humans. You weren’t here back then, but I did go back to the past once. During Blanket and everyone’s first mission. I got an injury…” Her gaze goes to her arm, where the soft traces of a scar could be seen, but to her, it was as if she could see the cut as if it had appeared moments ago. “I quickly realized I couldn’t go there, I couldn’t fight against enemies that aren’t human.” She shrugged, unable to hide that abashed smile. “Call me a coward, but… I don’t want to die, at least not yet…”

Mikazuki moved closer to her, his hand softly brushing her cheek. “I wouldn’t call someone who realizes their own limitations a coward. Tokugawa Ieyasu didn’t live that long because he was brash.”

“I didn’t understand quite well why people would die, it was a strong rumor when I was going through the Saniwa preparation courses. No one really told you anything…though, living like this, I finally understand. For many, fighting seemed easy, the idea of joining a battlefield…it’s even in all those shows and manga, it looks like it could be complicated but not that you could easily get killed…” She let out a long weary sigh, but Mikazuki took her face between his hands.

“You haven’t run away. In fact, you are using this knowledge and fear to protect us. I have noticed you have refrained from sending us in dangerous missions until everyone is strong enough to make it back. Dying is a part of the battlefield, if any of us dies, it’s the end, nothing else. But you are trying your best to ensure that fate doesn’t befall us.”

“There’s a limit to what I can do…”

“But you have been studying, have you not?” Mikazuki’s eyes fell on the books, a mix of history and strategy books, full of paperclips and small paper slips between the pages. “Not all commanders were directly fighting during wars, but they were present in their camps, and their support and utmost faith were enough for those who fought for them. Your work is not fighting the enemy, it is deciding the best course of action. I will be your eyes and I will do my best to protect the swords you have grown to cherish, even though the idea of you fighting by my side would be quite amusing. I remember your small lesson to Kanesan, you’d be quite a frightening opponent. And of course, I’ll make sure to come back in one piece, so I can take a nap on your lap. A ha ha ha, that would be a most pleasant reward.” He finished his sentence with a teasing smile, one that brought a small one to her face.

“Of course, you’d like that.”

“Actually, I wouldn’t mind doing that now,” Mikazuki said, moving closer to her face, though he rested his head against her shoulder.

“That’s not my lap, you ass.”

“A ha ha ha, my bad, my bad.” Mikazuki rose up, though he brushed his lips against the nape of her neck. Frowning, Aki forced a cough, though she moved away from the table, so her legs were exposed for a moment, only to support Mikazuki’s head now.

“You’re terrible,” she said softly, with a light chuckle, running her fingers through his hair, and Mikazuki closed his eyes and smiled pleasantly. “You remind me of a cat, actually. Quite eager to sleep on someone’s lap.”

“Nya ha ha, that is an endearing comparison. There was a book in the storage room, one about cats. Perhaps I should read it next to see if your comparison fits me? After all, Gokotai’s tigers aren’t exactly the same type of feline.”

“A book about cats?”

“I am a cat.”

“No, you’re not.”

Mikazuki opened an eye and laughed as he raised a sneaky hand and poked Aki’s chin. “That’s the title, ‘I am a Cat’. I believe it is a popular book, much younger than me, but..”

“Ah…” Her face flushed for a moment and she avoided Mikazuki’s gaze. “I-I think I know what book you’re talking about but I…I haven’t read it. I guess Kasen will look down on me further but I…it’s silly, but I’m not really well-versed in my own country…”

“Hmmm, it didn’t go unnoticed by me that Master has a peculiar fondness and knowledge of Western trivia. I recall in particular that story of the rather scary Greek gods Master used to get troublesome children like Midare do their chores without complaining.”

She puffed her cheeks as Mikazuki’s teasing expression made her fluster even more. “Well, it’s not that rare. I mean, some of your own masters were probably fans of other places. I do know Date Masamune really liked the West. A-anyway, I just had a lot of time to kill in prison, and reading was one of the few things I could do.”

“Well,” Mikazuki replied closing his eyes again, making himself comfortable, hands on his chest almost ready for him to take a nap. “These years have been hard for you. Your aversion to the motherland which has failed you is quite understandable.”

She didn’t reply and averted her gaze even though Mikazuki wasn’t looking at her. “…Sometimes I wonder if you can read minds.”

“It’d be an interesting ability to have. To be able to see all the rather salacious and scandalous thoughts you might have of me. A ha ha ha, though I’d stay put and respect the privacy of your adorably filthy mind, my dearest Master.”

Aki flinched, biting her bottom lip as she tried to control herself. She took a deep breath, poking his forehead with her index as she snarled, “How gracious of you, jackass…” Mikazuki chuckled as he held her hand.

“Rest assured that I lack that dangerous ability. In any case, it is an ironic situation. Master works really hard to protect the foundations which built the nation she has conflicted feelings about.”

“Resentment isn’t really a conflicted feeling.”

“And neither is the duty and responsibility you feel towards your mission. However, helping someone or something you resent, while being greatly affected, would give rise to conflicted feelings. Even so, you’ve been diligently studying. That itself is quite commendable, even if you are fond of putting your hard work down.”

Aki let out a long sigh and her expression softened. “You really are terrible.” She ran her hand through his hair, gazing at Mikazuki’s calming face for a long time, keeping her thoughts to herself for a while. However, her cheeks became a faint shed of red, as she asked, “But uh…how…how did you know about m…my mind?” The last words were muffled by her almost closed lips.

“A ha ha ha, that was merely a wild guess.”

 


 

“Haaaa…” Kanesan sighed loudly as he glanced at the vegetables lying on the counter. He brought his hands behind his head and whistled carelessly. “I want something nice...”

Aizen put down the crate with the tomatoes he had been carrying, smaller than Kanesan’s but full of the kind of vegetables that would need to be handled with care and not with the strength of an uncoordinated gorilla. Kasen had been out of the kitchen for a moment, but he would have screamed if he had seen how Kanesan had handled the carrots.

“T-thank you for your work,” Gokotai said after hearing their voices, and he hurried to where they were. He knelt down in front of the crate with the carrots. “Sayo and I’ll take it from h-ngghhh!” But the crate was too heavy, and Kanesan moved Gokotai aside.

“Ha ha ha, leave it to me. A cool man like me can’t have the little ones injuring themselves.” And without any effort, he brought the crate to the counter. However, his face turned green when he saw the onions and red peppers being cut in half. “H-hey, what are you even cooking?”

“Vegetable soup,” Sayo replied bluntly, turning for a brief moment to look at Kanesan, and Kanesan noticed the potato he was peeling.

“Huh…” Aizen went closer and looked at the pot with boiling water. “Man, I want something nice.”

“Vegetable soup is okay,” Sayo replied, but at his response Kanesan shook his head violently and crossed his arms in front of his chest.

“Absolutely not! We need something nice.”

“Yeah, like that pizza Master brought us the other day!” Aizen added and Kanesan grinned, as he had just found someone else to support his idea.

“Yes! You should make pizza! Now THAT is real fo-”

“Mhahaha, Kanesan, ya’ really like to let others do ya’ work, right?”

“Excuse you, you shit,” Kanesan snarled at the incoming Yoshiyuki, followed by Taroutachi.

Yoshiyuki put his crate of peppers on the floor and swiped the sweat off his brow, clearly ignoring Kanesan’s tantrum. “Though, I can’t disagree with ya’, that pizza was real nice!”

“Pizza?” Taroutachi turned to Yoshiyuki, after placing the two heavy sack of potatoes, both landing with a thud.

“Ah, right, Tarou wasn’t here. Master brought us pizza once. Ahhh I kinda want one right now.” Yoshiyuki said, hands folded in front of him and with a grin showing he had recalled something delicious, which made Taroutachi more confused since he hadn’t really answered his question. “But, whatcha doing here? I thought ya’ weren’t supposed to be here.” Yoshiyuki pointed at both Aizen and Kanesan.

“You are including yourself in that, remember?” Aizen huffed. “But yeah, pizza is a really nice and big thing! Like everyone can take a slice of it, and it’s this long thin thing and you think it won’t fill you up but it’s really good!”

Aizen could have described literally anything else, and he’d still leave Taroutachi with a confusion-filled impassive expression.

