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A small boy sat in his mother’s lap, held tight and warm. He smiled, a dimple on his cheek and his eyes shiny, as his mother combed her fingers through his hair. Mitsuko loved every inch of her child, from his grey-green eyes to his abnormal blonde bangs that contrasted sharply with the rest of his normal dark hair.

“Hikaru, my child, do you know any fairytales?” Mitsuko asked.

“Nah! I’m too old for fairytales!” Hikaru wiggled. “I don’t wanna know any!”

“These aren’t any normal fairytales. Listen here, and I’ll tell you a story.” It was Mitsuko’s only way of keeping her child quiet. Otherwise, Hikaru would squirm and fuss and squeal all night long, unable to get any rest. The story would suck him in and keep him quiet, if only to hear the next words.

Mitsuko had run out of happy tales to tell her son. She decided that it was time to tell a darker tale, but one that she knew would keep Hikaru entertained.

“It’s the story of a mother and her child.” Mitsuko said softly, stroking Hikaru’s hair. “The story begins long ago, in a strange land. There were monsters and demons and dragons everywhere, and magick filled the air with power and strength…”

…The land was green and the air smelt like sunshine. Faeries danced in their faerie rings, Pan sung songs with the fawns, and the most beautiful girl in the world roamed the Capital city.

She had black hair like silk, trailing down to the floor in loose tangles. Her skin was ivory, her eyes were black opals, her lips were pink pearls. Everyone desired her, everyone was mesmerized by her beauty and her kindness.

That was, until that desire turned into jealousy and hatred. A goddess could not allow a human to be more beautiful than herself, and so she laid a curse on the girl who redefined beauty. Once she was with child, she would turn into a hideous hag. She would be cursed to loose her kindness and her beauty, and she would be left with only loneliness.

The woman knew nothing of this. She continued her life until she was married to the king and made queen of the land. And on their wedding night… Soon the queen would be pregnant with the heir of the land, and this child would be the prince or princess. The morning after the wedding night, the woman discovered that her hair was becoming limp. Her skin was dry, her eyes were dulled, and she was just a tiny bit too plump.

No matter the efforts of the newly minted queen, the longer she was pregnant, the uglier she became. The curse had taken effect. The woman was cast out with less than a month left of her pregnancy, having become the ugliest woman in the world. No one would take her in, despite her child. She gave birth in the marshes, and roamed there alone, except for her daughter.

But her daughter… her daughter was not ugly like she. She was just as beautiful as the mother had once been. The daughter won kindness for her mother by her kindness and her sweet heart, and her mother was no longer lonely as long as she had her beautiful daughter with her.

The goddess saw this daughter and saw that her beauty exceeded hers once again. The same curse was cast again. Every girl born in that family with the beauty of the first woman was cursed to become a beast.

The mother, still unaware of this, continued on with her daughter. Afraid that her daughter would suffer the same fate, she forbid her daughter from ever loving a man. But the daughter did not listen to her, love was irresistible and easy to find.

A young but crude farmer’s boy fell in love with the daughter, and soon they married. He accepted the mother into the family as well, despite her appearance, believing that the daughter’s beauty was worth the hideous beast.

The mother was worried, but she felt as if this lesson was unavoidable and she prayed her own fate would not befell her daughter. As soon as her daughter became pregnant, she noticed the changes. The young man did as well.

He let them stay until the daughter’s beauty was no more, the child only a month away from being born. They were cast out onto the streets. But it wasn’t enough, after the child was born and she carried the same beauty, the young farmer turned to madness. He killed his wife and burned her. The mother, unable to deal with her sorrow, killed the man and took her daughter’s bones into her womb in a fit of madness. In her crazed mind, she believed that because of so, her daughter’s spirit would stay with her forever.

She wandered the lonely places of the earth, seeking out and killing men, whom she believed to be the cause of her grief. The child grew, and followed the same path. The faerie queen felt as if she had rid herself of this problem, but felt that death was too easy. She modified the curse, the women would now be unable to die unless they were killed by another, the curse never to be lifted.

And so the cursed women, known as the genten no bakemono, traveled the earth in madness, holding the bones of their children in their wombs after their violent deaths.

Mitsuko finished the tale, watching Hikaru doze off in her arms. She whispered, “They are very beautiful still, my child. Don’t be tricked by them. They loose their kindness when they loose their beauty. A normal girl will be better for you. A normal girl…”

Mitsuko closed her eyes, trying not to think of her husband and his first wife.

“Hikaru! What are we doing? This is dangerous, they don’t like it when we get too close to the forest!” Akari cried out, chasing after her fiancé through the woods. Hikaru laughed at her from the front as his heart raced and his feet kneaded the soft ground beneath him.

Akari was just a girl, how could she know how fun it was to run as fast as one could to somewhere where no one could see him screaming and spreading his arms wide open? Hikaru loved it, loved jumping over the twigs and streams, dodging trees and boulders, dashing past the wildlife. Who cared about entering the forest?

Hikaru didn’t care about her fear, but he did care when her feet skidded to a stop right before they entered the heavy trees. He pouted at her. No fair. She said she’d chase him anywhere, isn’t that what fiancées were supposed to do?

Other than marry you, which Hikaru thought was just rather gross. Akari seemed to think that since they were engaged, he automatically had to be nice to her and treat her gently and all that stupid stuff. He had grown up with Akari, how was he supposed to think of her as a girl all of a sudden?

Hikaru narrowed his eyes at her twiggy form. Yep, no girl there.

“Hurry up, I’m going into the forest whether you come or not!”

“Wait! What if your mom finds out?” Akari panted, her eyes wide as she looked into his far more stubborn ones. “She’ll kill you, Hikaru! She said you cannot go to the forest, no matter what!”

“So what if she finds out? It’s not like tonight is ramen night!” Hikaru rubbed his tummy thinking about it. She usually took away his dinner when he got into trouble. Whatever it was she was making tonight, he wasn’t eating it.

He turned away from her, his arms crossed. Hikaru had made up his mind, and no Akari would change it. He took his first step into the darker part, the shade cooling the upper flesh of his foot. It already smelt like pine and moss and the sweet scent of shadow.

“Hikaru, please. I’m scared! There could be umeshichis lurking in the trees or something!”

“I don’t believe in that!  No monster's dumb enough to get this close to Ojikeshi!” Hikaru said, now fully in the shade of the trees. The forest floor cracked and snapped underneath his weight. Branches swayed in the wind, revealing only a strip on sunlight. He thought it was beautiful and he wanted to run through it.

“Hikaru, please. I’m begging you! If… if you go any further, you’ll get hurt!” Akari cried out, tears dripping out of her eyes.

“Oh fine,” Hikaru snapped, “Just a little further and I’ll walk right back out.”

Leaving the sniffling girl behind him, he crept forward. Not very far, he promised Akari, but he’d be fast and go in just a little farther than he’d promised. The trees thickened and flew past him as he ran, giddy with the fresh air in his lungs.  In fact, once he had stopped enjoying the sights and the sounds of the deep woods, he could no longer see her for the trees, having found himself in a clearing.

Hikaru looked around the tiny opening, seeing a great pool of water and an ancient statue. At the base of the statue, there lay a paper fan that looked like it had been made many years ago. But it was still in pristine condition, the paper between the blades white and clean and soft as fresh linen.

“Is it you, child? Can you see the fan?”

“Huh?” Hikaru said aloud, looking around. Who had just spoken? Had anyone spoken? Maybe it was just the wind, or his imagination.  His mother did like to get on his case for being empty-headed…

“You can hear me! I thank the gods, you can hear me! I may now return to this world!”

“Okay, what the hell. I definitely heard that!” Hikaru demanded, looking about the clearing. Was there really a monster, like Akari had warned? Was it waiting to eat him, to rip him up like an animalistic umeshichi? Was it some sort of Ryûame, lurking in the woods with its draconic beast? Or the most horrible, a ugly genten no bakemono waiting to kill him?

“It’s very nice to meet you, child.”

Hikaru whipped around, seeing a towering figure behind him. Traditional white robes fell around the… man? Woman? The phantom had pale white skin, long purple hair, and a tall dark blue hat. They looked like an old lord from the capital.

The coloring… could he even dare to think…? Hikaru choked, staring at it.

He blacked out on the forest floor.

Hikaru glared at the specter that had been following him around since he woke up. Sheesh. If he had known these would be the consequences, he’d never have gone into the damn forest.

“I’m sorry Hikaru! I swore you were the child!” It pleaded.

“Forget it,” Hikaru sighed. “Just tell me what’s going on.”

The ghost settled down next to Hikaru on the bed, which Hikaru was confined to all day under orders of his mother. After his stunt yesterday, he understood the concern but he didn’t like it.

The ghost cleared its throat. “I’m Fujiwara no Sai. I’m the ghost of the first Kurosumomo.”

“I thought so. That coloring,” Hikaru glared over at the ghost, “You're not here to kill me, are you?”

“No, I’m a ghost!” Sai pouted.


Hikaru pulled the blankets up a little higher before thinking about his newfound ghost. While Sai didn’t have the attitude for it, he said he was a Kurosumomo.

Sai explained it to him simply: A Kurosumomo was a death reaper. Their skin is pale, their hair dark, and they can kill with a kiss. They wore white traditional robes, had eternal life, and their mouths were sewn shut. Sai’s mouth wasn’t, but it did have purple lipstick on it to hide the scars where it once had been.

Only one can wander the earth at a time, but Sai was dead and therefore no longer a Kurosumomo. Sai was still the ghost of one, though.

“I’m supposed to teach the next child of the current Kurosumomo the ways so that they can take up the title. But you’re not the next one… oh, I screwed up. Only the heir to the Kurosumomo title should be able to see me!” Sai whined.

“I’m not, obviously. See? Tanned. And I’m partially blonde. Therefore, you are following the wrong kid. Go find another one.” Hikaru crossed his arms, glaring at the unwelcome guest in his house.

“I can’t! I’m tied to one child for the rest of their life, or until they take up the title of Kurosumomo!” Sai started to sniffle a bit, his tears running down his cheeks and into his billowing sleeves.

“Guess you’re totally stuck then. I’m not dying anytime before I need to and there’s no way I’ll believe that I’m the heir.”

“Are you absolutely sure?” Sai asked, “Have you ever kissed anyone?”

“Why would that matter… oh. I thought that you learned that sort of thing,” Hikaru touched his lips. No, he hadn’t kissed anyone. He’d kissed his mother on the cheek, his grandmother, but Sai didn’t mean that sort of kiss. Sai meant mouth to mouth, and by those standards, Hikaru hadn’t. He didn’t want to try.

“It’s the tell of the heir. Sometimes a kurosumomo has more than one child, and it’s not always the first child with the abilities. We have to see! If you have the abilities, I can teach you everything! Your father or mother should be the current Kurosumomo, but who knows. Maybe the last one is dying without an heir?”

He looked at the ghost, and fingered his lips a little, “No. I’m not killing anyone.”

“But- But- But-! Think of the good you‘d be doing for the world!” Sai sobbed, “And I love Magick, I love using it to watch souls get peace after their suffering! It's so beautiful, and you dance, and the sheer amount of magick and beauty and the touch of heaven--! You can’t tell me I can’t do magick or help souls! I’ll cry!”

“You already are,” Hikaru pointed out.

Sai let loose a waterfall of tears, and Hikaru felt his stomach turn uneasily. Oh, no… He barely reached the bucket his mother had left for him just in case to empty the contents of his stomach.

“You!” He cursed, the vile taste still in his mouth, “Goddammit.”

“I’m apologize, Hikaru. It’s a trainer thing… if you make me really sad, my emotions make you sick. I’m sorry, but I can’t imagine living a normal boring life! It just makes me miserable--”

Hikaru’s stomach moaned in pain and he shouted, “Enough already, I’ll try the stupid magic!”

“You will?”

“As long as it doesn’t get in the way of anything else…” Hikaru mumbled, getting out of bed for a glass of water. Ugh, the taste was still in his mouth.

“Thank you, Hikaru! When? We have to test it out soon, you have to kiss someone!”

Why did that thought not sit well with him? Ugh.

“I don’t even know how to release souls or anything like that.”

“You’re right…” Sai thought about it for a second, “Well, I can do that for you. You have to perform the actions, which are different for every soul, but I’ll tell you exactly what to do. You just have to do exactly what I tell you. You’re the body, I’ll be the mind. Until you learn yourself, that is.”

Hikaru moaned. What had he gotten himself into?

“Is this an inn of this time?” Sai said, looking around at the place they had found themselves in.

A bar might’ve been a better word for it. There was a decent amount of traders from the capital gorging themselves on alcohol of any type, and an even larger amount of servants running around holding up the drunken men. Alcohol was rare in the capital, because only what was not fit for the king was sent down to the people.

Fujisaki-sama rarely drank, so the alcohol sent for him ended up here. The travelers got to drink themselves silly. They often did, apparently.

This was exactly the type of place that Hikaru had been expressly forbidden from even thinking about going to. Hikaru swore that if he kissed someone here, everyone else would be too drunk to see them fall down dead.

Hikaru didn’t want to kiss anyone here though, which was good. He would just talk to the travelers and see if he couldn’t find anything helpful in his search for a victim. Sai was getting impatient.

It was Hikaru’s idea for them to try here. The inn was just far enough outside of town that it was the only place with enough travel that no one would recognize him as a village boy. If someone was sick in the village, everyone would know. Gossip went around faster than money in Ojikeshi. This was a last resort that Hikaru decided to try first.

Yeah, I guess so. Hikaru thought to Sai, which was going to be their main form of communication in public. Ever since Hikaru realized that Sai could read some of his thoughts, he’d been taking advantage of not looking like a lunatic.

“The old man looks like he will die soon, why don’t you try kissing him?” Sai offered not-so-helpfully.

Hikaru looked at Sai. Sai looked back innocently. Hikaru only glared harder, hoping that Sai would get the meaning behind his stare. No such luck.

I am not kissing an old man. Hikaru finally declared.

“You’ll have to, eventually.”

I don’t even know if I can do anything like that yet, I’m not going to go kiss an old man! He argued.

Sai let out a deep and defeated breath, “Hikaru, the elderly die the most often. We as reapers try only to take the souls of the angry ones or the ones who are suffering in life.”

Okay, fine. Hikaru crossed his arms, heading back towards his house. But I’m not kissing anyone who’s not younger than 30.


Just in case nothing happens.

“I suppose I can’t argue.”

Hey! Hikaru whispered to his ghost. Looks like there’s a kid over there. We can talk!

The kid was wearing a large white cloak that stood out in the crowd. They were seated on a barstool away from other customers, with only a mug of water placed in front of them.

“Yes, you go do so.”

Hikaru wandered over to the kid, looking at the cloaked form. He couldn’t see any details of their features of anything like that, but they just looked too small to be anything but a kid.

“I’m Hikaru!”

The kid pulled back the cloak’s hood, and Hikaru was staring into turquoise eyes. Boy, he judged, but he could be proven wrong. The boy’s dark hair was in a pageboy cut, and his skin was pale in the torchlight. His eyes were pretty striking, a bright teal color.

“It’s nice to meet you, Hikaru,” A tiny smile graced those features but didn’t quite reach the boy’s eyes, “My name is Touya Akira.”

“Are you a traveler? Are you from the capital?” Hikaru took a seat next to him.

Touya’s eyes dulled for a second, “I’ve never been there.”

Sai stared at Touya oddly, and Hikaru regarded the ghost for a second.

Something up, Sai? Hikaru thought.

“Yes. Look closely at this boy. He… reminds me of myself," Sai told him, looking at the boy in the white cloak.

White… Hikaru took another look at Touya. Sai was right, he looked a bit like Sai somehow. He looked like Sai, only younger and with different eyes, and a different face… maybe it wasn’t that he looked like Sai as much as he felt like him.

They had the same aura?

It kind of felt different then too, but it was like a magnetic pull and it made Hikaru’s heart race unnaturally and uncomfortably. Sai’s aura was nothing like it, Sai seemed a lot more calm somehow… But yet Touya had a feel about him that reminded Hikaru of Sai and yet not, at the same time.

“Hikaru… you must kiss this boy. He is young and alone, he is likely not to be missed,” The ghost instructed.

“What?!” Hikaru jerked up. Touya looked a little surprised at Hikaru’s sudden exclamation. He rubbed the back of his head sheepishly, grinning at the other kid. “Sorry, just thought I heard something inappropriate.”

“Oh, I see,” Touya’s face melted back into the little smile he’d been wearing before.

Sai! He’s not dying! How dare you tell me to kiss some random kid? What if he really does die? I’d rather kiss the old man! Hikaru thought angrily, glaring at the ghost. His glare bounced off, Sai had obviously made up his mind.

Hikaru had no idea how to fight that solid stubborn determination.

He looked back at the kid. Touya had a smile that wasn’t quite right, and a big white cloak that covered up the rest of him. But it didn’t seem like he was rude, or mean, and rather just a bit detached. He didn’t look like he had an illness, but maybe that’s what the cloak was covering up?

Maybe the cloak was because he was dying, and he was hiding his terrible illness so that he could go among people undetected. Or something. Hikaru looked back at Sai, and then to Touya. Sai gave him a sharp look, and Hikaru knew he had no real choice in the matter.

“Okay, I’m really sorry about this…” Hikaru said, before grabbing the boy’s face and kissing him rather sloppily. Hikaru had never done something like this before, was it really his fault when his lips hit a little off center? At first, he felt nothing but a soft mouth against his own, and then it happened.

Something moved inside of him, a great energy welled up and rushed out of him through his mouth and slammed into Touya’s. He felt it tugging at Touya’s soul and he even saw it somehow, with his eyes closed. A bright effervescent soul, burning hot. His magic was trying to surround it, yank it out, but with no results yet.

Sai very carefully took control of the magic, weaving it into a dance that would steal away life. The magic had surrounded the entire soul, uprooting it and drawing it closer to Hikaru. He felt an exchange of energy, of power, as Sai controlled the flow of magick. It was exhilarating, a thrill, and then… it ended.

Touya pulled away, eyes wide with terror. It took the two of them about three seconds before Hikaru was out the door and who knows where Touya bolted off to.

“What the hell, Sai!” Hikaru shouted, rubbing at his mouth. “I thought you said it would work! Now some kid thinks I’m a freak!”

Hikaru had run and run and run until he was safely alone in his room. He slid down the wall, sitting on the tatami mat. Hikaru squeezed his eyes shut, feeling his breath return to him slowly. His mouth tasted like salt, like blood, like the sweet taste of chocolate and red bean cakes… God, what had he done?

Listening to ghosts was crazy! Normal people saw ghosts and ran away, normal people looked at ghosts and screamed, they called in those crazy quack exorcists… not Hikaru, Hikaru let the ghost talk him into kissing random people!

Sai stood next to him awkwardly, his clothes in perfect condition next to Hikaru’s ruffled ones. Hikaru looked at him, repeating the question, “I thought you said I had the ability!”

“It did work,” Sai said, his eyes in contemplation. Hikaru looked at him, not seeing whatever the hell the ghost had.

It didn’t work! Touya hadn’t died, obviously. Hikaru couldn’t have had the power to kiss and kill. Touya Akira living meant that obviously Hikaru was insane for listening to some 1,000 year old specter.

“I felt magick and power or something, but he didn’t die!” Hikaru rambled. “Isn’t that what was supposed to happen? I can’t believe you told me to kiss Touya! I’m glad he lived and all, but what if he hadn’t? He had his whole life ahead of him!”

“No,” Sai unfolded his hands and flicked his fan,“Hikaru, you don’t understand. You have the power. But it didn’t work, because he also had the power.”


“He’s the boy I should be teaching. The next Kurosumomo, the child of the last.”

“I thought… I thought…” Hikaru mumbled, eyes wide as he touched his mouth, “So by kissing that kid, if I hadn’t had the power, I would’ve died?!”

“Yes, in theory. But in reality, no. This is… interesting indeed. He didn’t aim for your soul Hikaru, he didn’t find it.” Sai’s eyes were hard like amethysts and sharper than usual at this thought. Hikaru had rarely seen him look so serious.

“What?” Hikaru poked himself in the chest, “I have a soul.”

“Yes, and it’s very beautiful,” The ghost reassured him. “But ghosts are the remaining souls of the dead, and usually they only cause misery. I only return from Heaven to teach, which I love to do. Because my soul isn’t corrupted and it carries the touch of Heaven, he saw mine burning bright and his power rushed for mine instead. Your soul was lost for the light.”

“Oh.” Hikaru looked down. Touya’s had burned really bright too.

Hikaru had seen Touya’s soul. It had been like a miniature sun, shining in all different shades. It seemed to stick to cooler colors though, colors like blue, green, and purple and sometimes a light sugar pink. He wondered what his own soul was like, if he’d ever see it.

Sai looked at him, and smiled a little knowing smile. He then said, in a teaching sort of tone, “Hikaru, the soul changes when the person does. I can teach you the skills of magick, and once I’m done training you, then your soul will be just as bright as mine. Magick is what makes a soul burn brighter. That boy has obviously been taught the art by his father.”

Father…? Right, the current Korosumomo would know magick and usually would train the next one. Sai was only there in case the current one died before they had completed the training of the heir. Sai had explained this, but a question nagged in Hikaru’s mind.

“How can there be two of them? Even if I thought the whole deal with the two of us having the ability was logical, and it’s not, I’m not needed then. Touya has the training, won’t he just inherit the title from his father? Why do I have to train? I don’t want to kill people or anything.”

Sai gave him a look that mirrored his own. Confusion and clouded judgments.

“I do not know, Hikaru, why you would have the ability when another does. I have never heard of it in my entire existence, living or dead. But I do know why you have to train,” He finally said. Sai tapped his fan on his other hand, pacing around the room anxiously, “Because those with the skills must be trained, even if it is not to use them.”

“Okay. I can get that, but…” Hikaru stood up, walking over to his futon to sit more comfortably, “Why are there two of us though? I thought part of the whole Kurosumomo thing was that there is only supposed to be one roaming around the earth at a time?”

“This is a troubling question. I would have to meet with the other Kurosumomo and learn his story. It’s been so long, something may have changed.”

“I see…” Hikaru frowned. So Sai didn’t have any answers for him. Did Touya know? Would Touya know? Or was Touya asking himself the same questions right now?

“Touya… he was my age. Do you think I’ll get to meet up with him again?” Hikaru asked, “I want to see him again. He’s the only person… I’m the only person… do you think?”

“What, Hikaru?”

“That he’s the only living person I can kiss without killing? And that I’m the only person he can kiss without killing…?”

“Hikaru, it’s the first time ever that two people have had the ability. I do not know if trying to kiss him is the best idea,” Sai tapped his fan in contemplation, his eyes staring up at the thatched roof of Hikaru’s home.

“You’re right, Akari would kill me!” Hikaru laughed, thinking about Akari’s red scrunched up face whenever he got into trouble. If she knew about this, she’d smack him hard in the face and tell him that he needed a new brain.

“Akari…?” Sai asked, a tiny knowing smile on his face.

“We’re promised to each other but I don’t like her,” Hikaru made a face that resembled how he looked after sucking on a lemon slice, “We’re just friends.”

Sai continued to smile, but wistfully this time, “You can never kiss your bride… what a sad tale.”

“What part of ‘I don’t like her’ aren’t you getting?” The preteen asked the ghost floating alongside him.

“Anyway, I meant that it would be unsafe, not that your fiancée would be upset," Sai frowned, bringing them back to the topic at hand, “He might not have tried to steal your soul this time, blinded by mine that he was, but if you can’t match his strength with magick on your own, he could very well next time. Just as if he wasn’t as talented as he was, you’d have managed to steal his soul as well.”

“So are we equal in strength?” Hikaru asked.

“ No. Your soul is weak right now. That kiss would’ve killed you if I had not been there.”

“Then… ugh. This is so confusing, I don’t get it. Can’t you show me somehow?”

“We’ll have to go somewhere with far more deaths, Hikaru. Right now, there is nothing you can do. No one is dying.”

Hikaru frowned. “I could get to the capital if we stashed away enough food. I could get there, I’d just need a bit of help.”

A new voice interrupted. “I’m so sorry to have intruded, Hikaru… but you said capital? I can get you to Ekone, I can help.”

Chapter Text

Kimihiro Tsutsui was the son of the village’s healer and known to be an all around nice guy, which is why Hikaru didn’t try to automatically suffocate him when he walked in on him and Sai.

In fact, Hikaru thought he’d handled the situation well. He’d shrieked, and thrown things at Tsutsui’s head. Then he agreed to meet with him to discuss their plans for travel to Ekone in a calm and collected manner, which is where Hikaru was now at, a day later. No suffocation needed.

This meant nothing about suffocating him later if he heard anything about the whole Kurosumomo business, or even worse, the kissing! Hikaru’s cheeks burned with shame as Tsutsui smiled genially at him. He had been discussing the powers and less of the whole kiss business, but he had no clue what Tsutsui had overheard. What if he’d been there the whole time and overheard Hikaru ranting, pretty much to himself? That would totally justify suffocation.

“Kaga will be here any minute, don’t worry,” Tsutsui reassured him, the two of them waiting for the third member of their party.

Tsutsui had promised him safe travel to the capital city of Ekone as long as he and Tetsuo Kaga, Akari’s older half brother, came along with. Hikaru didn’t really know if this was a smart idea, since they sounded like they were planning on accompanying him back eventually as well. He wondered if he even was coming back to Ojikeshi at all.

Kurosumomo were meant to wander the lonely places of the world, dealing with angry and lost souls of the dead and dying.

“Hey, bro! And woman,” Kaga said, bursting into the room with those words as his grand intro. Kaga and Tsutsui made quite a pair; Kaga was tall, with red hair that spiked up everywhere and his clothes were dusty and worn down, while Tsutsui was dwarfed by Kaga, with neat black hair and rimmed glasses.

“I object to that,” Tsutsui adjusted his glasses, “I am not a woman.  That's an insult to ladies everywhere.”

“You’re still my woman. Come woman, tell us why we have gathered here today!” Kaga laughed, slapping the smaller teen violently on the back in a mockery of a friendly gesture.

“Ehem. Kaga and I would like to travel to Ekone and live there. There are few opportunities here for jobs and for healers, so we’d like to live in the big city. But we need more money to hire a carriage and we have too much stuff to carry on our backs. We’d either need extra cash or another pair of helping hands.”

“So that’s where we think you come in, kid. We sneak you away from here to the capital for god knows what reason, as long as you help us on the road. That cool?”

Hikaru looked over his shoulder at Sai, What do you think?

“It’s an excellent opportunity!” Sai clapped his large sleeves together, “The capital city, bustling with people and with souls! We can do all sorts of practice there. Hikaru, we must go with them!!”

“Uh, sure. I just want to get away from…” Think, Hikaru squinted his eyes, think of an excuse… “Akari.”

Bad excuse. Akari was Kaga’s little half-sister. Kaga would kill him in three seconds flat if he didn’t have some sort of explanation for his horrible excuse.

“Akari, huh?” The deadly glint in Kaga’s eye told Hikaru that he had little time to before he ended up smeared on the ground.

“I, uh, really don’t want to marry her,” Hikaru stammered, holding up his hands in hopes that his death would be swift, “It’s not her, actually, just that I’m supposed to marry her. I don’t want to get married in general. Or ever.”  Mainly because I’d kill my wife, Hikaru thought hopelessly.

“I see… It’s rather childish of you.  Anyone would love to have such a bright, talented, cute girl for a wife,” Kaga grinned, before ruffling up Hikaru’s two-toned hair, “But I agree, tying the two of you down like that, destined to fail.”

Hikaru was not quite sure what Kaga meant by that. Hikaru had never liked Akari; she was an inch taller than him and she cried when he stole her dango at the summer festivals. He knew that if he ever did love her, he’d want to kiss her like his parents did when they thought he wasn’t watching. Now he knew that if he ever did, he’d steal her soul and her body would drop to the ground like an empty water skin.