“The thing is, Miyaboss doesn’t want to make it. Something about Western cuisine being inferior, but he just can’t handle strong tastes,” Yoshiyuki snickered and patted Taroutachi’s mid-back.

“Mi-miyaboss….” Kasen’s half frustrated, half-offended reply cut through the cheerful atmosphere. “Thank you for your crude nickname, Mutsunokami.” Kasen growled as he rushed inside the kitchen to stand up in front of the three intruders. “You…and you, Izuminokami, why are you even here?”

“W-who is Izuminokami?” Aizen wondered for a second, then his expression grew bored. “Oh, right, Kanesan.”

“That’s my real name, you jerk!”

Kasen huffed and pushed both Kanesan and Aizen away from the kitchen, in the direction of the door, and Yoshiyuki had already left the place running in a hurry. “You are forbidden to be here. Now, leave before you make another mess.”

“But-but, hey! Why don’t you let us make a pizza!” Kanesan planted his feet on the ground and since he was taller and heavier, Kasen couldn’t move him.

“Leave!”

“Pizza, pizza!”

“What commoner and tasteless food are you even trying to get?”

“Uh, Ka-Kasen-san….?” Gokotai timidly interrupted, hand raised nervously as if asking to speak. “C-could we make pizza…?”

“Not you too, Gokotai. What is this pizza thing, not that I care, but I am very sure it is one of those garbage…”

“Pizza…was nice.” Sayo uttered quietly and Kasen stopped trying to push Kanesan. But with the pressure against his back gone, Kanesan fell back from his own force to stand his ground, hitting the back of his head against Kasen’s.

“Ahgffhh! MY HEAD!”

“Ahh! I feel like I’ve hit concrete!” Kasen held his head and moved away, with Kanesan falling on the floor with a thud.

“Kasen-san, are you alright?” Gokotai and Sayo rushed to Kasen’s side, while Aizen looked with a snide smile at Kanesan, chuckling between teeth.

“Hey! Why aren’t you asking about me!” Kanesan growled pointing at Aizen, but Aizen just shrugged.”

“I’m more afraid about Miya-er I mean, Kasen’s well-being, Ka-ne-san!”

“O-Sayo, don’t tell me you…” Kasen let out a long sigh, grimacing worse than if he had smelled Kanesan and Doudanuki’s dirty clothes after training. “If O-Sayo says so…however, I will not be cooking this pizza meal you’re talking about.”

“Oh? Did someone mention pizza? A ha ha ha, how surprising, tonight’s meal.” Everyone turned to the door to see Mikazuki laughing cheerfully as he stepped inside. “I’m always grateful for Kasen’s elegant meals, but pizza would be a pleasant change of pace. But, if Kasen isn’t cooking it, well, I wonder who would do that?”

“Of course, they would-” Kasen opened his mouth but quickly shut it, after glancing at Aizen and Kanesan. “Fine then, you have a point. HOWEVER, I don’t know any pizza recipe, so you will have to guide me.”

“A ha ha ha, how gracious of you. Thank you, Kasen.”

Kasen coughed and turned to the other swords. “Well then, how is this pizza thing you have been endlessly talking about?”

“Well….” Everyone started and then blinked in unison.

“So? Speak?”

Silence.

“Any ingredient in particular? Did it include rice? Any spice?”

More uncomfortable silence, heightened by Mikazuki’s pleasant smile and Taroutachi’s solemnly confused gaze at the vacant swords.

“Do you even recall the color? Any shape?”

“I don’t know, I just ate it,” Kanesan blurted out. “It was thin and I dunno, was in a shape.”

“What shape?”

“I think it was a square? I don’t know, we ate it a long time ago!”

“I-I recall it was circle.” Gokotai hurried to reply, Kanesan turned to him.

“Nonono, it was a square.”

“The slice I got was a triangle,” Sayo added quietly.

The swords looked at each other. Taroutachi had already left their side and, imagining he was getting in the way and unable to help, stood up next to Mikazuki.

“A ha ha ha, what a mysterious meal, capable of changing forms.”

“Mikazuki, you fucking know what shape it was,” Kanesan stomped to stand in front of him, looking as menacingly as he could but Mikazuki’s smile never faded and he returned the stare. Kanesan glared further for a couple of seconds and then averted his eyes. “I-it was a square, right?”

“Hmph, I wonder? I’m afraid I don’t recall many things at my age.”

Kanesan was about to rip some of his hair out and scream when-

“Mhahaha, this is where I do my gallant entrance, right?” Yoshiyuki entered the room, holding open a book, a large grin plastered on his face. “There we go, pizza!” He showed the book to the swords and pointed at one picture in particular, with a large circular, flat meal, an actual pizza.

“Looks like Gokotai was right,” Mikazuki added, even though he was at a relative distance from the group.

“Kanesan, do you even know shapes?”

“Shut up, Aizen! At least I said one!”

“Y-Yoshiyuki-san…could you please let me borrow your book?”

“Sure thing!” Yoshiyuki, largely ignoring Kanesan and Aizen’s quarrel and moving aside, handed Gokotai the book. Gokotai held it up so that he, Kasen and Sayo could look at it.

“Where did you get this book, Mutsunokami?” Kasen asked as he eyed the pizza and tried to discern the ingredients.

“It’s Master’s book that was Yasusada’s… Ah right, well, she gave him this book, but he didn’t want it, so I’m taking care of it for now. Anyway, it has a lot of pictures from all over the world, so I thought it could have a picture of a pizza. It doesn’t have the recipe though.”

Kasen sighed and took the book from Gokotai’s hands. “I think I have a fair idea, the text does say something brief about the ingredients. If I ask you what else this thing had, you’d say it has potatoes and carrots.”

“You mean it doesn’t have-”

“What do you mean it doesn’t-”

Aizen and Kanesan both spoke in unison but immediately shut up.

With another heavy sigh, as if trying to relieve the incoming migraine he was about to get, Kasen handed some tomatoes to Aizen and Kanesan.

 


 

After some debating, with Kasen asking Gokotai, Sayo and Yoshiyuki about the ingredients, while directing minor glares at Mikazuki who was still watching amused at the entire thing, Kasen finally made some dough.

“Now we need to…hmmm…” Kasen stared intently at the picture. “This pizza is flat and thin. But in order to keep its circular shape…what to do?”

“Oh!” Yoshiyuki seemed to have thought about this issue, and flipped some pages, scattering some flour everywhere. “You throw it up and if it spins, it’ll get that shape, like this guy over here!” And he pointed at the picture of a man dressed in white, looking upwards, hands raised as  he tossed the dough.

“I guess it makes sense but we have to make some sp-” Before he could finish his sentence, a small ball of dough had hit him in the face. But to his surprise, it hadn’t been Kanesan for once, but Aizen who had accidentally tried too hard and without any other word, he stepped aside.

Kasen felt a vein pop in his forehead, but he took a long, really long and deep breath to calm himself. “M-maybe we should…leave this to someone taller…” And he turned to where Mikazuki and Taroutachi were standing.

“Hmmm, perhaps I can finally be of use.” Taroutachi stepped forward and Kasen was about to say something, looked at Mikazuki’s horribly innocent smile, and shook his head.

Taroutachi took the small ball of tough and threw it upwards, the dough spinning and growing larger and thinner with each spin. Everyone looked amazed at how it was transforming. He threw it a second time, a little higher, to make it grow larger.

“Hmmm, we need it to be larger, we’re a lot of people.”

So Taroutachi threw it upwards a third time and everyone watched as the dough crashed into the ceiling, some parts of it splattered everywhere, a sight capable of making Kasen turn immediately blue.

“H-how are we going to-”

But before he could inquire on how they could clean anything, the kindhearted dough had graciously decided to fall over everyone under it.

Kasen let a loud, exasperated groan as he took some dough off his hair.  “Ahh, this is why I didn’t want any of you helping…ah, everything is a mess!” He turned to see Sayo’s face covered completely. “Even O-Sayo is dirty now, what have you-”

Just as Kasen had partially cleaned Sayo’s face, something caught his eye, enough to cut him off completely. Kanesan, Yoshiyuki and Aizen noticed this, and turned to find Kasen’s annoyed expression fading immediately and being replaced with a soft and kind one. Then, their eyes went to the source. Faint, almost imperceptible, as ethereal and vanishing as a shooting star, Sayo’s soft smile took them by surprise, but not enough that they would say anything. In fact, and in spite of any normal reaction anyone would expect from them, they turned away and cleaned their own hair quietly, all sharing the same warm expression. Gokotai had been watching this and smiled to himself, not before quietly bidding Mikazuki goodbye as the old sword left with his perpetual smile, though this one was different but equal in sentiment.