“It’s not Akari. I’d rather be alone,” Hikaru restated.

“Running away seems a little harsh, why don’t you just talk it over with your parents and Akari?” Tsutsui offered.

Oh yeah, they’ll understand. Hikaru wanted to tell them. Just a little bit. But he really didn’t want them to tell him he was some kind of monster, because he supposed he was. He killed people when he kissed them.

Hikaru wondered a little how Kurosumomo had children and families when they couldn’t kiss their wives or even speak, since their mouths were sewn shut.

“It’s not like that, Hikaru,” Sai pouted.

He shrugged, “Ekone is a new start. I might find somewhere there that I like. I’ll probably come back when I’m older or something.”

“I’m surprised you’re being so good-spirited about it. I’d have gotten angry,” Tsutsui whispered, loud enough for Hikaru and Kaga to hear but not loud enough that they didn’t have to strain their ears to catch it.

“Good spirited about what, woman?” Kaga demanded, waving around a paper fan that had the words ‘Shougi King’ drawn on it. Hikaru had noticed it tucked away into Kaga’s obi but he hadn’t really thought anything about. Now he just thought it was a little silly, even if he swore Sai did the same thing.

“Akari… Oh, did I say something wrong? I thought that Hikaru was just putting up a brave front because he knew of his rival for her affections. Mitani has been trying to sabotage their engagement for quite some time,” Tsutsui said, looking at Hikaru for any sort of reaction.

Oh, that little slime. Hikaru grinned, trying to keep the look from being too crazy.

“I knew. Or at least I had guessed.  That’s part of it. She’s a good girl, and I don’t have feelings for her, so wouldn’t Mitani be better for her? He certainly loves her a lot.  That is, if she takes him up on it,” Hikaru scratched the back of his head, secretly very pleased with this turn of events.

If Akari had someone else desiring her, it made Hikaru feel a lot better about leaving her behind. Mitani Yuki, the butcher’s son with fiery red hair and a short fuse but a good heart, was devoted and dedicated. If he really did like Akari, she’d be well taken care of in his absence. He’d have completely supported them together even if he wasn’t leaving.

Akari and Mitani had always been close friends, after all. Hikaru and Mitani didn’t get along so well, but they both knew that each other was a good person.

“That’s very courteous, but what if you do have feelings for her later? You’d have given up the best girl for you,” Kaga smirked at him.

Hikaru wanted to hit him. Was kissing him out of the question, because then stupid Kaga would know exactly why he didn’t want anything to do with marriage!

“I’ll help you get to Ekone in any case. Just stop asking stupid questions,” Hikaru snapped.

 “Today’s the day we’re leaving for Ekone! Are you going to tell Akari that you’re going?” Sai cheered, dancing around Hikaru’s bedroom.

“Noooooooo,” Hikaru drawled. He was busy packing his clothes, which were the only things he’d bring with him.

“Isn’t that brown…? When are you going to start wearing white?” Sai inquired, looking at the bag he was stuffing with his best clothes.

Wearing white? Hikaru wasn’t going to become a Kurosumomo! He was just training to control his powers.  Right?

“Never,” He decided. “It’s not like they need me as a Kurosumomo. Even if I did become one, why would I wear only white? I’m human. I can wear whatever color I want.”

“It’s traditional!” Sai pouted.

“I don’t really care,” Hikaru shrugged, “I’m not letting anyone sew my mouth shut either.”

Sai gave him a look, “That’s not tradition, that’s required. A full-fledged Kurosumomo can see the afterlife and the destinies of souls, as well as souls yet to be born and souls that have been reincarnated. They can use the ultimate magicks of life and death, and all the secrets of the universe become theirs to command.  Once they can do this, it’s important that they can never tell anyone of it.”

“I still wouldn’t do it. Poor Touya…” Hikaru wondered aloud, “He must’ve grown up in silence. I can’t imagine what it’d be like never hear your father speak to you.”

Sai furrowed his delicate eyebrows as he smiled the way a teacher does at a misbehaving child. He looked a little exasperated, but Hikaru meant what he’d wondered. Living with a father who would never speak to his child was something he couldn’t fathom.

“You sure think of him a lot,” The specter pointed out.

“Do you think he left Ojikeshi already?” He asked the ghost.

“Probably,” Sai answered, “He must’ve been scared of you, far more than you are of him.”

The words obviously fell on deaf ears.

“I want to see him before I leave,” Hikaru stated, almost a demand. Sai hadn’t seen such determination from him before and it startled even himself. He didn’t know why he wanted to see Touya so bad, but he did. Maybe it was knowing that he’d found an equal… a rival?

“We just might. But we should be leaving now,” Sai laughed.

Hikaru slung his bag over his shoulder, nodding in agreement. It didn’t weigh much, but he knew that he’d have to carry several other heavy ones. He was glad for this one, as it was the lightest and easiest to carry. The other bags wouldn’t be so.

The two, boy and ghost, headed out the door. And into the very person Hikaru had sworn not to say anything to.

Akari glared at him. She demanded, “What’s in the pack?”

“Just some supplies. I’m going out today. What’s up, Akari?” Hikaru scratched the back of his head. This was bad.

Sai seemed kind of pleased about the whole thing.

“My father said you were acting odd the day before yesterday. Your mother said you’d taken to fits of madness and were talking to yourself. Your father is worried. I was supposed to talk you out of whatever’s going on,” Akari’s sharp eyes narrowed on the bag, “So I'll ask again, what’s in the pack?”

Girls and their stubborn determination. Really, usually it was something he respected. Right now, Hikaru wanted to knock her out and run away as fast as he could. She could stop him from leaving if he didn’t do something extreme right now.

Any ideas, Sai? Hikaru thought desperately.

“I think you dug this hole yourself, and should deal with your fiancée on your own," Sai clapped cheerfully.

“Akari, listen…” He raised his hands, trying to show that he was innocent, “I’m helping Tsutsui and Kaga with some stuff today. It’s not a big deal, you can just ask them.”

If this didn’t work, Hikaru was screwed over. Really really screwed over. Akari wouldn’t let him out of her sight.

“You’re not helping Tsutsui and Kaga when they’ve left already. I told them that you weren’t coming, that I wasn’t letting you leave, and they said they were going to go on their own then,” Akari’s eyes had a sharp glint in them. A glint that resounded like a good lie in his brain.

Tsutsui and Kaga had wanted to leave before, but they had needed someone else to help them carry their stuff. Either they got another person, or Akari was lying. It might’ve been a really good lie. And Hikaru thought it was.

“Oh. Well, I have some of their supplies, so I’ll have to catch up then,” Hikaru tried to walk past her.

“Did you even think of telling your parents? They love you!” Akari demanded, shoving him back into his door.

Hikaru hadn’t. He just assumed that if they knew the truth, they’d hate him, and even if they didn’t, they’d stop him from going. He loved them too much to be honest, but he couldn‘t think of any other way they‘d let him leave for Ekone. The whole thing was something he’d put aside in his mind, hoping to ignore. Hikaru took a deep breath before telling her plainly, “Not really.”

“No! Hikaru, I’m loosing you and I can’t stand it!” Akari grabbed his wrist, pulling him back. Her arms circled around his waist. He felt pretty rotten, standing there with her clinging on for dear life.

“You don’t have a choice in the matter,” Hikaru said, the guilt heavy in his stomach. They were friends after all, leaving his best friend was something that he didn’t think he was cruel enough to do without feeling guilty about it.

“Stop! Stop it! Stop leaving me, am I not good enough for you?” She sobbed, her tears staining his traveling robes.

“That’s not it at all. I’m…” Hikaru felt like Akari deserved some of the truth. It would scare her away, it would detach her from his back (which was really rather uncomfortable), and she would understand. “I’m not the same as before. I learned something about myself that makes me need to leave.”

“What could you ever possibly learn about yourself that would make you leave me?! Are you… are you odd? Do you not like girls?!”

Oh, she was way off. He supposed he could’ve phrased it better, but still. She knew him long enough to know that he liked girls fine.

“I can do magick,” Hikaru told her simply. The particular type of magick wasn’t really that important, right? Killing people with kisses was rather particular but he didn’t want to tell her that bit just yet.

Akari’s grip tightened, “I’d support you in that! I don’t care about magick! I wouldn’t care if the entire village thought you were crazy, I’d be there for you! I’d stay with you!”

“It’s not that type of magick, Akari,” Hikaru let half a smile slid onto his face sheepishly, pulling her away from him so he could look her in the eyes. “It’s the dangerous sort of magick that hurts people. That’s why I really shouldn’t be around you. I don’t want to hurt you.”

“Then why are you heading to the capital?! It’s filled with people!” Akari sobbed.

“So I can practice and gain some control over the whole thing. There are others with magick powers there, who I can practice with and stuff. Here, there’s no one who can do any sort of magick,” Hikaru lied through his teeth. He supposed it was decently accurate, he was going there so he could practice.

“I… I get it. But, can’t you take me with you?”

“There’s a place for you here. People who love you. I’ll come back and we can talk someday, okay? Tell Mitani that I totally allow him rights, I'm no longer in the game.”


“Akari, you don’t have to understand that. Just know that we’re still always friends, okay?” Hikaru ruffled her dark mauve hair. He got the feeling he’d broken her, as he turned his back on her and ran off to where he knew Kaga and Tsutsui had promised to wait for him. He’d never felt so guilty and so relieved in his life.

 “You are so fucking late. We have no choice, we’ll have to stay a night at the traveler’s inn,” Kaga rubbed his temples. “I can’t believe you. We should’ve left earlier.”

“Akari cornered me, it wasn’t my fault!” Hikaru defended.

“It was your fault you got lost in the woods looking for them, though. Oh, Hikaru…” Sai breathed in exasperation.

Shut up, Sai.

He grinned sheepishly at the two of them, secretly glad that they would stay a night at the inn. Touya might be there, where they first met. He could go looking for his rival in magick.

The three of them strolled inside the inn, the youngest people there in the main room. The previous arrangement of drunkards were there, as well as that old man. No sign of any pristine white cloaks, which dampened Hikaru’s spirits.

Touya… where would he have gone?

“You’re looking for someone,” Tsutsui noticed, pausing a little to look at Hikaru intently.

“Yeah. A kid, in a white cloak? His name’s Touya, I met him here but I guess he’s already left,” Hikaru frowned, looking at his feet. He’d really hoped…

“Hey. Akira Touya, you mean?” Kaga demanded. “How’d you meet him? How’d you get close to that piece of scum?!”

“Uh, yeah…?” Oh, shit. Hikaru’s eyes widened. “You know him? I met him here and we talked a bit. He was nice enough.”

“Oh. I thought you knew about him,” Kaga’s shoulders slumped.

“How’d you meet him?” Hikaru asked, worried and just enough curious to make Hikaru think he might really regret it later.

“He said some stuff about somebody I knew a while back,” The ginger haired teen said, his arms crossed. Kaga then stomped off in front, commanding, “It’s not a big deal. We’ll tell you if we see him, shrimp. Now come with us, we’re renting a single room.”

“Hikaru, I don’t see Touya anywhere. We should look for him after dinner, we need to get settled here first,” Sai said, being completely unhelpful.

Tsutsui and Kaga led the way, Hikaru trailing behind as he stared at the patrons in the inn. Still the same bunch of beer-guzzling drunkards, no sign of Touya… Ugh.

The room they were staying in was decent, but small. Someone was going to sleep on the floor tonight, and Hikaru had a sinking feeling that it was going to be him. After all, if he hadn’t been hung up by Akari and gotten himself lost, they’d be on the road by now. Hikaru set down his stuff, looking at his two companions.

“What’s for dinner? Ramen?”

“Of course you’d ask for Ramen!” Kaga complained, throwing his packs down. He sat cross-legged on the provided futon.

“Whatever’s cheapest, really. This was an expense that we didn’t expect to cover…” Tsutsui pulled out his pocket accounting book, which Hikaru had seen him write down expenses compared to their total funds. Apparently, this was going to be an expensive little jaunt.

Hikaru let his shoulders slump, before he took a look at Sai. The ghost hovered next to him, his eyes bright and excited. Pre-trip jitters or something. But then Hikaru felt the air buzzing in a peculiar way. Shouting came out from the hallway and the entire inn seemed to be in a commotion.

“No way?! You say he just dropped down dead?!” Shouted one of the drunks, coming from the main room of the inn. Hikaru jumped up and peeked his head out the door. A man, his face blue from what looked like suffocation, had dropped down on the floor. The entirety of the main room was crowded around him, as the inn keeper checked for a pulse.

“He just… died! No warning… wait, is there anyone here wearing all white clothes?! Look out, there might be a monster!” Someone called out from the background. Touya! Hikaru glanced around, trying desperately to see if he could find the boy in the white cloak.

Sai fretted about, Hikaru, this could get dangerous! Please, I felt death magick and Touya but you can’t just--”

Hikaru stopped listening, as he saw a white cloaked figure slip out the exit. He dashed after the glimpse of white, dodging people and their questioning glances. This might be his only chance, Kaga and Tsutsui be damned. If he lost Touya now, and he never found him again--!

Touya turned around to look at him, and upon recognizing him from his hair most likely, starting to run as fast as his lithe legs could carry him.

Hikaru could run faster though, he knew it. The blond stretched his legs farther, faster, trying to catch up. The woods enveloped them, and Hikaru could barely see the white cloak for the mist and the trees. This was just about as deep as he’d gone in before, when he’d met Sai.

It was just irony that Touya stopped to catch his breath in front of the statue that Hikaru had seen Sai’s fan.

“Touya! Touya, I’m sorry! Wait!” Hikaru pounced on him before he could get to running again. They ended up in an awkward pile on the ground.

“What are you?!” The dark haired boy demanded, his eyes fierce and filled with something… hatred? Curiosity?

“I don’t know what’s going on either, just let me talk to you!” Hikaru begged, his hands finding Touya’s wrists somehow and pinning him to the ground.

“…I…” Touya looked away. “Explain yourself.”

Ouch. That was cold.

“Hikaru! I beg you, don’t tell him about me!” Sai cried out. “Ghosts are often dealt with by a Korosumomo; if he knows of me, he’ll exorcise me and I will never be able to return!  Only you can see me, even though Korosumomo can see almost every other ghost!”

Hikaru looked at Sai’s desperate eyes, and wondered how the hell, excluding Sai, he would be able to explain himself to Touya.

“I don’t know how to,” He said, sitting up.

Touya’s glare sharpened until Hikaru was sure he was bleeding all over from it. “You! You try to kill me, you chase me down, you attack me, you beg to talk to me, and now you don’t know how to explain yourself?!”

The fury of the white cloak wearing boy was deadly. Hikaru swore that he felt something somewhere inside himself break.

“I’m not good with words,” Hikaru tried to explain. “I never wanted to kill you, really, it’s just that--”

Hikaru was tugged down by the collar of his shirt, his words cut off by a warm mouth pressed to his own. Touya had… kissed him again? Oh no, Sai! Sai said that Touya had been aiming for Sai’s soul, which was attached to his own. Sai also said that if Touya knew of his presence, then he’d exorcise him and then Hikaru would be alone with his powers and lost and…

“Don’t worry about me, Hikaru. Go for his soul! If you and I can attack it well enough, he’ll break off of my own and we can separate,” Sai instructed.

Hikaru felt the rush of magick, which Sai must’ve summoned, rush out of his mouth. Sai controlled it, pushed it forward in an elegant dance. Touya’s soul pulsed and shone as he felt his magic wash over it like a tsunami.

He felt his magic return to him like he was a vacuum, as he broke the kiss. Touya looked up at him, his eyes wet with unshed tears. He choked, “How…? Why?”

“Our magic cancels out, I think…” Hikaru tried to answer with what Sai had told him. “I don’t really get it either. That’s what I wanted to talk to you about.”

“…you… no, I can’t think that,” Touya looked away, his cheeks a light shade of pink. “How can you have the ability?”

“That’s what I wanted to ask you! I discovered it about a week ago, I didn’t know anything about it. And then I went to the bar to see if anyone was dying or something, so I could see if it really was true. I…” …absolutely could not explain why Hikaru had kissed Touya in particular. “…didn’t want to kiss anyone older than me by more than 30 years. Sorry.”

“That’s so… I… I can’t stand you,” Touya glared at him.

“I apologized! And I’m glad you’re alive, I was just freaking out and it was stupid and I’m really sorry!” Hikaru let go of Touya’s wrists, looking down at him.

“Hikaru, you should go. Tsutsui and Kaga are looking for you. If they discover you like this, things will be difficult to explain,” Sai said suddenly, looking in the direction of the inn. Hikaru nodded, before glancing down at Touya once again.

He’d willingly tried to kill Hikaru, and Hikaru knew that he was no match for him yet.

Hikaru couldn’t let Touya get to Sai.

He wouldn’t be able to explain it, if it wasn’t already a well known fact. Sai could get exorcised, and leave forever if Touya or his father ever found out. No, Hikaru, despite really wanting to try and fight him, wouldn’t let Touya get near him or chase after Touya himself. He needed to get a lot better at magick, a lot quicker.

“Get away from me already,” Touya hissed.

Hikaru climbed off of him, feeling odd about the whole thing. He held his hand out to Touya, but he was refused with a bitter look. Ugh, Hikaru glared back a little. It’s not like it was his fault!

“See you, I guess,” Hikaru mumbled, starting to run back the way he’d come.

They hadn’t even walked a mile before explanations were demanded.

“What the hell, have you never seen a dead man before? Did you just freak and run, or what?” Kaga chastised him, like a ginger-haired father figure.

Hikaru had lasted through the night with keeping silent about Touya and the whole fiasco involving a whole lot of running. And then. Kaga and Tsutsui had been worried, and Hikaru had no real excuse other than, “I’m super fucking tired, just leave me alone already.”

It was morning, they were hiking off through the woods towards Ekone, and he lost even that excuse.

“I saw the dead guy and I was gonna puke, okay? I ran outside and puked in the woods, is that so hard to believe?”

This was Hikaru’s Lie of the Day™. Receive one for free! Limited time offer only.

Sai sighed, and Hikaru slumped as he walked. Really, before he’d met Sai, he’d been pretty honest with everyone. And now… and now.

“You need to fix this lying habit. It’s not like you can keep your identity a secret forever. Akari knows somewhat, Touya knows somewhat, but only you and me know the whole truth. When everything gets out, it‘ll cause a big mess,” Sai cautioned him.

You’re the one who told me not to tell Touya everything! Hikaru shouted in his mind, annoyed. Everyone was on his case today and he hadn’t even done anything really wrong.

“I was afraid for both you and for me. If I disappeared now…”

I would have powers and no way to control them? Hikaru thought, putting his hands into his sleeves.

The walk hadn’t been so bad, even if it had been quiet. Tsutsui wasn’t really good with physical stuff, and so Kaga took all of his heavy bags, while Hikaru had taken on a few of his lighter ones. They were all walking at about the same pace, extreme slow, as Hikaru and Kaga had more than they should really carry, and Tsutsui had a twisted ankle already. If Tsutsui wasn’t the smartest one of the bunch, they’d have left him to the cannibalistic umeshichi that occasionally roamed the rarely traveled woods.

The back roads and the woods were safer than the main ones, due to muggers and thieves. The three boys had little to defend themselves with, even if Hikaru confessed up to being able to kill with a kiss. If he couldn’t get close enough to kiss any bandits, then he was pretty useless. Kisses on anywhere but the mouth didn’t count.

Which was really a blessing in disguise, because his mother would be so dead right now if it wasn’t true.

“I don’t really believe you about that. I saw the boy in the white cloak, was that the kid you wanted to find?” Tsutsui asked, his voice breathy and hoarse. Hikaru twitched a little. Sheesh, Tsutsui was such a wimp, he wasn’t even carrying anything more than his clothes and personal belongings.

Hikaru had one iron pot and matching pan strapped to his pack. He had no sympathy.

“Yeah, no,” Hikaru laughed a little, scared of getting caught in his own lie. “He ran out for the same reason I did, ‘cause he was sick.”

“How sweet, bonding over vomit,” Kaga snickered. Hikaru had never wanted to kiss/kill someone so much in his life. Ugh, the mental image was just scarring.

“I didn’t throw up!” Hikaru yelled, throwing a convenient stick at the ginger teen’s head with all his might. Evidently, as the stick bounced off, Hikaru didn’t have that much might to muster up.

“What if Touya comes looking for you? It’s completely possible, considering. He’ll probably ask to test his magick against yours again,” Sai unhelpfully mentioned.

That’s never going to happen. Hikaru shrugged. He wasn’t even that interested in me, I didn’t think. Hence the ‘Get away from me already.’

“Hikaru!” Kaga called. “Hurry the hell up!”

“Right!” Hikaru dashed after them, remembering that he was actually supposed to walk and think at the same time. Damn, he’d never been good at that.

Chapter Text

“When they say capital, they aren’t kidding. Are you sure about this?” Hikaru asked, looking at Tsutsui and Kaga. It had been a weeks walk, before they had reached the gates of the capital city, Ekone.

Ekone was grand, which Hikaru liked. He felt from here that he’d have no problem staying in the shadows as he ran around testing and practicing his power. In a place that big, he’d hide no problem.

That didn’t mean that Ekone had enough space for Tsutsui and Kaga to live. Not with this many people. Hikaru looked around, adjusting his pack.

The great river, Isoide, twisted and turned and flowed through the landscape. And past its wideness, there lay an opposing presence. The Shinimikami. The plains of death, where monsters always lurked. Hikaru had the feeling that eventually he’d build his house out there and settle in quite nicely. Where else for a monster to live?

“Ah. Home sweet home,” Sai said, looking out past the river, “The great city of Edo is out there, right?”

Nope. Not anymore, Sai, He thought, tearing his eyes away from the plains and the slow swishing of wheat flowers and yellowed grass blades.

Hikaru didn’t like to be the carrier of bad news, but Edo was in ruins. Sai kept forgetting that it had been over 200 years since he’d been around. Back then, Edo had been the capital and Ekone was just an empty spot on the map. The burning of Edo had been back about 200 years ago too; Sai must’ve left Torajiro right before.

“It sure is imposing… I hope they let us in without too much hassle,” Tsutsui agreed with Hikaru, staring up at the wall surrounding it as they walked up to the gates. The city, having built the wall and unable to expand outwards, expanded up instead. Buildings were built on top of buildings, with the grand palace balanced precariously on the top.

“We don’t really look suspicious,” Hikaru pointed out. “We just smell like river water, sweat, and Kaga.”

“That last one might be the deciding point,” Tsutsui sighed. It was true. Kaga had a funk about him that repelled all types of human beings by now.

“I smell fabulous and both of you know it,” Kaga snorted, taking the lead.

“If by fabulous, you mean ‘gag-worthy’, then you’re spot on,” Hikaru grumbled. He gave Sai a look, which roughly translated into, ‘be glad you can’t smell anything.’ As a ghost, Sai couldn’t interact with the world in any other way than sight, sound and magick.

Most times a curse, right now a blessing.

The guards at the city gates gave the three of them a good look over, trying to see if they were monsters or thieves. Hikaru thought, as the gates swung open, that he had passed the test for both when really he could probably kill everyone in the entire city.

“Hikaru!” Sai chastised. “Don’t think like that! I’ve let your destructive thoughts go uninhibited but you can’t think things like that!”

I wasn’t actually going to do it! Hikaru protested, stomping a little as he walked inside. The city on the inside was much like it looked on the outside, but he still was a bit in awe.

The streets were narrow and the buildings shot up high into the sky, making the bottom alleyways dark and completely shaded even though the high ceiling meant the only light came from lanterns, strung above their heads.  Only the rich, who lived at the top layer, walked in the sunlight, and only the palace, at the very top of Ekone, had gardens.

The city imported food and exported fineries, which meant that it was cheaper to buy shoes than breakfast. The traffic was thick on the streets, bustling, even in the darkness. Occasionally a loud bell or chime was audible, which was how the Low Town kept time. One ring in the morning, two rings for lunch, three for dinner.

Without the sun, it made sense that people would be so sick. The air was steamy and thick, and it slid down Hikaru's throat in a way he didn't like, and even though ventilation was built into the walls, the lack of wind made the place stagnant.  It wasn't cold, but none of the heat came naturally from the sun, but rather from so many people squished together, moving and living in tandem.  Sometimes, the crowd didn't look quite right.  Too pale, too wide eyed, pupils blown open so that their irises didn't look like they even existed.  A tan here was a sign of the rich. Tsutsui and Kaga would soon lose theirs, living in the darkness like this.

Hikaru only planned on staying for a little while, just for practice, but knowing him, he'd take too long and lose his own tan anyway.  But he’d gain it right back as soon as he left, so he wasn't too worried. Ekone was a big place, but Hikaru didn’t want to stay there like Kaga and Tsutsui. This would probably be where he said goodbye to the two of them.

Eh, he’d meet them again.  He’d probably freeload with them until he had to leave anyhow.

Sai looked pretty dismal about the place. He murmured, “I didn’t think it’d be this dark. It’s like nighttime here, forever.”

“Well, that’s sort of the idea. The poor live in the darkness, and the rich will live in the sun. We have too small of a village to even try that. So many people all together, though…” Hikaru answered, not even thinking that he probably shouldn’t talk aloud.

Oh well, he’d be known as a crazy sooner or later.

“Stop talking to yourself, we need to find a place to stay,” Kaga commanded, dragging Hikaru forcibly along by the collar of his summer yukata.

“What type of place?” Hikaru asked, looking around the lantern-lit streets. The place looked like some sort of foreign dream, with the paper balls floating on the ceiling and everything bathed in yellow. It was dark, but the lanterns showed the hope of the people too.

“Even when cast into darkness, one’s heart holds hope,” Sai agreed with Hikaru.

“Around here, everyone owns a room in a larger building. There is a community of people unrelated, all living in the same establishment,” Tsutsui told him, a calm smile on his face. “You own this room, and the contents. It’s very different from the cottages in Ojikeshi.”

“I see…” Hikaru frowned. Living in one room with Kaga and Tsutsui both? He’d kill them both and then kill himself. Hopefully this wouldn’t last long.

“It seems scary but it’s really just a big community--” Tsutsui stopped talking abruptly, looking at a large crowd gathering around something that smelled horrible and made Hikaru plug his nose. God, it was like Kaga’s funk mixed with--

“Death,” His specter whispered, ominous and tapping his fan against his mouth.

“Ew! What’s going on?!” Hikaru pushed forward through the crowd, ignoring Sai’s disturbing and unnerving words.

Another spectator hushed him, as Hikaru finally got to the center of the crowd. Hikaru’s eyes widened, and his legs felt like jelly instead of flesh and bone. How could he move, with that sitting in the middle of a street?!

Sai had been right, it was death that Hikaru had smelled. How Sai knew that when he couldn‘t even smell anything, Hikaru didn’t want to know. Right now his thoughts were completely concerned on the corpse lying in the middle of the street.

The flesh was shredded beyond recognition and white patches lay partially exposed where it was clear to see that teeth had torn muscle from bone.  Blood and guts spilled out the opened stomach and pooled around the body.  The clothes were ripped at the sleeves and at the hem, and a large gaping hole in them exposed the opened ribs of the man, and the carnage beneath.  It painted a grotesque picture under the yellow lantern light. And if the sight wasn’t bad enough, Hikaru saw a perfect copy of the man, walking around screaming in agony. The man hadn’t found peace, he was wandering around as a ghost.

Hikaru couldn’t move, as he felt Sai squeeze his shoulders.

“I’m afraid that this is an emergency. Hikaru, try your best to focus on the man’s ghost. It will become dangerous if left to fester.” Sai instructed.

He really was more concerned on not vomiting than he was on the rotting man’s ghost. Sai could talk all he wanted to, Hikaru was close to crying and passing out where he stood.

“Hikaru! You must do this! I’ll control your magicks as long as you can summon them up, please, Hikaru! This man will become dangerous soon!” Sai pleaded, trying and failing to get Hikaru’s attention.