 


 

“Did something happen?” Aki asked as she left the documents she had been reading on the table, and her eyes scanned Mikazuki’s face, just as he had entered the room. He had gone on a walk, once he had been finished with his daily chores, and he was back earlier than what she expected.

“A ha ha ha, why does Master ask?” he replied, casually sitting in front of her.

“Your shit-eating grin, well I’d say that but there’s something else too.”

Mikazuki laughed pleasantly but he didn’t add anything else, preferring to look at her with a warm expression.

“Do I really want to know?”

He took Aki’s hand and held it between his. “Perhaps I have seen something unexpected. The kind which only happens once in a moon.” At her confused stare, he closed his eyes and brought her hand to his face. He only replied with silence, but Aki didn’t inquire further and let him hold her hand, unable to hide a shy smile.

 


 

 “Ahhh, this was an absolute disaster…I’ll never allow you three in here again,” Kasen replied as he entered the dining room, carrying some wooden boards, covered carefully with a cloth as if to unveil a surprise, the smell of cheese and baked flour filling the air. Almost every sword gulped, mouths watering and some, like Nakigitsune’s fox were already drooling.

“You realize that if you don’t let anyone in the kitchen, no one is going to learn anything, right?” Kanesan replied, following as he brought another board.

“Anyone except you…or Namazuo is welcome to help,” Kasen replied with a huff before clearing his throat, ignoring the bored glare Namazuo directed at him the moment his name was uttered. “I have graciously accepted some of your requests and decided to bake this pizza meal for all of you. I hope that just because we are eating this once, you also come to apprecia- Hey, stop and listen to me!”

But Kasen’s remarks went unnoticed as Shishiou, Midare and Imanotsurugi had already taken off the cover of the pizzas, like animals fighting for the biggest prize.

“Heh heh, I’ll let you know that I did most of the work, including cutting the slices, which as all of you know, are triangles,” Kanesan replied with a haughty smile as he folded his arms.

“Wh-”

“Why…”

Aki stared at the pizza closest to her, eyes drifting towards the rather large triangle carefully cut in the center. She nodded to herself once, and turned to Kanesan. “You know what, I’m going to fucking kill you.”

 


 

Days had passed by and Aki let out a long sigh, having realized she couldn’t postpone the issue at hand any longer. Only Mikazuki had been let in and was aware of what ailed Aki, and so he had lent an ear, not without adding his own insight.

“Master cannot avoid this event, and perhaps accepting this fact will make Master’s burden lighter on her shoulders. They have been so tense lately that I worry about Master’s health. But I know Master is a compassionate person, having given this so much thought.”

His words echoed once more as she stood up and went to the window, looking at the faraway Lake Chuzenji. History books lay around her desk, some with scribbles and small papers full of notes. There was even a diagram of the layout of some town.

“You called, Master?” Kashuu was the first to ask after they had entered the room. The former swords of the Shinsengumi had been gathered, and the unusual call made everyone look at each other with rising suspicion. They turned to Mikazuki, but he was sitting next to them with no indication of sharing his thoughts or explaining the situation for the moment.

Aki looked at the faraway sky, the only witness to constant events full of irony, before going back to her desk.

“The Retrograding Army has made their move.” At her words, everyone but Mikazuki tensed up.  “I am aware this battle might be sensitive for some of you, though your experience and knowledge of the area would give us an advantage. However, you are free to decide whether you want to be sent there.” She paused for a moment, looking at every sword in front of her.

 “The Retrograding Army is planning to interfere…. In the Battle of Hakodate.”

 

Chapter Text

At first there was silence. The swords of the Shinsengumi stood still, staring at Aki. When her face showed no traces of jesting, and the silence had become unbearable, Kanesan was the first to speak.

“M-master, you don’t mean… You’re kidding, right?”

Aki let out a long sigh. “Do I look like I’d joke about something like this? The kids caught wind of it in one of their recon missions. The Retrograding Army is planning to ensure…” She stopped for a moment, picking the best words to describe the situation. “…the Imperial Army’s loss.”

Kanesan felt a cold chill down his spine, unable to hide a grimace.

Hakodate.

The fateful battle in 1869. The last fight between the Imperial and Shogunate forces, which ended the 200 years of the Tokugawa Shogunate and brought Japan into a new era, one where the samurai were gone and swords like them were no longer used. But to Kanesan, what struck the hardest was….

“You know what this means.”

Hijikata Toshizou’s last stand.

There was a buzz filling Kanesan’s ears, making all words lose meaning, even if he could listen to every single thing they said. He could hear the agitation in Horikawa’s words, as Aki seemed to have expected this reaction. She looked almost as troubled as everyone else.

“Since some of you were there until before the actual battle, it’d give us an advantage in accurate knowledge of the layout before the battle, and I do think it’s… something only you can do. But…” She folded her arms and remained impassive. “No one will force you to go if you don’t want to. That is as much as I can do for you.”

The last words, even if he wasn’t paying attention, were sharp enough to strike his heart. He knew what she meant, what the mission entailed. Aki had played with words, to lessen the blow, but Kanesan knew better than anyone else the true mission of their battle.

They would have to ensure that the Shogunate forces were annihilated, that Hijikata would die in that battle.

 


 

 “Kane-san….” Horikawa called, worry so deep in his frown that it wouldn’t be surprising if it stuck there forever.

Mikazuki walked solemnly in front of them, there was a space between them, a quiet way to give them intimacy but close enough to remind them of their situation. Kanesan was following Mikazuki absentmindedly, not aware of where he was being led until he lifted his eyes and failed to recognize the door in front him.

“Mikazuki-san,” Horikawa’s words brought him to reality and he finally realized that he had brought them to his room.

“A ha ha ha, I’ve worked as best as I could to make this a comfortable place to relax,” he said opening the door, his room being succinct in details, but somehow that gave it an even more elegant and mature charm. It was slightly overwhelming at first, but once Kanesan had stepped in and the mix of incense and green tea had reached his nose, he realized it was actually soothing. Or as soothing as any place could be, given the circumstances. “Please, have a seat. I hope you don’t mind green tea.”

And surprising both Horikawa and him, he poured some tea in cups meant for them. When Horikawa was about to protest, he merely laughed and kept pouring the tea, even if it should have been them the ones doing the honors, since Mikazuki was the eldest and highest ranked sword in the citadel, being Aki’s secretary after all. It was something unexpected to Kanesan, he imagined he would have been stuck up, more akin to Kasen, when he was far more chill and easy-going than expected.

“Please,” Mikazuki handed them their cups and focused on his own, spending some moments to savor the green tea’s aroma before taking small sips.

Horikawa glanced at Kanesan, questioning eyes that he couldn’t hide, given the unexpected invitation. Kanesan was equally stumped, so he just took the cup and gulped it in one shot, realizing far too late that the tea was still too hot to drink it all.

“If Master didn’t believe in you, she would have never suggested this. Though it will sound cruel of her, forcing you to face this battle, out of everything we have faced so far.”

Kanesan was busy trying to hide his burning throat, though Mikazuki’s words almost made him choke again. Horikawa even put his teacup on the table, head slightly lowered and with an unreadable expression.

“I understand why you would be conflicted about this situation. Our current skirmishes have been uneventful ones, so to be suddenly asked to get involved in a rather personal event... She wishes to not cause you anguish, though with the current development of affairs, such an innocent wish is impossible to fulfill.”

“I-I see…” Horikawa began, voice trailing, but there was a looming sense in his words, the hint that there was a point in time when someone would have to face their past, to ensure their Master died. And it had been them. Kanesan gripped the teacup on his hands. He understood those words and what would happen, but it made them no less unpleasant and unfair.

“Let me ask you, why are you fighting for? A ha ha ha, feel free to refrain from answering aloud, the importance of this question is the answer within your heart.”