Hikaru looked at the man, and then the ghost. Is this what it meant to be a Kurosumomo? To see things like this and to just know that this man was in pain, would be in pain forever?

Sai… Hikaru thought, tell me how to save him!

“I will teach you!” Sai declared, pointing forward. “You see his energy, yes? Reach out, touch it! He will struggle, because you are not yet strong, but if you can grab him, then you merely need to sever his connection with this earth.”

I get it! Hikaru focused, imaging a great rush of magick like he had when he’d kissed Touya. He imagined soft but dry lips on his own, power rushing forward from a dark place deep within him. With the memory in hand, he reached inside of himself and let loose everything he had kept bottled.

“Now, copy my move! You must dance, Hikaru!” Sai reached out with his right arm, his palm facing the ghost and his other arm held gracefully in front of his heart. Hikaru copied to the best of his abilities. It was awkward, but Sai smiled at him.

His magick was bubbling as Sai lowered his right arm elegantly and slid his left foot forward in sync with his hand.

The ghost had caught sight of the two of them, and was rushing forward in an attempt to stop them. Hikaru had no intentions of letting that happen. He was going to win!

Sai kicked the air with his right foot, Hikaru copying it to the dot. He must’ve looked like a crazy kung fu artist to the crowd, but he'd deal with that later.

And then, the last move, a deadly and beautiful upper cut motion that Hikaru could barely hold for long enough to lash out with his magick, ensnaring the ghost and sending it flying.

The ghost screamed, but it's form shattered into a glowing orb, a pure soul, the type that Hikaru had seen in Touya's chest when he'd kissed him but different, with different colors.  It floated up towards the sky, gentle and easy, and went through the ceiling as if there were none.  

Seeing the ghost find peace, Sai dropped the pose, and Hikaru wobbled back into a balanced stance. He glared at his ghost mentor.

Thanks for warning me that I actually had to physically dance, Sai. Hikaru snapped, looking back the rest of the crowd. For some reason, they looked surprised but not angry or shocked. At last, one of them broke the silence.

“So, you’re a exorcist?” One of the older members asked him.

“Uh… sort of," Hikaru had not actually thought of how to explain his crazy shenanigans, but okay, best not to deny the offered explanation.  Technically, the Kurosumomo were power exorcists, seeing as they apparently managed the balance of the living and the dead.  Or whatever it was Sai liked to say, he couldn't remember.

“Those moves were part of an ancient funeral dance. You, my boy, are not the best dancer, but those old moves were something else. Where did you learn?”

Saying that he was being taught by a ancient specter how to steal souls and deal with ghosts didn’t really help his crazy case. Quick, a good lie! His thoughts spinning, Hikaru noticed that he’d had to lie quite a lot since Sai started following him along. He was getting worse at it, he thought.

With no good excuse, he went with something simple.

“Um, from a friend. Anyway, what happened to this guy?” Hikaru pointed to the corpse, “He looks like something took a bite out of him or something.”

“You have good intuition,” Another said, from the crowd, “Because that’s exactly what happened. A Umeshichi must’ve got inside of Ekone. This is the 7th body this month and it’s chaos."

"There's no clues and no one has found the killer yet.  May Kami be merciful.”

"Nothing but one of those Umeshichi animals could do something so horrible as this!"

An Umeshichi inside of a city? Didn’t they live in tribes in the forests and stuff? Hikaru scratched the back of his head. That didn’t make sense! Why would a Umeshichi go inside Ekone in the first place, alone? They always traveled in packs, that’s how the legends went anyway.

“This isn’t a normal kill for a Umeshichi, though. They eat the entire body, usually after it's been cooked, and use all the bones for jewelry and weapons. This one was in distress, madness perhaps. It is a long way from their home, it must be lonely.” Sai added unhelpfully.

You act like those cannibalistic monsters are human. Hikaru pointed out. They’re not, Sai. They eat each other and us like we’re cows.

Sai tapped his fan in that condescending way he had, “You kill people with nothing more than a simple touch of the lips. And yet you call a creature, whose instinct tells it to kill just the way you do, a monster? You have an interesting concept of things.”

Sai! This isn’t the time for this. If this thing is killing and eating people, then there’s gonna be a lot of ghosts!

Hikaru saw Tsutsui staring at him, eyes wide. Oh shit, he’d forgotten about him and Kaga. Kaga was glaring at him, his eyes sharp. Well. He had some explaining to do. He had no idea how he’d get away with this.

The two-toned teen gulped, before adjusting his yukata and pushing back through the crowd to talk to his friends. With any luck, they didn’t see the dance.

With any luck, they just think he’s a crazy idiot who likes to look at dead bodies.

“I already told you two, it’s magick!” Hikaru complained, as he shoved his belongings into the small cupboard he was allowed.

Kaga and Tsutsui’s things were stuffed into the other cupboard, it being bigger and had actual shelves. The room they had purchased was small, barely enough space for three futons on the tatami mat. For the outrageously expensive price, they had gotten the bare minimum.  Maybe once Hikaru left, they'd have room for a kotatsu table.

“Magick us a bigger house then, don’t go dancing on dead bodies!” Kaga scolded him, punching his shoulder a bit too hard to be friendly.

Hikaru narrowed his eyes in annoyance. He’d gone with the somewhat truthful method; he told them he was in Ekone to practice magick. Ekone had a big magick community, and the whole thing with marriage was part of the magick deal. A magickal practitioner was a disgrace to the rest of the family, and therefore he didn’t want to involve Akari or his parents.

Oh, if only they all knew.

“You should’ve told us earlier…” Tsutsui sighed, pushing up his glasses. “We wouldn’t have said anything.”

“I didn’t know that,” Hikaru defended.

“I’m glad that they know this much. It’ll make things easier. Say, Hikaru, we need to find you a dance school!” Sai clapped happily, twirling a bit. It was disgusting how happy he was.

NO! NO NO NO NONONONOOOOOOOOO! Hikaru whined, shaking his head. I don’t want to do any dancing! I'd have to wear a long sleeved kimono and run around with a bunch of girls! I refuse!

“This neighborhood’s not that safe. We should try to make as much money as we can and go up a level. It will still be dark, but there won’t be as many dangers,” Kaga said offhandedly.

Tsutsui and Hikaru turned their heads to look at him. His eyes were glinting in a way that Hikaru recognized from Akari. It meant that he was worrying or fussing over something. Akari always looked that way when things bothered her.

“I think we’ll be fine,” Hikaru offered, never having been sure how to deal with that look.

“Kaga, please… We just got here, we need to rest,” Tsutsui said gently, walking over to the ginger haired teen and placing a hand on the other's forearm.  Tsutsui's palm lingered, and Kaga's much larger hand came up to cover it. Kaga’s look eased up at the sight of his presence, easy and relaxed.

That was unusual. Maybe it was just that they’d been friends for a long time, but Hikaru felt like he was intruding on something personal.

Tsutsui smiled, and Kaga huffed, and their fingers squeezed together, entwining even more.

Yep, personal. Hikaru turned away, his cheeks red. He couldn’t really read the atmosphere very well, but he was pretty sure that this was one of those things that people weren’t supposed to watch. Was there an unwritten code somewhere that said, ‘thou shalt not watch two close friends make love-dovey eyes at each other?’

“Young love…” Sai simpered, his cheeks just as red, “Aren’t they sweet?”

They’re guys! It’s wrong! Hikaru protested. Just because it was wrong, didn’t mean that Hikaru was going to say anything. They were still his friends after all, and plus he was living with them for free. What kind of horrible person would he be if he wouldn’t let them be gushy together when he was going to be stealing souls and killing people in his spare time?

“Hmpft!” The ancient man snorted, “You’re a hypocrite. They’re just looking at each other. You’ve kissed Touya twice, and if you couldn‘t tell, he is a boy just like you.”

Hikaru felt his ears turn crimson, his entire face hot enough to make Tamago on. He rubbed his nose, trying to control his blush, thinking viciously, It’s not like that!!

Sai gave him a knowing look, before glancing back at the other two in the room. “You can look now, Hikaru.”

Hikaru took a deep breath, positive that his face was still red as a cherry. He turned around, before announcing loudly, “I’m pulling out my futon and getting some sleep!”

They both gave him odd looks, but he didn’t care. He was sure that if he said much more, he’d be stuttering and whimpering nonsensical things. His heart was still beating twice as fast as usual, anyway. He was just saving the last shards of his dignity.

The morning marked another day of darkness. The lanterns were no brighter than the day before, however there were more of them. Hikaru had woken up scared, the apartment in total darkness. He had to light a lantern just to keep from stepping Tsutsui and Kaga as he dressed himself.

The window, as there was only one in their room, was open to the outside street, and showed only the tiniest bit of light from the strings of lanterns that never went out. There was always at least one lantern lit at all times, just for safety.

Hikaru and Sai stumbled out the door, Hikaru’s sandals joining the sounds of the city. Wagons rolled through the streets, people walked from shop to shop, and Hikaru squeezed past them all to get to the food district.

Hikaru looked at Sai. The ghost was frowning. It was an odd sight, really.

“It’s so dark,” Sai whined, “In Edo, everything was bright and birds chirped. This place is horrible.”

“I get it. I freaked out when I woke up. No sunshine! What was I supposed to think? But we'll get used to it,” Hikaru shrugged.

They hadn’t bought any food last night, so Hikaru stopped somewhere to buy rice. It was the cheapest thing they sold, anyway. The taste was different from the stuff he was used to at home, but he chowed down on it despite the homesickness it inspired.

They walked along for a while, before Hikaru knew that he’d gotten himself horribly lost.

“Sai? I think they need more maps,” He said, looking around for a familiar sight. Nothing struck him as anything he’d seen before, although he’d been sure that Kaga and Tsutsui and he had walked down this street when they were looking for a room yesterday.

“You just need to know where you’re going!” Sai chided, floating alongside Hikaru. The ghost didn’t seem to mind too much when people passed through him anymore, but maybe that was because Hikaru was getting pushed about himself. There was no space for a transparent person next to him, let alone for Hikaru himself.

The people here didn’t look as friendly as yesterday. Hikaru was tempted to do a 180 and run back the way he’d come. Things scurried in the alleyways, and Hikaru grimaced, a nasty smell, like urine or vomit, filling his nostrils.

He’d only walked so far , thinking of where to go next to get out of the slums, before something large and blunt was shoved into his side, and Hikaru stumbled to his knees. Snapping his head to look at what hit him, he saw the back end of a sword and a burly man that it was attached to. He was about to get up without saying anything, when the man slammed the butt of the sword underneath Hikaru’s ribs.

He choked on air, pushing himself back against the wooden wall of the building behind him. Hikaru could taste blood in his mouth, as he stared up into the cruel eyes of the man.

“Are ya mute, ya scum?” The man snatched up Hikaru’s arm and dragged him into an alleyway. “That won’t do for a slave!” A slave?! Hikaru choked, as his arm was twisted back so far he thought it would break.

A slave?! What the hell am I doing in a place that has a slave market?!

“Hikaru!” Sai called out, his voice desperate.

The man leaned in close, his breath smelling of alcohol. Hikaru scrunched his eyes closed, leaning as far back as he could. The wall was solid behind him, and he knew he was trapped for certain.

Unless the man leaned close enough for a kiss, and then Hikaru would just deal with the feeling of violation and gross-forever that would come with the man’s untimely death. He gripped Hikaru’s chin, stroking lightly. “A pretty one, huh? You’d fetch a nice price--”

The choking sound had absolutely nothing to do with Hikaru, but he was grateful for it. A sword, large and ornate, had been stuck through the man’s abdomen and blood was dripping on Hikaru’s geta, and he really didn’t care because he could scramble out from underneath the man and to freedom.

Before he could run any further, a strong arm caught his skinny one.

“Are you okay, kid?” The deep voice asked, and Hikaru looked at the man it was coming from. He had black hair and a little scruff. His hair was cut short, and he was a impressive figure, despite his stout stature.

“Uh…” Hikaru blinked, staring down at the blood staining his clothes and making squelching noises when he wiggled his toes.

“Come boy, talk to me. I won’t hurt you,” The man said, his tone gentler.

“I’m fine!” He squeaked, afraid to look the man in his eyes. Sai wasn’t saying anything, and Hikaru had no idea if he could trust him at all. He didn’t know if he could trust anyone in this slum.

“No, you’re not. You are scared halfway to death and covered in a dead man’s blood. I’m impressed that you haven’t peed your pants yet.”

Hikaru forgot all common sense and yanked his arm back violently before yelling indignantly, “I’m not that weak, you old fart!”

Whoops. Shit. Hikaru slapped his hands over his mouth, watching both Sai and the man laugh at him. Well, at least that showed them that he was completely alright! He wasn’t freaking out that he had blood all over him or that he’d just seen a man die, not at all.

Okay, so he was suppressing the desire to vomit on the other man’s sandals, but other than that he was doing fine.

“I like that spirit, kid. Come with me, I’m a teacher. You can call me Morishita-sensei,” The man dragged Hikaru along with him, ignoring the looks everyone else was giving the pair. Because really, in any neighborhood, a kid and a man with a murder weapon, coated in red evidence, was a bit of a sight.

“Uh… thanks?” Hikaru muttered, walking along side of the man.

“I teach martial arts of all types. I’m famous for it. Many famous Shinobi and Samurai studied at my school. You have the makings of a Samurai, and you need the defense if you want to stay alive in Ekone,” Morishita said gruffly, guiding the younger male through the streets. No one stopped them, and the blood kept the crowds away as soon as they were back in a gentler, less rough part of the lower town.

Martial arts, huh…. He rubbed his arm, the red coming off on his hands and smearing onto the sleeve of his yukata.

“I’m not really sure, sensei,” Hikaru said, before looking at Sai. The ghost seemed to be deeply entrenched in thought, but that didn’t mean Hikaru couldn’t interrupt his thoughts and get a decent answer.

Sai? Hikaru asked. Do I have to attend a dancing school? That stuff I was doing back there looked more like typical martial arts forms than a real dance. Can’t I just learn how to fight instead?

“No. Dancing is how you work with the magick. You must dance, not fight,” Sai frowned.