“M-Mikazuki-san…” Horikawa asked. “If-if you were forced to ensure the death of your Master…”

“I’m afraid I cannot answer to that. Granted, I have seen many of my Masters come and scatter through history like petals during spring but, how would I react in such circumstances is something I cannot predict. At best I can give you an educated guess, though it is nothing which will help you decide.”

Horikawa opened his mouth to press further, but he looked at Kanesan’s pale face, his lips drawn in a thin, hard line, a mix of worry and deep thought. Mikazuki wanted them to find that answer on their own, and any answer would be able to sway or oppress the desires of their heart.

“In any case, I’d advise you to enjoy this cup of tea and spend the rest of the night meditating over your response. I’m afraid we don’t have enough time to let you ponder about such a delicate topic. You can inform me or Master of your decision.”

Given that Kanesan had already emptied his, throat itching, though not all because of the hot tea, he stood up abruptly and walked to the door as fast as he could. “Got it… Thanks for the tea.”

“Kane-san…”

But Kanesan didn’t look back and he had left the room when Horikawa tried to reach out for him.

 


 

 It was pointless to stop Kanesan, Horikawa knew. But it only served to add another layer of helplessness, given how they seemed to be toyed with by fate, and Mikazuki was something like a quiet judge. However, Mikazuki kept on drinking his tea in silence, seemingly settled in letting Kanesan be.

“Mikazuki-san…. A-about your answer…”

“A ha ha ha, it seems you are quite the persistent one.” He set aside his cup of tea and looked at Horikawa with understanding eyes. “If you must know, I have lived a long life and with age, while the loss is still present, it becomes something you come to terms with. You all are quite young and haven’t experienced many things, which results in this passionate loyalty. I understand what the stakes are about, so I can tell you this: if our current Master asked me to ensure the death of a previous one, I would do it myself, as it is my responsibility to her and to my former Master.”

“It sounds…”

“Perhaps cold, I assume.”

Horikawa shifted uncomfortably and avoided giving the answer Mikazuki had already guessed. Instead, he asked, “And what about our current Master?”

“If anyone wished to harm our current Master, they would have to first go through me. And if such is the end of our story, we would scatter together as petals in the wind.” There was a solemn tone in his words, even though they were soft spoken, the mature acceptance of someone who has lived long enough to be over what had been holding Kanesan and Horikawa back.

“But, that is just how I would react and it is just one of the many ways one could do so. Feel free to disagree.”

Horikawa couldn’t reply. So many conflicted feelings rose in his chest, bottled up, but he couldn’t stop them. Mikazuki, who had lived so long, could see everything with distant eyes, but Horikawa saw the hurt in Kanesan’s eyes ever since the mission was explained. And he couldn’t also deny his own hesitation, to lose his master twice. It was too much.

The green tea was soft, though, and he kept drinking it, now in contemplative silence. Mikazuki had made no more attempts of small talk, Horikawa had realized it had never been his intention when he brought them. And when his tea had been emptied and the tea in the kettle had grown cold, he finally excused himself and left Mikazuki’s room.

 


 

 “This is too cruel…” Yasusada mumbled to himself, lying on his bed and staring at the ceiling in his and Kashuu’s room. “To make someone go where…”

Kashuu folded his coat neatly, laying it on top of his desk, but he listened to Yasusada’s mumblings. “It’s something that can’t be helped.”

“Are you… are you serious?” Yasusada rose up hastily, faint anger flickering in his eyes.

“It was bound to happen,” Kashuu said, with a soft shrug, though Yasusada missed the faint resignation behind that gesture.

“Bound to happen? Really?” Yasusada’s eyes stopped on Kashuu’s clothes. “Wait, those clothes… you don’t mean…”

“I thought you had heard me,” Kashuu said with a huff, hand carefully patting his neatly folded combat uniform, now all set for departure. “I had already told Master I was going to be in the expedition.”

“No way, why? There are other swords who can go there… That…that place means the Shinsengumi is…”

It meant the Shinsengumi they all loved and were a part of are gone, Yasusada wanted to say but he couldn’t voice those thoughts for they burned his soul.

Kashuu glanced at Yasusada, a nostalgic shine in his eyes before going to methodically check that his outfit was absolutely perfect. “I’m not dying to go there, but someone has to be there for them.”

“So, are you going to simply accept it? That they go where their Master died!?”

“We all have a new Master, that includes you as well.”

“A Master who is forcing them to go see Hijikata killed?!”

“She said they could-”

“What then!? Would you want to go and ensure Okita dies?! So if she says it nicely, you’ll go there to ensure he is…”

“Okita died lying on a bed.”

Yasusada wasn’t sure if it had been the blunt, but deeply sorrowful tone of Kashuu’s voice or how his lips flickered in a fraction of second that had stopped him abruptly. “He… we will never have to face this. But…” Kashuu took his own namesake in his hands and stared at it, gently touching the hilt of the sword. “Even if it was to ensure their defeat… I would want to see him again. To properly say goodbye.”

Whatever will Yasusada had to argue and complain, he just laid on his back and turned to face the wall, teeth clenched because Kashuu wouldn’t understand his feelings, even though he was the one who should understand him the most. He was so busy thinking about this, shut out from everything, that he missed the concerned gaze his friend directed at him, and how Kashuu tried to think of something to ease his wounds, but couldn’t find it.

 


 

 It was all too vivid for him, Hijikata on the field, Kanesan lying by his side as the warmth of Hijikata’s body faded. That large frown on his face, the faint traces of the kindness behind his words and the unspoken pride when he looked at his troops, at Kanesan… they were no longer there, replaced by a cold shocked gaze.

He remembered crying next to the man with whom he had spent years together, begging him to wake up, but no matter how much he shook the body of that man, it wouldn’t move and Kanesan’s words and feelings wouldn’t be able to reach him any-

Kanesan woke up, cold sweat covering every part of his body, deep darkness confusing him for a moment, before he realized he wasn’t in the field of Hakodate. He wiped the water from his eyes.

It had all been a dream, both extremely cruel and giving, one that made him lose his grip on reality for a moment.

He had never seen Hijikata’s last moments. He and Horikawa had been sent away before the battle, one Hijikata knew he wasn’t coming back alive from. He had imagined this all along, the things he had wished had happened, but never did. If only he had been with Hijikata, if only Hijikata hadn’t die-- He stopped that thought shaking his head as violently as he could.

He wasn’t going to be able to sleep for a while, the nightmare still too real, such that if he closed his eyes, he would be able to listen to the gunshots and screams, the stench of blood and death everywhere. He instead decided to walk around the citadel, hoping that the tranquil darkness of it would take his haunting thoughts away.

There was a soothing effect of the hallways, faintly lit by the moonlight, giving it an ethereal atmosphere. Everyone else was probably fast asleep, unaware of the upcoming mission. It was fine, he didn’t want them to worry about it, in fact their absence helped him quell the thoughts that were now piling up, things he wanted to avoid and would come back stronger if left unchecked.

Kanesan wondered for a second if anyone had ever had any doubts. Perhaps for some it was easy. Some too distanced from their masters and others with far too many that the faces had merged with the passing years.. But for him, Hijikata had been his only one.

If only he hadn’t died…

He smacked his head, damn he had always been stubborn. He also wanted to slam his fist against the nearest wall but stopped before hitting it, realizing he would wake someone up. It was then that he realized there was light coming from one of the rooms. He had walked aimlessly so he wasn’t sure where he was, and while he wanted to avoid conversation, at the same time, he hoped that someone would just whisk his thoughts away. Not mulling over it for longer than a second, he reached to the door, regretting immediately even peeking, as he met Mikazuki and Aki’s faces.

“Uhh…ahh…” He began and forced himself to enter the room, even though he wanted to leave already. “M-master, what are you doing?” He tried his best to fake a smile, though it quickly died when Aki sighed.

“Work, I wouldn’t be here this late if it wasn’t for that.” She rubbed her temples as Mikazuki took the cups that were lying around her, placing them neatly on a tray he was holding. “Anyway, why are you here?”

“I kinda stumbled across,” was something he absolutely couldn’t say, he thought, but he couldn’t answer right away either.