That sucks, He whined, looking around. People were still dead set on avoiding them, and he understood it completely. He wouldn’t have wanted to get close either.

“You could be a great blade master, I can tell from your body type. I think you‘ll change your mind on this as soon as you see what you could be,” The older teacher told him, his voice gravelly and strict.

“I’m supposed to learn how to dance, and it doesn’t seem like he’s going to budge on that,” Hikaru murmured.

Sai sent him a dirty look, or as dirty of a look as the ghost could manage, seeing as Sai sucked at hurting people and looking scary. The purple lipstick didn’t help his case.

“Dance?” Morishita laughed. “It is a dance, kiddo. You still need beauty, and balance, timing, a bodily strength. If you can fight, you can dance. If you can dance, it doesn’t mean you can fight.”

Hikaru’s eyes widened. He hid a tempting grin, as he walked just a bit faster to keep up with the man. Sai seemed to consider Morishita’s words as well, bobbling alongside the two alive ones. Hikaru wanted, wished, that Sai would accept this as what he wanted to do.

Chances like this didn’t come along often, and Hikaru wanted this. He didn’t want to dance, he was never graceful or elegant, but he had dreamed of being a fighter as a kid and… and if he could still learn stances and things like that, couldn’t he just learn to fight instead?

“I suppose that would make sense. You will need balance and strength as well as elegance. In fact, you may never master grace. But at least you can master balance and strength,” Sai mused. Hikaru let out a breath of relief.

No dancing! Yay!

“Don’t celebrate just yet, Hikaru. You will need to learn how to dance with the magick eventually., Sai narrowed his eyes.

Eventually. Hikaru nodded. Yeah, eventually was going to be a long ways away.

Morishita gave him an odd look, but Hikaru turned to him and said, before he could get in a word, “If that’s the case, then I want to learn!”

“That’s a good kid,” Morishita-sensei rubbed Hikaru’s hair, messing it up. Hikaru hissed a little and desperately tried to fix it. Sheesh, it was like he wanted to make sure that it looked as if… Hikaru realized that considering the state of his clothing, it really was silly to worry if his hair looked brushed or not.

Morishita-sensei led Hikaru to a large building, walking in and ignoring what they both were tracking inside. It was neat inside, but the floor had stains and simply enough, Hikaru knew that they wouldn’t make a scene in here.

One thing that stood out in his mind, however, was the light. Darkness coated everything else, but the ceilings in this building were high and covered with lanterns on every free inch. The entire hall was lit to the extreme, and Hikaru’s eyes hurt at so much light. He’d gotten used to the darkness already.

“Like it?” Morishita grinned, and anyone could see his blatant pride in his establishment. “The lights are for safety reasons. Nothing more, nothing less. Although it is refreshing!”

Refreshing, Hikaru muttered, was really another word for eye strain.

“Hikaru, the light here is… is so wonderful!” Sai cried, wiping away happy tears on his cheeks.

“Morishita-sensei! You’re back!” A loud voice called, and the thundering sound of footsteps echoed throughout the hallway. A wild brunette head poked out from one of the doors, probably a practice room, and looked at the two of them.

The newcomer’s eyes narrowed at the sight of Hikaru, and his upper lip withdrew into what could’ve been a snarl. Hikaru waved, feeling a little out of place.

“You smell horrible,” The bed-head said, walking out to join them. He was about the same age as Hikaru, which was a relief. Or not. Brown haired I-have-never-heard-of-a-comb kept giving Hikaru these dirty looks. He would’ve pegged it off as jealousy, or maybe it was just the sheer smell of dried blood and his dirty appearance that made the other teen glare at him.

“Killing vagrants does that to one. Waya, meet kiddo. You two are my youngest disciples,” Morishita-sensei laughed.

“My name is Shindou Hikaru,” he grumbled, crossing his arms.

“Waya Yoshitaka,” The other boy identified himself as, scrunching up his nose enough that he resembled a very angry badger, “You smell horrible. Go away.”

Hikaru looked back at him, as he was led off by his new teacher, presumably towards a place in which he could wash off. He was used to being popular, to being liked, not to glares and instant hate. Or maybe it wasn’t hate, but just a general dislike maybe? He shrugged, before giving Sai a look.

Sai looked like he’d been shot with an arrow to the knee. His eyes were wide, and his hands trembling. Even for a transparent ghost, Sai looked pale and frightened. It really was an accomplishment, seeing as he had the coloring for a Korosumomo and looked like he was a fluffy pale cloud thing already.

In the most hushed tone the specter could manage, he whispered, “H-Hikaru… I think we’re in for a load of trouble!”

Chapter Text

--Sai? Hikaru asked, shaking his head.

All day, Sai had been acting weird. He refused to say anything on the topic. Instead, Hikaru got to practice basic martial arts forms next to Waya and Morishita-sensei, wondering why the ghost was so upset.

“Hikaru. I cannot speak of it now, but I will explain myself later,” Sai said, and that was final.

Even on the walk home from Morishita’s dojo, Sai was unusually silent. Hikaru held back his anger, keeping a lid on it firmly. If it was important, Sai wouldn’t wait to tell him. Didn’t they have enough trust for that, at least?

The air between the two of them was tense, and Hikaru felt like they were stuck in a too-tight balloon struggling for air with all the tension. Finally after suffocating in the silence, they reached the door to their little room. It was when they had walked back into the little room that Sai let out a deep breath and flopped to the ground, effectively popping the tension balloon.

Hikaru took off his shoes and stared down on his ghostly-mentor, “Okay. Before Tsutsui and Kaga get back, tell me what’s up?!”

“It’s that boy, Yoshitaka Waya,” Sai sniffed, before sitting up in seiza.

Waya had been wild, unpredictable, but as Hikaru had practiced for a while, he’d completely stopped glaring. They’d fallen into a sense of camaraderie.

Hikaru would go far enough to say they were something akin to friends now. Waya and he had a lot in common and Waya was good with a blade. He was Hikaru’s senpai, and they got along well. Hikaru thought it was their age, because none of Morishita’s other students would talk to them.

Well, that was a stretch. One of them had talked a little, but just to correct Hikaru’s posture and to scold Waya for being sloppy in one of the forms. Everyone else had kept their distance.

“Yeah, he was rude at the beginning but it isn’t like he’s evil,” Hikaru shrugged, wondering what Sai was onto.

“No, Hikaru--!” Sai tapped his fan irritatedly. “He’s after your teacher!”

Hikaru laughed. “What? Sai, of course he wants to fight Morishita-sensei, that’s why we practice that stuff! To get better, yeah? You’ve gotten better if you beat your teacher!”

“Hikaru!! He doesn’t want to fight your teacher, he wants to eat him!! He’s an umeshichi!!” Sai yelled, trying and failing to beat Hikaru with his fan. It kept going through his head rather than hitting him, but Hikaru was paying less attention to the fan going through his head and more attention to the fact that Sai had just told him that his newest friend was going to eat his teacher.

…wait, what?

“WHAT?!” Hikaru jumped up. “Waya’s the umeshichi?!”

Waya?! No way. Waya wasn’t the one who ate that man from yesterday, no way. Waya was nice, and human, and---!

“That’s what I just told you!! He’s an umeshichi!” Sai whined, waving his fan around desperately.

“You have got to be kidding me, Waya was completely normal!” Hikaru whined right back. Waya couldn’t be a cannibal, it just didn’t fit him at all. Hikaru needed solid proof to believe that one.

Sai took a deep breath, fanning himself occasionally. “I could taste the violence, it was so entrenched in his aura. You aren’t strong enough yet to see souls without a direct connection to the owner, but if you could, you’d tell that it tasted wild, feral…”

Hikaru looked down at his hands, thinking back on his new friend. Waya had been a little crazy, but Morishita-sensei had put him thoroughly under control with a couple of threats and the occasional bargain. Being spirited was not a sign that Waya was a killer.

They were similar.

And then Hikaru remembered that he too was a monster. He inhaled, then looked at Sai, “Okay. So if he is, then what do we do?”

“We need to talk to him. If he knows who you are, then he’ll--”

They both paused as they heard a commotion outside, followed by a loud noise.

It had been a shrill scream, a woman’s. Hikaru dashed to the room’s only window, half hanging outside as he stared down onto the street below. The owner of the voice, a skinny woman with long dark hair and a flower kimono, pointed at a half-eaten, shredded body.

There was no mistaking it as the blood congealed on the cobblestones.

“No,” Hikaru grimaced, swallowing back his horror. If he didn't have nightmares, it'd be a miracle.  “We’re not talking to him if he does things like this.”

Kaga and Tsutsui were left a note the next morning. Or what Hikaru swore was the morning. It was close enough, considering he'd missed the morning bells and he hadn't heard the noon ones yet.  He'd slept in, which was a miracle after he’d gotten a disturbed night’s sleep, unable to stop thinking about the horrible bodies he’d found. He’d woken up twice to frequent the tiny bathroom provided, mostly to vomit his guts out. Stomach acid stopped burning after so long.

Hikaru knew that Tsutsui had been giving him odd looks last night, but he pegged that down to the vomiting. He hoped they didn’t stage an intervention because they thought he was doing it on purpose.  Maybe he'd pass it off as food poisoning and they'd let it slide?

Sai gave him a worried look as they walked out into the street. Hikaru waved his hand offhandedly, trying to a convey a ‘I don’t want to talk about it’ without actually speaking. His vocal chords hurt enough without extra strain.

They picked up breakfast on the way, and the rice ball sat heavily in Hikaru’s stomach. It felt odd to have something solid inside himself when he hadn’t been able to keep anything down earlier.  Strangely enough, eating something had soothed his throat rather than aggravated it, like plain water had, so he didn't really regret eating it.

“Hikaru… we need to talk to Waya,” Sai decided, shuddering every time someone walked through him. Maybe it was the commotion, or the sheer scent in the air, but chaos seemed to invade the low town completely.

“Right…” Hikaru nodded hopelessly, Sai following him closely as he stalked towards Morishita-sensei’s school.  On a list of things he really didn't want to go do, talking to an umeshichi was pretty high up there.

Not everyone seemed to be happy that he had reappeared. Several of the older students looked at Hikaru and narrowed their eyes, before turning away and returning the abruptly stopped conversations they had been having before he’d entered. Only Saeki, who had been the one to speak to them the day before, nodded in recognition.

Waya waved with both arms and jumped, an upbeat ball of energy. Three large steps were all it took to have the other preteen sidling up next to Hikaru, close enough that it wasn’t difficult for Hikaru to snatch up his wrist and pull it back, almost to the point of breaking it.

“Huh?” Waya looked at the arm gripping his own with all of its force. He then looked up at Hikaru, his brown eyes confused and almost hurt.

Hikaru squeezed a tiniest bit harder. “Waya! We need to talk, now!”

“No forewarning? You just going to elope with me?” He joked helplessly as Hikaru tugged him towards the building’s entrance, away from the other students.

Before leaving, just to be on the safe side, Hikaru snatched up his practice sword into his free hand. He didn’t want to have to kiss Waya because that was just not-going-to-happen-in-so-many-ways.  He knew what had been in that mouth.  Ew.

They both sat down on the front steps. Hikaru noted that they had been cleaned overnight, because the bloodstains had disappeared. He fidgeted his feet for a second, shuffling his sandals in the layer of dirt covering the cobblestone steps, before he found the right words.

“I know what you are. Why are you doing this?” Hikaru curled his fingers into a fist. He felt the rolling waves of disgust send tingles down his spine.

Waya looked at him, his eyebrows far enough up they were intruding on his forehead. He didn’t look like a merciless killer, and when he looked to the ground, he looked far more like a little scared child.

“I don’t have any control,” He admitted.

“Then how come you’re not eating me right now?” Hikaru stood up, brandishing his practice blade. Its tip shone in the yellow lantern light. “Is it this?”

Waya kicked a pebble, his voice dropping down into a mumble, “I thought we were friends.”

He looked like he was drowning, Hikaru realized. And Hikaru had no intention of saving him.  He wouldn't be friends with someone who'd hurt people needlessly.  Carnage wasn't the answer.  Violence wasn't the answer, which seemed rather hypocritical of him to think as he held a blade towards a person he'd hoped he could be friends with.

The practice sword weighed Hikaru’s arm down, and he flipped it about twice before it clinked as he pointed it at the umeshichi’s throat. The sword was dulled and Hikaru was just a novice learning his way about a blade, but it was a threat all the same.  It was a threat, right?

Waya didn’t look worried at the sight of it.

“I’m not going to stay your friend if you keep hurting people,” The anger was like alcohol in his veins; Hikaru felt dizzy from it. He swore somewhere in the back of his mind that Sai was telling him to stop and he wasn’t listening.

“I don’t want to hurt them!” Waya’s eyes glowed a molten gold color, his eyebrows draw together as his mouth sagged miserably, “I’ve never wanted to hurt anyone!”

“You’re in a city! You know what you are, so why?!”

“It’s easier here,” Waya pulled his knees up to his chest. He was small, a child, protecting himself. Except that he wasn’t. He was dangerous.

Hikaru held his sword with sweaty palms. He could taste acid in the back of his throat and he swallowed it down. When had his sword become so heavy? The muscles in his legs ached, but nevertheless he didn’t move them.  And then, like how everything inevitably falls to the ground, Hikaru felt his determination fall through, because even if he had the physical strength to stand here all day demanding answers, he didn't have the emotional strength to hurt a friend like this, and as much as he'd denied it earlier, they had sort of become friends, because they were similar.  

Hikaru had never wanted to hurt anyone either.

“W-Why?” Hikaru stuttered, dropping his sword from Waya’s throat. It was dull; if such cruel things could still slip out of Waya’s mouth, then the sword wasn’t the threat he had hoped.  It didn’t matter; Hikaru was perfectly capable of killing people.

“…I like people, Shindou. I like laughing with them, I like being friends with them. So it's easier to be with them rather than alone.”

The sword clattered to the ground. Hikaru sniffed, tears in his eyes.

Why? Why did everything that happened have to challenge his preconceptions? The cannibals were evil, the reapers were evil, the ghosts were evil… Hikaru didn’t want to believe it as his eyes burned.