“Master, I’ll brew more tea. Please refrain from drinking coffee as I’m away,” Mikazuki casually said, with perfect timing, perhaps too perfect but Kanesan couldn’t help being grateful for that save.

“Yeah, yeah, I learned my lesson already. Damn, fucking caffeine crash,” she growled as she took a pot and placed it as far from her as possible, while Mikazuki excused himself. It was then that Kanesan had realized that Aki’s face had red marks, the kind where one fell asleep by accident while working, and the pattern of clothes pressed against her skin was sure to make this mishap obvious.

There were many papers scattered around her table, some even on the floor. It wouldn’t take a genius to realize what they were all about. Some terrain drawings, books open at specific pages, held in place by pens and one with a rock on top because it wouldn’t stay still. It was all about Hakodate.

Among the papers, one with a list of the swords, numbers next to them, was in his view. It had the names of the more experienced swords and Kanesan didn’t need to think about it twice. It was a list of possible replacements in case any of the Shinsengumi swords refrained from participating. They still had until early morning to tell her, but it seemed Aki wasn’t going to take any chances if all four would stay out of it.

“So,” Aki sat down again and stretched her neck until it popped. “Why are you here, Kanesan?”

Now that he had calmed down, there were two things he wanted to ask. He was to ashamed to ask with Mikazuki or Horikawa around, but since neither was at this moment (and he wondered for a second if Mikazuki had known of this, and he did have a slight urge to both punch and thank him), he might as well say it.

“H-how did…How did Hijikata die?”

He could see her eyebrows go up in disbelief and then dangerously low, skepticism in her face. “What?”

“I-I never, I always knew he had passed away in Hakodate, but I had never been filled in on the details.”

Hijikata’s passing was certain, but whenever someone would talk about it, Kanesan would focus so hard on everything else to block out that knowledge, as futile as it was. Yet it somehow worked, and with time people were more concerned with the romantic idea of Hijikata dying from his beliefs rather than the specific details of his death. He had been fine with this for a long time until…

“Are you sure?” She asked in return, though her features were now softer, almost hesitating to answer. Kanesan had expected her to get angry, but instead she seemed worried for him.

“Yes.”

She sighed again. “…He…” she stopped, and Kanesan realized that she was trying to find the best words to describe it, a cold chill through his body telling him it wasn’t going to be pretty.

“Don’t sugarcoat it, please.”

She now seemed the one more uncomfortable with the subject, and it was clear in her eyes that she was questioning why Kanesan wanted such graphic details but realized he wasn’t going to relent. His stubbornness was quite well-known.

“You left with Ichimura Tetsunosuke before the imperial troops arrived on Ezo. Hijikata had been in Futamataguchi when they landed, but later he had to move to the Goryokaku fortress since it was going to be their target. However, the Imperial forces launched an all-out attack, and the Benten Daiba fortress and the city were taken over.” Aki looked at Kanesan as he nodded at her to continue. “You knew how Hijikata was, he couldn’t leave his comrades, so he headed to Benten Daiba and stopped at the Ipponji Kanmon checkpoint. But…”

Kanesan stood still, as impassive and ready as he could. The truth always close to him, the one he had always turned away from, it was time to hear it.

“He got shot. In the lower back.”

Kanesan hung his head low, feeling a knot in his throat, but he bit his tongue hard, hard enough that it filled his mouth with the taste of iron instead. He could imagine just now Hijikata falling on the ground, just as he had fallen in his dream.

“They engaged the Imperial forces there, but after Hijikata died, the Ezo Republic was over.” The fatality in her words signaled the ending of the story. Hijikata had died in battle, the way he had wanted it to be, until the bitter end. Kanesan had heard him say several times how he’d never be able to meet Kondo Isami in the afterlife if he had resolved through a peaceful way. But still, it hurt.

It hurt as much as it had hurt back with the Sato family when the messenger had arrived to inform them of his death. But…

He swallowed hard.

He couldn’t cry, he wouldn’t allow himself to cry.

“D-did…” He breathed deeply, unable to face Aki and instead focused on the ground. “Did he suffer?”

He could almost hear her surprise, with her eyes wide-open, not expecting that question, but to Kanesan…

“Do you really want to know?”

…it was vital to him.

“Yes.”

She took a deep breath. “It’s not mentioned in the books, but… most likely.”

It had to hurt, Kanesan chided to himself. Unlike the head or the heart, an injury to the back wouldn’t immediately kill someone, even if the gunshot had been powerful. He had seen the faces of the soldiers, crying in agony as result of their injuries. It wouldn’t have been a tranquil or swift death… It had been the way Hijikata had gone. His sight blurred, but he steeled himself, he had done so already.

“It’s hard to think about it, but… Don’t let his final moments be all you can think of. You saw more of him than anyone else, so it’s better to focus on those memories the most.”

Minutes passed, the memory of Hijikata haunting him now, a memory of an event he had never watched, but his mind now deemed it worthy of imagining over and over. If he could have spared Hijikata that suffering, if he had…

The thoughts came back stronger. Relentless.

“Izuminokami Kanesada.”

A soft poke on his forehead broke him out of his trance, blinking rapidly to find Aki leaning close to him, frown so large it was almost scary, enough that he had almost missed the fact she had skipped the nickname. When he seemed to react, she sighed in relief.

“Your hands are so curled up, you’re digging your nails into your palms. Even if you’re not fighting tomorrow, you’re injuring yourself.”

Without a word, she went to the nearest cabinet, fishing around for something while Kanesan looked at his hands, realizing finally that blood was coming out of both of them, leaving thin trails down the creases of his palms. He had been so clueless but now that he was seeing the small wounds, he realized they stung.

However, it stung more when sudden spray, with a foul irritating smell, fell on them.

“Hey what the agh!” He yelled, louder than what his dignity would have allowed, receiving a light flip on his forehead.

“Shhh, you’re waking up everyone in the citadel, you smartass.”

“What!...” He realized he was still talking too loud and quickly lowered his voice to an angry low growl, “—was that?”

“Disinfectant. We don’t want this to get infected, duh.”

“Why! Ouch that hurts!” He failed to keep his tone lone when Aki sprayed more on the wounds, and pulled away both of his hands.

“I’m going to disinfect your face if you keep yelling,” she replied, annoyed, holding the small bottle of liquid close to his face.

“I get it, I get it,” Kanesan mumbled, but wouldn’t let his hands close to her cursed itchy foul water.

“Man, you’re such a child,” she whispered, but when Kanesan was about to protest again, she smacked him on the head lightly and went back to her seat. He wouldn’t say it aloud, but he was glad she had stopped him, except for the liquid part.

“Anyway, you should go to bed, it’s too late,” she began, as she took one of the papers and dropped it on the table, clearly tired of seeing the documents again.

But Kanesan stayed in his place, wondering if, seeing as Mikazuki hadn’t come back, if he could ask something which had been on his mind for a while. It didn’t seem proper to ask, especially because of the mission, and he was risking too much by simply voicing those thoughts alo-

“Master, have… have you ever thought of changing the past?”

Well, the words had come out without him thinking much of it, but he couldn’t take them back.

Now, he had expected her to get angry at him, to demand him to shut up and pretend he never asked that.

“You’re kind of an ass, aren’t you?”

“What.”

She mumbled angrily something as she folded her arms and gripped her clothes hard, trying to calm herself down. “For such a self-proclaimed cool and suave sword, you have no fucking tact. Of course I wondered about that, when I was younger. Most of the time when I first arrived in prison.”

“Younger… wait, does that mean…”

There was a complicated look in her gaze he couldn’t understand. Granted, Kanesan hadn’t known much about what her deal in prison had been and only knew the general details, but he imagined it couldn’t have been pleasant. It would be understandable if she had wanted to change the past, to prevent herself from being sent to prison, and it had bugged him why she hadn’t so, even when she had the means to do it.

“My first years in prison, getting out from there was all I thought about. I mean, I still do, but… I won’t say I’m not angry about it, but I don’t want that to be all I do. I wished for things to change, that I would suddenly be let out, that they realized they had made a mistake. But that never happened. Instead, I would spend every day in that cell or doing the work we were made to or….” Her expression grew distant and pained, and Kanesan regretted for a moment that he had accidentally brought up bad memories, but she quickly shook her head. “Things happened though… I won’t say the thought stopped crossing my mind but… There are things you just can’t change or take back, no matter how much you try or you wish for it to not happen.”