“Wha… Shindou?!” Waya jumped up, his arms coming around Hikaru’s shoulders to pull him into an awkward hug. He seemed to have forgotten the whole ‘I is cannibal, I no hug my lunch’ rule of life that Hikaru was expecting him to follow. “Don’t cry, sheesh! We’re not toddlers!”

“I’m--” Hikaru sniffled, his bottom lip trembling. “I’m so confused.”

Waya slapped him hard on the back. “I told you to stop that!”

Hikaru wiped his eyes on his wrist, smearing salt water on his arm-band. It would survive the treatment, he thought, as he tried his best to just breathe. His lungs protested it although he managed before long.

“Hikaru… Are you okay?” Sai asked, floating next to him. Hikaru nodded, hiccupping.

“Hey… Shindou…?” Waya muttered, his head turned away. Hikaru glared at him, his eyes still wet and his eyelashes heavy.

“What is it?”

“I’ll try really hard to stop. I promise. I’ll keep a leash on myself, okay? So don’t make a fool out of yourself like that again,” He outstretched his hand, to shake on it. Hikaru reached out and grabbed the other’s hand awkwardly. One strong downwards motion and Waya had clamored back into the practice rooms, running away.

That promise being broken the very night after really shouldn’t have come as too much of a surprise. Hikaru and Sai chased through the streets, looking for the thing that once was Waya. It hadn’t even seemed to recognize them when they approached the first time, jumping off and leaving its victim completely torn up on the floor without a thought.  It hadn't even looked human.

Waya's brown hair was stained red and his eyes glowed an unearthly yellow, as his claws dripped thick rivulets of blood.  His claws were terrible, elongated spikes, and Sai had informed him that they were capable of tearing through anything in the world.  Waya's fangs too stretched past his death-smeared mouth, and his limbs didn't look human, his leg's like a wolf's and his arms too long, like a monkey's.

Hikaru had looked away, unable to see his friend in a state like that.  Sai hadn't, and that's the only reason they still were on Waya's tail, hoping to stop him, even if it had to be by death.  Hikaru dealt in death, after all.  What was executing a monster to a monster?  Sai had merely shook his head, had told him that finding Waya and stopping him was the duty of a kurosumomo, and it was imperative that they stopped him here and not after another massacre.

Sai? Hikaru twisted around, looking for the blood splattered monster they had been closing in upon together. The ghost’s eyes were as active as the living boy’s, and the sweet scent of rain tangled with the weight of the atmosphere.

“Huh… Hikaru, rain!” Sai pointed out, looking directly above them to the ceiling of the low town.

Sai was right; rain-- in the low town of Ekone?!

They had a ceiling above them, below of dozens of layers of buildings, topped with a palace. It was physically impossible for it to rain here.  And it was highly unlikely that someone's pipes were leaking.  Rain had a unique smell, one all of its own.

“This is just too fishy!” Hikaru cried out, stomping his foot. Anxious, he darted his eyes to the right. “Waya, the umeshichi, rain? Sai, I…”

“I understand completely, Hikaru," Sai took a confident step forward, illuminated in the darkness. Hikaru followed; it would do them no good to stop their search for anything as measly as rain.  Waya’s trail of half-eaten bodies was going to end here, if they had anything to say about it, apparently.

And the trail was suddenly no longer dead, as they heard another scream, another innocent life ended with the claws of a crazed monster.  When they followed the sound, they saw another wonderful scene of carnage.  The woman's stomach had been entirely ripped out, and the murderer was still there in wait.  Hikaru felt the terror of a child, his heart stopping and his only desire to run from the lightning quick glimpse of a blood soaked monster, but Sai started after and Hikaru just chased because he knew he should. His feet pounding the ground faster than his heart was beating, he dashed down another alley.

“I won’t scream, if that’s what you want,” A steady voice warned, coming from a young man with dark hair and a cynical smile. For being backed up against a wall, he was extremely calm and ridiculously cocky. His face looked normal enough to Hikaru, but the young man obviously wasn’t. Not if he could stare in the eyes of death and stay sarcastic.

He had dark blue eyes and wore a long-sleeved kimono and hakama. He looked ordinary enough, but maybe that was just the contrast between him and the monster with his fangs and claws extended and his eyes glowing like an animal.

Waya, with his eyes a fiery gold and flesh stuck in-between his teeth, crouched just far enough away that the young man could’ve run, if he wanted. But with the umeshichi’s transformation abilities, Hikaru doubted the victim could’ve sprinted fast enough to escape.

“Waya!” Hikaru yelled, his voice cracking from the strain of screaming so much, “Stop!”

He’d promised not to hurt anyone after this! This wasn’t Waya, he knew that this wasn’t really Waya! They were friends, right?! They had to be friends, Waya had promised to stop! Why would he have broken his promise?

Hikaru didn’t get it, and the tense air and the rain and the blood and the death and Hikaru was going to go crazy if this continued because so many people had been hurt already and Hikaru didn’t know how to make this all stop without killing his friend!  He refused to be an executioner.  Not if there was any other option.

An inhuman sound was snarled back through clenched teeth. A raindrop landed on his cheek and left what could’ve been mistaken for a tear, if not for the rain shower that followed.

He was pretty sure his head was going to split apart and his heart would wrench itself out of his chest from the sheer amount of feelings. But instead, everything went numb. Hikaru’s head slowed down, and he knew that he couldn’t take much longer of this. Being this scared all the time and not being able to get over it was not good for someone.

And the rain started to pour all around them.

The impossible rain.  Oh, Hikaru got it now. Wow, what a meeting of monsters. Ryûames summoned rain when they needed a quick and speedy escape. Under this ceiling, in the low town of Ekone, the only way rain would come was if it had been summoned by magick.

The young man that was the Ryûame, still backed up against the wall, had his mouth shut tightly and looked back between them. Hikaru didn’t blame him; even though Hikaru looked normal, no one could talk to an umeshichi so easily if not also a creature themselves. By deduction, not a single soul there was completely human.

“Waya…” Hikaru tried to reason even while he didn’t believe he had a hope in hell of getting through to his friend. It was like there wasn’t any human left in him. “Why are you still doing this?! Waya, I’ve known you for only two days and I know that you don’t want this either! The real you wouldn’t do this!”

“It’s not my fault! It’s not my fault!” The umeshichi screamed, digging his claws into the ground. The cobblestones turned to dust under his talons.

“It’s instinct…” Sai murmured. “Instinct tells Waya that he is alone and without a pack, and therefore that he is unsafe. Being so, instinct tells him that we are all enemies. If anything threatens him, he gives away his control and his conscious in hopes of survival. I see.”

If that’s true… Hikaru turned to Waya, reaching out his hand. “It’s not necessary to hurt people like this, you’re stronger than them! There’s no danger!”

“They threatened me! They hurt me! They tried to hurt me! They tried to touch me!” Waya screeched. Hikaru withdrew his hand, taking a step back. There was no getting through to the human-- well, conscious part of Waya now. He wasn’t there anymore.

The young Ryûame, the rain pounding down on all of their backs a mere display of how easily he could leave if he wanted, took a step away from the wall. Hikaru expected that to be it, he’d leave, run for his life. No, instead he took another step closer to Waya.

“We’re not going to hurt you,” He calmly said, to Hikaru’s shock.

“Hey, you! You should run, you can get away!” Hikaru said, dashing forward to try and get in between the two. He had no idea what the young man would do to Waya, or what Waya would do to the young man. He was on a killing rampage and yet after all that talk the man just moved another step closer.

Waya choked a bit, already looking a bit more human, despite his entire body tensing up. “You shouldn’t get near me, you should listen to him!”

“I don’t take orders,” The young man’s hand carded through Waya’s hair gently, ignoring the blood that soaked it red, that dripped from the socking wet locks, “I’m alone right now too.”

“Alone?” Waya murmured, his fangs and claws receding.

“I’m missing part of myself too,” The young man, who Hikaru was sure was some sort of saint, reached forward with his other hand and drew the younger boy against his chest.

Waya relaxed, his eyes falling shut and his mouth letting out even breaths. Hikaru wanted to interfere, but Sai held out his transparent arm and held him back.

“Hikaru, I know you don’t think too often, but if you slowed down here to think, you’d realize that you are in the most danger.”

Huh? Why? I’m not cuddling the cannibal!

“He summoned the rain so that if Waya attacks, he can escape. They don’t know if you are a threat or not to either of them. They’re far more likely to attack you than each other. And if not, they believe you to be the only human here, under the worst circumstances.”

I get it, but I’m not human either.

“You can die like one. You and Touya are not yet Kurosumomo.”

Can we both be? Hikaru pondered. Oh, I guess that doesn’t matter right now.

“Call out to them. Tell them who you are and that you are a friend., Sai instructed.


Immediately hearing Hikaru’s voice, Waya’s claws extended, his position shifted into a defensive crouch, and his hair prickled up. His upper lip curled back as he snarled.

The young man, the epitome of calmness, merely ran his hand down the length of Waya’s back, before returning it to the wild mess of hair on the umeshichi’s head. The most surprising part of it to Hikaru was that it actually worked. Waya didn’t back all the way down, but he looked far less startled and his posture softened.

“Hikaru, he’s a Ryûame, of course it worked! They’re magickal beast trainers!”

Oh. Hikaru looked between them, and the exit of the alleyway. He didn’t want to interrupt, but he did want to as well, and he decided if he was going to say something, it needed to be said now.

The sounds of feet and the sight of bobbing yellow lights meant that people were coming to investigate. It was dangerous to remain, and even if Hikaru didn’t trust the young man or Waya at this point, there was no avoiding being seen with them now. The best thing to do would be to get them all out.

Hikaru’s head hurt from the strain of being responsible and calm when all he wanted to do was scream until his lungs burst from pain and his throat started to bleed, but instead he said, “I’m sorry to interrupt, but… unless we all want a swift and painful execution without a trial or mercy, we need to get Waya out of here, there’re people coming.”

The three of them ended up in the young man’s room, which was empty and larger than Hikaru, Tsutsui, and Kaga’s. It was also far emptier and had no windows, so Hikaru preferred theirs anyway.

They were washing Waya off first. Guts, blood, muscle; they all slipped easily off his tanned skin under the Ryûame’s hands. Seeing Waya, who Morishita-sensei could barely control, so docile with the stranger was an jarring sight.

“What’s your name?” Hikaru asked, handing the black-haired man yet another bar of soap. He was standing outside of the tub, but he was responsible for handing things to the Ryûame as he cleaned off his new pet. Hikaru hadn’t been aware it was possible to have so much blood on oneself, but Waya exceeded all expectations.  It was like he'd been bathing in it, and it didn't help that it stained clothes very easily.  Tsutsui would have a field day washing Hikaru's and he only had a splatter or two near his feet.

“My name is Shinichiro Isumi,” The Ryûame said softly as he scrubbed Waya’s hair. “You’re an oddity yourself.”

“I don’t think you have a right to talk,” Hikaru snapped, “Waya’s acting like a puppy dog, and I can tell you that’s not his normal behavior.”

Isumi smiled but it didn’t reach his eyes, “We train dragons, it’s like a rite of passage. But dragons are rare, obviously. We spend an allotted amount of time  practicing without our bonded partner, learning only how to handle any animal.”

“Waya’s not an animal!”

Waya, or really just the puppy-dog, glared at him a little. It was as if he was saying, ‘Don’t back talk my master’. Honestly, Hikaru was worried that his cannibalistic friend was brainwashed or something.

“Right now, there’s nothing in him that isn’t animal instinct,” Isumi petted Waya’s head a little. “Whatever part of him you woke up when you called his name was too traumatized to stay awake. As soon as I calmed down the beast, he was relaxed enough to fall back asleep.”


“Why else do you think he was attacking so carelessly, without a thought? He must’ve spent quite a while in a terrified state, shutting his mind down the second he felt he was in danger.”

“I didn’t think…”

“If anyone threatened him, then he’d forget himself. Even umeshichi are decent enough not to kill like he was.”

“Scared, lost, and alone…” Sai made a dramatic gesture. Hikaru shot him a look, before turning back to Isumi.

“So when will he go back to Waya Yoshitaka? And stop being a puppy dog?” Hikaru demanded.

Isumi shrugged, grabbing a towel from the shelf and using it to dry off the clean pet he’d made of Waya. “I’m doing little more than calming the animal. When his conscious comes back, I’ll have little effect.”

“I see…” Hikaru clenched his fists. It was humiliating to watch. Waya wouldn’t leave Isumi’s side for anything. At the beginning, he was grateful that Waya was so relaxed and unwilling to attack, but seeing him with so little personality was disturbing.

Hikaru just wanted Waya to wake up. They were friends, or at least Hikaru thought so.

“You never did tell me what you were,” Isumi said, the quiet reminder of a deadly threat.

“I’m Shindou Hikaru. Waya attends the same martial arts school I do.”

“I see.”

“Where AM I?!”

Hikaru rolled over, finding a warm soft thing that he proceeded to cuddle with. Come on, Mom! he thought, It’s still dark.

“Shindou!!” was a hushed whisper in his ear. Hikaru moaned a little. No, he didn’t want to wake up yet--

“Calm yourself, umeshichi,” A deep voice came from below Hikaru, and the warm soft thing moved out from under him. It was disappointing, really. Hikaru just knew that it was too bloody early to be awake.

He wearily opened his eyes, finding himself in an unfamiliar apartment. It took him a second to place it; he hadn’t truly examined at the room last night. Last night… things began to click into place.

Isumi and Waya were here with him, after Isumi had tamed Waya somehow. Hikaru had thought the whole thing to be awfully suspicious but Sai had gone along with it.  And like most things, it looked like Sai had been right about it all.  And judging by the commotion, Waya was back to normal.

Isumi rubbed his temples as the brunet’s accusing finger was pointed right at his face.

“Who are you?!” Waya stammered, his arm shaking a little. Hikaru hoped that he wouldn’t lose control again, puppy-Waya had just been creepy.

Isumi seemed to have it under control, as he merely raised a slender eyebrow and snarked, “The person you tried to eat for dessert last night.”