“But… If you changed the past you could be free, right?”

Aki pouted, almost sighing, but instead rolled her eyes and leaned forward. “Say for a moment you change the past to save Hijikata.” He unconsciously tensed up, though she quickly shushed him. “Let’s pretend you did that. You’d be happy, because he got to live longer… But given his personality, he would have still fought the Imperial forces, so it’s likely he would have died later in battle. The Boshin war was a lost cause.”

Kanesan almost opened his mouth to protest, but he couldn’t really argue against that. Even Hijikata must have known that since he had sent him and Horikawa to his family.

“You’d have to either suck up the fact that he was going to die there, or you’d have to change it further back to ensure he lived. But on the off, remote chance, they won… What if Hijikata lived but had a sad life next? If he were depressed about Japan’s changes. Would you change things again, so he’d be fine? It’d be easy to go back to something you don’t want and change it until it is something you approve of but… what gives you the right to do so?”

“That’s…”

“There’s also the fact that everyone would want to do it, everyone would want to erase their mistakes. You’d also want Okita and Kondo to live, you’d want to help Kashuu and Yasusada and bring them happiness. Or you can just think, I’ll do it to make only this person happy, but at what point would you stop? How far would you go to ensure this happiness? What if this happiness causes other people to suffer, would that be a fair exchange?”

“Okay, maybe you’re exaggerating a little with Hijikata but, I-I mean, you going to uh… jail… only affects you, right?”

“Even if it only affected me, if I were to change the past, it would have just made whatever I went through meaningless. It would be that I took the easy way out instead of facing the consequences. I never committed a crime, but my sin was naively trusting someone who I should have never have listened to or trusted. Many times I had thought about it, but dismissed the warnings inside my head. It’s…” She held herself softly. “It’s not an easy pill to swallow… But I don’t believe I’m justified in doing that. I have to suck it and pull through. And if you want the cheesy version, if I hadn’t been sent to prison, I wouldn’t have met you, so I want to think that all I went through was something I had to do to get to this point.”

Kanesan blinked, oddly touched at this revelation, though he said, “It doesn’t sound like a pleasant thing to do.”

“A lot of things are hardly like that… That’s why… I’d like to treasure the ones that are…”

 


 

 “I hope you’ve found the answers in your heart, Kanesan?”

“Mikazuki!” Kanesan jumped and he almost imagined Aki would get out of the room and spray his eyes with the disinfectant. “Don’t scare me like that… Nevermind, what, can you read minds, how did you know I had-“

“A ha ha ha, my Master senses let me know when it is right to come to her side.”

“Master what…?” Kanesan raised an eyebrow but stepped away from Mikazuki. “You’re kidding, right?”

“A ha ha ha.”

“You absolutely can read minds, leave mine alone!” He grumbled as loud as he could that he wouldn’t get murdered and made a dash to his room, but not before saying, “Te-tell Master… I’ll be going tomorrow”.

 


 

 It had been unexpected, but before the gate, the former swords of the Shinsengumi had gathered, their faces stoic and stony as they gazed at what lay beyond the opening, their blue haori gently flying with the cool morning breeze. Wearing them was only fitting, the last stand of the Shinsengumi being their destination, a symbol of who they had belonged to. They needed no words, all eyes in front of their leader, the sword of the commander whose tragic fate they would have to protect. The tallest of them, Kanesan walked without looking back, eyes fierce as he crossed the bridge, his steps not faltering once.

Mikazuki and Aki’s gazes followed them in solemn silence as they disappeared through the portal. All words they might have needed had been said, perhaps aloud or perhaps in a different way. So they stood beside the gate, long after the Shinsengumi squad had gone. They knew they weren’t going to run away, but they would honor their resolve by waiting there.

“Do you know why people see someone who has passed away before being buried?” Mikazuki’s soft words were carried by the wind, gently breaking the silence surrounding them.

“It is for them to know that this person is never coming back.”

“Their last chance to bid farewell.”

She gripped her long coat, arms folded to stand her ground, though her strength faded when Mikazuki placed a hand on her shoulder. He didn’t let go, as both would now wait for them to return home.

Chapter Text

For some reason, the landscape of Hakodate where Kanesan had never stepped once in battle felt familiar, nostalgic green fields spreading as they ran further from the forest where they had been hiding. Everything was as vivid as his recent dream, and he could hear the sound of horses on the other side of the hills, those people unaware of what was about to attack them.

“Everyone,” he screamed as he drew his blade, light shining on the dangerous edge, the one he knew was going to take Hijikata’s life, “Charge!”

The grip on his own namesake strengthened, as he darted like a hawk straight for the Retrograding Army in front of them, everyone rushing to stop them before they clashed with the Imperial forces.

Horikawa was the fastest of them, reaching the three enemy tanto which had deviated from the attacking force, in an attempt to stall them. Without hesitation, Horikawa’s blade cut through the body of one, as Kashuu’s sword hit the second, having caught up to him, though there wasn’t a second to waste as another swing of his sword sliced the third tanto’s head.

Yasusada darted to the left, sword slamming three times against the nearest uchigatana, which had tried to ambush them from the side, a vicious attack with far more force than necessary. But he wouldn’t relent, the blood of the enemy falling on the grass as he swung his sword against an incoming wakizashi. For a moment, his hand trembled, anger too much to be contained in one slash, needing more and more to get rid of those feelings, to no avail.

Neither Kanesan nor Horikawa had noticed the fury of his strokes, and though Kashuu had stopped for a moment, finishing a second wakizashi, he had no time to say anything as an enemy tachi pressed his blade against him, taking advantage of that one second Kashuu had been distracted.

“Nghh, you bastard….” Kashuu grumbled, pressing with all his might to stop that sword from slicing him, feet dragged back. His knees gave in, and he remembered Aki had nagged him to do something about his weak legs when he didn’t want to kneel down to clean, with the tachi’s blade now too close to his neck. He wondered if he was going to be cut there, and why he had to remember being scolded in this exact moment, as suddenly blood splattered on his face, Kanesan’s blade cutting through the enemy tachi, arc swinging too close to Kashuu, who had fallen on his back at the last second.

“Kanesan! That was close!” Kashuu managed to say, unconsciously wiping out the blood from his cheeks with a disgusted face, as Kanesan turned and rushed to the next enemy.

“Shut up and keep fighting!” Kanesan hollered, readying his sword to meet the last of the enemies, two tachis and a final wakizashi, unable to get away to reach the Imperial Army. They had realized they would need to cut the Shinsengumi squad if they wanted to fulfill their objective. Kanesan smirked, knowing they had managed to distract them, though his smile was quickly wiped away as the tachi closest to him lunged forward.

“Kanesan!” Horikawa screamed as he charged against both, the tachi managing to step away, even if it got an injury to the side.

“I’m okay Kunihiro, don’t stop!” Kanesan yelled, quickly back into his fighting stance, readying his sword to end the enemy with one blow.

Soon, there was a light rain of blood, mixing with the dark glittering dust that scattered from the dissipating corpses of the Retrograding Army, and Kanesan’s dashing figure as he reached out to the other side of the hills.

 


 

Yasusada’s hand gripped the handle of his sword, he would dart to follow Kanesan if he stepped further. However, Kashuu’s hand got in his way, too hastily, but proof that he wanted to stop Yasusada from harming Kanesan, as he knew what was going through his mind.

“He’s not going to…”

For a moment, Kashuu thought a scowl flashed on Yasusada’s face, but a second look found no traces of any expression, Yasusada calmly sheathing his blade again.

“Uh…”

“I know.”

“R-right.” Kashuu hesitated for a moment to move his eyes away from Yasusada, but when Yasusada made no sign to talk and simply stared at Kanesan, he forced himself to do the same. As he saw Kanesan’s back, he wondered if he had been imagining things in the heat of the moment. Perhaps it had been the result of his slight brush with the enemy’s sword, on an unusual higher state of alert that would mistake friendly gestures with…

 


 

Kanesan had resolved to stay his ground, but even so, he ran toward the top of that hill, until Hijikata’s unit was summoned before his eyes, like a far away dream. They were bravely marching forward, unaware for a couple of minutes before hell would be unleashed before them. Horikawa’s eyes widened, worry deeply marked in his frown and trembling lip, tension not releasing even if Kanesan stood his ground on that lone hill, eyes fixed on the battlefield.

“K-kane-san…” He mumbled softly, but his words were cut short as a gunshot tore through the air, the enemy’s presence gone undetected before that, but suddenly flooding the fields like a merciless storm. The calmness was quickly ripped apart, as gunshots kept ringing, one after another, followed by the hollow scream of one of the Ezio Republic’s soldiers.

One bullet had hit a man, far away yet still clear enough to Kanesan and Horikawa, his body falling off the horse he had been sitting on seconds ago. The impact had such strength, he fell to his side, face smashing against the grass, no time to protect himself from the fall. He tried to stand, his body meeting the ground once more. Of course, doing so would have been impossible, not even if the adrenaline rush had managed to mask the immeasurable pain it would cause, the bullet shattering the man’s pelvis. But even so, and as Kanesan’s eyes widened, quickly glistening as they filled with water, the man still tried to crawl, his struggle continuing as his clothes and the grass under him were dyed red, movements becoming sluggish and arduous to watch.

Kanesan’s lips were drawn to a thin heavy line, solemnly seeing how the life of Hijikata waned, and soon, like a candle against by a gentle breeze, it extinguished without a noise. He bit his lip hard, tasting metal in his mouth and clenched his fists, reopening the wounds from last night, more biting, yet at the same time, quickly numbed. He forced himself to nod to Horikawa’s muffled voice, pulling him away from the silence and the dark slaughter in front of him. Right, he had forgotten for a second. He was the captain now, and he had one single goal.

He wouldn’t cry for Hijikata, at least not in the world that had once belonged to him.

He turned to meet Horikawa and shook his head.

“Good job, everyone. Let’s go back.”

His voice was forceful, hoping that the scream from the bottom of his soul turned into a commanding order would mask his pain. If they noticed it, no one said a thing, only Yasusada avoiding his eyes and choosing to stare at the horizon.

When Kanesan walked, after a second of doubt, he clenched his teeth and moved forward, never once looking back.

 


 

The silence once they were back at the gate was solemn, oppressive. While Mikazuki still wore his usual calm smile, it was clear that both Master and secretary had always known the meaning of the mission, the thousand feelings it would entail. Unlike other times when they had been nagged to clean their clothes and swords, this time muddy feet dragged through the citadel, and the two simply guided the Shinsengumi squad to the large onsen part that was the men’s bathroom.

Aki stopped at the door. “We’ve confirmed the defeat of the Retrograding Army. Well done.” Her voice was soft, but not enough to be a whisper. “Take a bath and after that, dinner’s waiting for you.”

Mikazuki led them after inside, where Yagen, Akita, Gokotai, Aizen, and Honebami were waiting for them. Horikawa was surprised to see them, holding clean towels for all of them, though he quickly assumed they had thought it to be a considerate gesture, a small quiet way to care for them. Even when Aizen usually fought like small kids with Kanesan, the red-haired tanto had made no biting remarks at his disheveled form and serious expression. True, none of them had been injured, but they were all aware of what had transpired, and perhaps they had realized this same scenario would repeat, with them as the ones standing on the stage.

Once they had taken off their clothes, Honebami and Yagen quickly took them away, to be washed and repaired, followed by Aizen and Gokotai.

“We’ll be taking our leave,” Mikazuki said. “Akita will be around the dressing area if you need something. Master is thankful for your hard work, please take the rest of the night to rest.”

They mumbled replies, though Mikazuki didn’t seem fazed by the lack of energy in their responses. He gave them a sympathetic smile and with only that, he left.

Horikawa had wondered why people would always be so eager to take a bath after a long day. At least he had seen that attitude in the recruits after a long fight. He could understand Okita, given his deteriorating health. The water coming from the hand shower wasn’t soothing, feeling cold against his skin and the act of washing himself was empty, mechanically scrubbing.

No one shared words with each other, Yasusada and Kashuu perhaps too unsure of what to say and he and Kanesan probably unsure on how to react. But even the heavy air seemed to lighten once they had gotten inside the onsen, the warm water, once he had washed the dirt away, feeling like a comforting embrace, the heat spreading through his body, deep down to his heart.

And it was in this silence, in this soothing moment that Horikawa’s vision blurred, so much he lowered his head until the water was almost at his eye level. He had been so busy, always worried about Kanesan’s feelings that he had masked his own. Perhaps… Perhaps he had focused on him too much as he would partially avoid dealing with his own. Because, just as Kanesan had seen Hijikata’s final moments, Horikawa had seen them too, his heart being cut in two as Hijikata’s life faded, a person close to him gone once more.

He had forced himself to be strong, to be worthy of being Kanesan’s companion and one of Hijikata’s swords. But in this quiet moment, maybe it was fine if he allowed himself one single thing, with the evidence of his tears quietly disappearing in this warmth.

 


 

Horikawa was the last to leave.

Kanesan had quickly rushed to wash and leave, and as much as he wanted to follow, he couldn’t. First, it had been that look in his eyes, forcing himself to be strong to everyone even then, that if anyone said anything, that image would quickly crumble. Second, Horikawa himself needed that moment to sort his own feelings out.

Kashuu and Yasusada had left some time after, and once he has alone, he no longer needed to hide his face under the water, tears streaming freely for a long time, slowly collecting himself. He had never forgotten how Hijikata’s death had wounded them, though he was the less vocal of the two. And now that the wound had reopened, it would take time to heal. Even if it had been some minor patch, he felt a slight weight off his chest, in spite of being exhausted by the event.

However, as Kanesan’s partner, he still had something to do, and once he had cleared his head, he rushed to the dinning room, only to find an empty table except for a single untouched full course meal and Mikazuki sitting next to that empty seat, engrossed by a novel. When Horikawa had announced his arrival with his footsteps, Mikazuki put his book down.

“Huh?”

Mikazuki, as usual, seemed unfazed by Horikawa’s surprise, most likely expecting it. Horikawa could finally understood why sometimes Kanesan was unnerved by this insight, though Mikazuki simply smiled. “Everyone has left. Perhaps the other swords wanted to give you some time alone? That said, I assumed you’d be looking for him. He went to his room right after he left the bath.”

“I-is that so…” Horikawa couldn’t hide the disappointment in his voice, a small hint of guilt as he suddenly felt he hadn’t been up to the thing that any partner would have done, gone after the other as soon as possible.

“Master is talking to him right now,” Mikazuki began, and his eyes glinted as Horikawa opened his mouth, since now he really felt a useless assistant. “Horikawa-kun, I know you want to talk to him too, but please give it some time. Master has to console him the way only a master can. And you two can console each other in the only way Horikawa and Izuminokami can console each other.”

“But…” Horikawa let out that complaint go unchecked, biting far too late, though Mikazuki simply shook his head.

“If you try to console someone without knowing your own feelings, you’ll most likely hurt them.”

“Eh?”

“It is not a sin to need some time to gather yourself before you offer your shoulder to support another. Perhaps you’ve always believed that as his assistant, Izuminokami’s well-being was your priority. However, there are many times when Horikawa should focus on his well-being, for Izuminokami’s sake. The things you can say in a state of confusion or unsettled, hidden feelings are much different than those which come from an honest confession. Hiding one’s pain has been a major source of disagreements in couples, as I have seen during my life. If you trust Izuminokami and he trusts you, you can convey your true feelings and listen to his, once you have sorted yourself out.”

Horikawa fell silent. He hadn’t considered that, though he was going to make sure Kanesan was alright, even if he had to pretend he himself was alright. He wasn’t used to it, to think of himself first.

“He won’t blame you if you come visit him later. You need to care for yourself first before you can do the same for others,” Mikazuki continued, though a loud growling, courtesy’s of Horikawa’s recently noticed hunger, interrupted him. “A ha ha ha, it seems your body is wise, even if your heart isn’t up to that.”

“I’m not really hungry…” Horikawa said, though his stomach decided to betray him once more. He sighed, defeated and sat down, the meal now cool.

“It seems you might need to put it in the microwave. Master usually heats my meals when we have to, so I’m unsure how to use this, a ha ha ha.”

Horikawa snickered, he wasn’t really sure if Mikazuki was faking it or not, or how Aki let him get away with something like that, but he had to admit that his silly banter had managed to put a soft smile on his face as he took his meal to the kitchen and put them in the microwave, the sound of the device filling the air for a moment, then replaced by the soft steam and smell of the pizza and rice he had been left. Kasen must have been nagged severely to agree to make that again, this time with triangle slices.

He took a bite, sniffing as he imagined the tantos cutting the vegetables and preparing the sauce, with Kasen sternly directing them. Taroutachi most likely had prepared the dough again, this time without any accidents, he hoped from what he had heard from Kanesan’s story of the original pizza.

Suddenly, he noticed the buzzing sound of the microwave and moments later, Mikazuki came back holding a slice on a dish.

“A ha ha ha, I couldn’t help myself to get another slice. It’s well said that food tastes better with company, though Master might complain later that I’ve put on weight.”

Horikawa blinked but shook his head as he ate his share quietly. He’d have to thank everyone later, once he had talked to Kanesan.

“Remember, Izuminokami has you, and you have him.”

Horikawa turned to Mikazuki, though the man was simply content in taking another bite, seemingly enjoying the long trail of cheese that would come after it, not that he could look at his face clearly now. He sniffed and sniffed, tears quietly flowing again, though he made no attempt to stop them, letting himself enjoy this simple moment in the company of a friend.

 


 

 “Hey, I brought you food.” Aki knocked at the door, lead leaning against it. There was some awkward silence, and she imagined that Kanesan was expecting someone else, but Horikawa hadn’t come back from the bathroom.

“If you don’t mind, I’ll go in.”

“…Y-yeah… Uh…”

She could hear the sound of something rustling frantically, and gave it a moment to settle before opening the door and stepping inside the room. Kanesan was sitting on his bed, head hung low, hair disheveled, the result of rushing out of the bathroom without grooming himself properly. Something fell from his cheeks, not unexpected but she didn’t make a comment about it.

“Ah… M-master… I-I’m not… feeling hungry…”

“That’s fine.”

She put the tray on the desk furthest from Kanesan, and walked around the room, looking at Kanesan’s empty walls, purposely interested in the vacant space as Kanesan hurried to wipe his eyes with his sleeves, now that she wasn’t looking at him. When she didn’t hear any more noise, she walked closer to him, announcing her arrival with louder than necessary steps, sitting next to him.  Kanesan still hung his head low but nodded slightly, hesitating on how much he could reveal his face, not that she hadn’t noticed the badly erased traces of tears.

“You were pretty cool back there, Izuminokami,” she said softly.

“R-right…!” Kanesan said with forced mirth. “I’ve told you all before-” He stopped for a moment, lips trembling as he tried to control the knot in his throat, voice crackling for a moment. “I’m very c-ool and stro-ng!”

“Yes, you are,” Aki added softly as she patted Kanesan’s shoulder, deliberately avoiding meeting his face, to not see his failing attempt to keep his cool. She could feel him tremble but, he didn’t move away.

“You did what you believed was right, just as he did back then. He would have been proud.”

“I-“ His knuckles gripped his clothes so hard they turned white.

“I’m sorry for having put you through this.”

“I…! It-it is- I-I decided to go…” His tears wouldn’t be held back, falling down freely, staining his sleeves, his body shaking, still trying to stay composed. “I-I just wanted to…to see him one last time…. S-sorry, I-I went for a moment to-to look at him before…”

“I know,” she said with a low voice, as she pulled him close, his head leaning against her shoulder. He tensed for a moment, though he didn’t move away. It was probably awkward for him but not unpleasant, she imagined it was because he could hide his face better that way, in a way partially acknowledging his feelings but not completely showing them.

“I-I saw him…” Kanesan brushed his hand against his eyes, but the tears wouldn’t stop. “Even if he knew that he… He still kept trying to… He didn’t beg or stopped trying…”

“I guess that’s where you get your stubbornness from,” she said. “Keep that memory with you. The memory of the unrelenting Hijikata you love so much. …Just remember, you still have many people who care for you. Live a life that would make him proud, along with them. And… be more honest with your feelings. I’m not really good at this, though someone told me I should cry if I needed to. And I think he is right… If anyone mocks you, I’ll wipe the floor with them.”

Kanesan couldn’t say anything after, his voice finally drowned out, taken over by his sobs, probably in the same way she had looked when Mikazuki had held her, even if it wasn’t long ago. She stayed there silent, reminiscing on the meaning of loss, a feeling she couldn’t quite really understand, at least not the loss Kanesan felt. There was a tragic beauty in the loss for loving someone so much only to be separated harshly, but she kept those thoughts to herself.

It was when Kanesan stood up, feeling that perhaps he had cried enough in front of her, that Aki took it as her cue to leave.

“You should rest well. And… you’re really strong.”

 


 

Kanesan almost ran across the hallways, trying move without being seen. He certainly didn’t want others accidentally listening to his conversation, which was why he had partially woken up earlier than expected to meet with Aki. He finally found her as she was, thankfully, on the way to his own bedroom, seemingly looking for him, but more importantly with no one else in sight. Especially not Mikazuki, he’d eat his pillow before admitting this in front of the smiling tachi.

“Master… Ah, about last night… Could you please not say I was-”

She arched an eyebrow. “What about last night? Anyway, I thought you had your day off. You don’t usually get to slack off, so you should make most of that.”

Kanesan stared at her for a moment but quickly shook his head. “Ah, right ne-nevermind… Thank you…”

“If you insist, I’ll have you fold the laundry.”

“Ha, no need.”

She gently smacked his head. “Anyway, Horikawa was looking for you. I told him that you’d meet around Blanket’s garden. Should be pretty quiet there, though if you don’t hurry, the others will go work there.”

He frowned confused for a moment, needing perhaps more time than he wanted to admit to get it. With a forced cocky nod, he smiled and said, “Alright, thanks Master.” And with that, he hurried to meet with Horikawa.

 


 

“He… He was really cool, right?” Kanesan said, looking at the horizon, and the growing flowers in the field soon blending with the faraway trees. “Even… Even if he…” He sniffed aloud and scratched the corner of his eye. “He didn’t stop fighting.”

“Yeah… That is…was our Hijikata…”

Kanesan stepped down the veranda, facing the horizon in front of Horikawa, his silhouette traced by the morning sun. “I…I want to protect this world. Hijikata’s.” He shook his head, accompanied by a stifled sniff. “I mean, it’d be the one where he lost but… any other, it’s not the one he lived in and wanted to protect.”

“Kane-san… You-you’re crying…”

Kanesan gritted his teeth, rubbing his hand to wipe his tears but they kept flowing. “Sh-shut up, you’re crying too, Kunihiro!”

“Of course I am!” Horikawa didn’t even try to clean his face. “I wanted to see him too… Even if… even to say goodbye! We were Hijikata’s treasured swords. That’s why… We have to protect the world he left, right?”

“Th-that’s right!” Kanesan choked on his words, bringing a hand to his chest. “I kept thinking about changing history but… I can’t do that. It’d be like denying he died for… Like I told him, his struggle until the end was in vain. He knew what was going to happen and he took it in stride. That’s why… Even if it’s painful, we’ll protect this history… For Hijikata… and for our new Master too.”

“Kane-san…”

“Hey, don’t judge me…”

“I’d never judge you because… I feel the same.” At his words, Kanesan turned to face Horikawa, unable to hide his surprise. “I’d want to have Hijikata live for the both of us, to… to lessen your pain but also because I didn’t want him to die. But… when I saw him, I thought I had no right to take that away from him. He chose how to live… and how to die.”

“Kunihiro.”

“I want to be that kind of person, who sticks to what they feel they should do. That’s why I want to support you, Kashuu, Yasusada, our Master… and of course, everyone else too.”

“Right.” Kanesan rubbed his arm against his eyes. “Th-that should have been my line, but, you’re right. We’re going to do this together, and you better keep up the pace, Kunihiro!”

“Of course! No one is better suited to be your assistant than me.”

It would take a long time until their tears finally dried, with only the sun as the witness of their feelings. Yet it was that which nurtured a seed of resolve in their hearts.