Waya’s finger and jaw dropped to the ground. It was comical almost; Hikaru had to cover his mouth to stifle his giggles.

“He’s Shinichiro Isumi!” Hikaru told him from his spot under a ton of blankets, sprawled over two futons. “He’s a Ryûame.”

Waya glanced between the two, before dropping his guard. His shoulders dropped from their tense state and even his hair seemed to stand down.  It was obvious that the word 'Ryûame' was enough to soothe the savage beast once again.  “That explains a lot.”

Isumi stared at him. “You’re different from last night,” He remarked.

Hikaru wanted to snap and say it aloud, but he was content to think angrily, Of course he is! He’s not your toy anymore!

Waya avoided his eyes, “I’m not trying to eat you, no.”

“I meant that the beast is gone, completely.”

“Huh?” Hikaru’s attention darted between the two of them.

“Isumi means that while Waya was completely instinct and desire last night, today his conscience is back and has shut down his animal so well that it’s comparable to meeting a whole new person," Sai explained.

Waya was still refusing to look anywhere in Isumi’s direction. Isumi didn’t seem to know how to handle him either. It was an awkward stubborn stare-off with both opponents looking away.

“You two are silly!” Hikaru giggled.

“Says the only human here!” Waya grumbled. “Aren’t you intimidated by us?”

“He stood up to you when you were attacking me last night; we can safely assume he either has a suicide wish or is not actually intimidated by us.”

“You did?” Waya gasped. “Are you incredibly stupid?! Your sword fighting sucks-- I’d have killed you if not for Dragon boy!”

“Well,” Sai mused, “Hikaru could’ve killed Waya if he’d gotten too close.”

 Hikaru laughed awkwardly. “Uh… I didn’t worry too much because of the rain.”

“It was stupid! Don’t do stuff like that!” Both Isumi and Hikaru adopted a confused face as Waya stomped his foot petulantly. “Were you trying to get yourself killed?!”

“You care a lot for your humans friends. But last night, you didn’t even recognize this boy. Curious…” Isumi said.

Not human, Hikaru thought it was best not to point out. Sai nodded.

“They do not need to know such things now. They certainly know who Touya is, and they will not believe you.”

I guess so but I don't have to like this secrecy thing.  I was on a role, no lying for a couple days, Hikaru thought.

“Waya and I need to get going soon, Isumi. Thanks for all your help.”

“--Help?” Waya protested Hikaru’s tugging him along. He pulled back towards the Ryûame, “I need to know what happened last night!”

“You broke your promise, that’s what!” Hikaru snapped as he flung Waya outside.

“I meant, what’s up with him? Why is a Ryûame being so chummy with us when I tried to eat him?” Waya tripped over his feet, trailing after Hikaru.

“You make a good puppy dog,” Hikaru sniffed. “It was horrifying to watch. You lost all of your dignity, and you don't have any to spare.”

Waya colored from his neck to his ears, his entire face red. He muttered, “Please tell me I didn’t go ape-shit for bananas or start trying to wag my imaginary tail.”

Hikaru blinked, stopped walking, and stared at his new friend.

Waya shrugged sheepishly, his face still red. “Apparently I’m a riot when I’m drunk.”

“I can tell,” Hikaru stated sarcastically, a smile slipping back onto his face. Umeshichi or not, Waya was still Waya. As long as Isumi stuck around, he doubted they would have too many problems again with Waya.

Or so, Hikaru hoped.

Chapter Text

“Hikaru,” Sai reminded him, “We need to do something.”

This having been said, Hikaru wasn’t really listening. He was tired; it had been a long day at the dojo, not to mention the events of the night before. Waya and he were still learning the stances. Not only was it boring but Hikaru disliked learning stances in the first place. He wanted to move!

“What is it, Sai?” Hikaru asked, stalking through Ekone’s low town’s shopping district. It was a shortcut he’d found; he cut down on a lot of walking distance.  Not exactly stellar for the whole, 'exercise' plan, but more than sufficient on letting him sleep in a couple more minutes.  He no longer needed to rush, and this shortcut was fairly safe, even though there were several that weren't.  Hence how he'd ended up at Morishita-sensei's in the first place.

“The ghosts. Waya created quiet a few, and there are tons more. We should exorcise them so they can find peace as soon as possible,” Sai explained, waving his hands around to demonstrate the urgency of the task.  It made his long white sleeves look like billowy clouds.

He shook his head, “I can’t do that! People know my face now. If I went around like a crazy--!”

“How about a disguise?” Sai suggested, pointing to the many clothing shops around them.  And there were many.  The colors of the clothes weren't the best, and the garments looked threadbare, but still there was a large amount of variety.  Anything from bridal gowns to foreign garments were on display on racks and tacked to wooden boards, placed up in every way the shop keepers could think of to display more.  And not just clothes, there were places to buy smuggled jewelry and cheap festival masks, and dolls made out of grass and dressed up in rags, mocking the traditional china dolls the rich families would purchase on the higher levels.

A disguise, huh? Hikaru stroked his chin, thinking about it. If no one knew it was him doing the insane dances in the costume, he’d be fine dealing with the ghost population in his spare time.  Only if you let me use your name as an alias then too!

Hikaru checked his pockets. He had enough money for a mask if he bought a cheap one. He would just have to make do with the clothing he already owned, unless he picked up a job somewhere.  Being an apprentice did not pay well if at all (see not at all in Hikaru's case), and all his pity funds from Kaga and Tsutsui, who'd actually gotten jobs, went straight to feeding himself.

Finding a place that really was a bit too risqué for someone of his age, Hikaru poked around the mask section. Settling on one that was rather simple, glossy wood painted black on one side and white on the other, with the kanji for sun on the right cheek, he purchased it with glowing pink cheeks. Really, the things they sold in this store…

Holding his purchase in its paper bag, he gave Sai a look.

“We’ll start once I find something to hide my hair,” Hikaru said, before thinking, “And we could ask Waya or Isumi if they have any extra clothes.”

“Why not Kaga or Tsutsui?” Sai asked.

“They brought the bare minimum out here, remember? Hey, let’s find Waya first! Isumi probably doesn’t want much to do with me; we barely know each other,” Hikaru dashed off towards where he knew Waya’s room was located.

He'd only been over once or twice since the whole 'umeshichi killing spree' mess, but Hikaru had already memorized the way.  Hard not to when Waya lived in such an odd neighborhood.  He'd say it was in the bad part of town, but really it was a different sort of bad than the last bad part of town he'd been in.  It was worn down, half of the buildings in disrepair, and the rest on their way to rotting inside and out.  Beggars lined the streets and no one ever had anything to spare them.  Hikaru had tried dropping off coins once or twice before, but Waya had stopped him.

"Everyone in the low town is poor, Shindou, no one gets enough to eat.  If you give them the shirt off your back, you'll be sitting next to them tomorrow.  We're not the ones who needs to clean this dump up, we're just trying to make ends meet too," Waya hadn't sounded happy about it, but Hikaru understood.  He couldn't go wasting Kaga and Tsutsui's hard earned money on other people when he was starving himself half the time.

When Hikaru arrived at Waya's decaying doorstep, his friend waved him in and listened to his request.  Waya was kind enough to lend him a white kimono that he reluctantly admitted one of his victims had been wearing. When he came to, alone in his room, he’d been wearing it, and after a good wash, Hikaru was sure that it would help hide him sufficiently enough to do the job.

“You are going to look so weird,” Waya told him, handing him the obi that went along with the kimono.

“It’s fine. I’ll look great in that,” Hikaru pointed to the obi.

It was a red color with little foxes printed in gold on it.  With clothes like that, the woman had been living on the richer side of town, and perhaps was close to moving up a level to mid-low town, where there were windows in the riches houses leading outside, and fresh air was a thing that existed.  Everyone there worked, mostly in textiles, Hikaru had learned, and anyone who lost enough money or privilege to be there was brutally tossed down the steps to low town once again with whatever belongings they had left.  It was rare that someone actually got to walk up the steps, but if this woman had been able to wear something nice like this, she'd had been on her way up.

Waya and Hikaru both made a face, trying and failing not to think about the dead woman.

Hikaru had only told Waya that he needed some extra clothes, so asking for a long white kimono that was clearly too big for him and clearly made for a girl probably seemed really odd, but Hikaru didn’t care. He knew it was just for the disguise anyway.  And the kimono was nice.  Soft, like Akari's clothes had been, from too many hard washes, but not yet rough.

It was a good catch, he thought.  Soon enough, Hikaru would have his disguise, and watch out world! Here came the crazy dance moves of the great and mighty Sai!

Hikaru put the finishing details on his costume, securing the mask in place. Sai had put his hands over his eyes, and Hikaru was going to tell him when it was okay to look. If Sai couldn’t recognize him, then he should be safe enough to go fight some angry ghosts.

Pulling the red obi over his bangs, Hikaru decided that he was done. “Sai! You can look now!”

Sai made a gap between his fingers, looking through to Hikaru’s awesome disguise. He frowned, “You look like an uncultured crazy person.”

That was not the response he'd been hoping for.  He had been trying to look cool!  Hikaru pouted. Dammit, he’d worked hard on this too!

Sai smiled in return, his expression almost shamed if not for the amusement. Floating around in a circle, the ghost checked him from all angles.

“So? Uncultured aside, do I look not like me?”

“It’s safe to say that they will be far busier gawking to notice much else," Sai chuckled.

“I’m being serious!” Hikaru huffed, his arms crossed, “Do you recognize me?”

“No.  Hikaru, your identity is safe.”  The room was filled with Sai’s happy humming as he came to the conclusion of what this meant, “So we can go put souls to rest now!”

“Okay,” Hikaru agreed, grinning from behind the wooden mask.

The ghost was only mildly difficult to find. Unlike the first ghost they had seen, it had wandered away from the place it had been murdered, and back to its room.

Sai and Hikaru made quick work of it, the boy mimicking the ghost shoddily. Although Hikaru was proud to admit that he hadn’t wobbled nearly as much as before and some of the moves were similar enough to what he’d learned from Morishita-sensei that he’d done them easily, Hikaru was mostly happy that the magick came forth easier now despite him generally being a mess on his feet.  He didn't have to pull it like before, it came to him, eager to be used.  It felt exhilarating, and it wasn't just the adrenaline.

Best of all, the new owner of the ghost’s room hadn’t even recognized him as human and accepted his identity as Sai before chasing him with a cast iron pot.  And oh man could he do damage with a cast iron pot.  Hikaru didn't even know walls could be smashed like that.

The next ghost was a repeat. It was find, dance, run away, and Hikaru was getting good at it. However, the dance this time had been different from before.  The first dance had been a simple sort of pattern, he'd done some spins and hand movements and some stances similar to Morishita-sensei's teachings, and the magick that obeyed him was a light purple in color, responding to how Sai guided him.  The second however had none of the serene calm of the first.  They'd moved quick, with lots of full body movements and gestures that required him to twist himself into pretzel-like positions that he hadn't even known he could do.  The magick responded and it felt thicker the second time, like the air had turned to water.

He asked Sai, “Is there a reason for it?”


“The dances! Why are each of them different? Isn’t there a ‘get-rid-of-the-pesky-ghost’ dance that works for all of them?” Hikaru explained his thoughts as they attempted to track down yet another ghost.  Tracking down ghosts was easy with Sai around, he just knew where they were.  Hikaru had no clue how, but Sai did.

Sai seemed to think that this was hilarious, because he was lagging behind from laughing so much, “Oh, Hikaru. I am failing to teach you.”

Hikaru grunted, “Just answer the question already.”

Sai regained his dignity and went into instructor mode, standing straight and tall and towering over his pupil, “Think of it like a game. Each opponent is different, and therefore you fight each differently.”

“I get it.” Hikaru swing his arms back and forth, their destination in sight, “But how do you decide what moves you do?”

“Hikaru, this time when we exorcise this ghost, I will demonstrate,” Sai looked at the apartment building where their next ghost haunted.

Hikaru took the stairs two at a time, climbing up towards the second floor eagerly.

“The energy is this way, Hikaru,” Sai directed him to a room, number 313A. It sounded like someone was inside, so Hikaru looked around quickly before pulling out his disguise. He donned his mask, obi, and the kimono over his regular clothes before barging inside.

It turned out that the room had been vacated and the sounds only had been the ghost angrily throwing things around. The room was smashed, and the ghost still angry.

He’d been a big man in life, and was still bitter over his death. He held a lot of attachment to this world, and therefore he was a stronger ghost.

Dodging a lantern, Hikaru stared at this new opponent. “You missed,” he taunted.

If ghosts had growling competitions, then this one would win.

“Hikaru, summon your magick!” Sai commanded.

“Right!” Hikaru closed his eyes and found the dark place inside himself that his magick lay dormant. It bubbled up in a flood, tingling on the pads of his fingers.

“Now, Hikaru--” Sai moved slightly to the side to avoid an energy bolt the opposing ghost had thrown. His hair was whipping around him, the magickal storm creating winds of energy.

Hikaru felt the magick brush his skin and flow about his sound, but it didn’t affect him like Sai, his hair still plastered to his face and neck with sweat and his costume heavy. He wondered what it would be like on the other side of the veil with the ghosts and Sai, where the magick threatened to blow one away.

“Hikaru, there are several types of moves in fighting and in dance!” Sai yelled, speaking over the magickal thunder in their ears. “First you must form a stable stance!”

“And then?” He demanded.

“Analyze your opponent! If he attacks, defend! Take up a defensive stance and build up magick to protect yourself!”

Hikaru shifted his weight into a solid block. The burst of energy from the ghost’s magick storm flew around them as if Hikaru had put up a shield.

“Now, attack! Send the magick forward but do not force it, think of elegance and grace!”

Hikaru stepped forward and aimed a kick at the ghost, magick released from his foot and flung at the ghost.

“No, elegance! This is not a battle Hikaru, it is a dance!” Sai screeched, as the magick on battered the ghost and did not ensnare it.

Hikaru grimaced. Remembering some of the moves Sai did before, he decided on how he would ‘dance’. Spinning around, he aimed a high kick at the ghost followed by a palm thrust from his alternate hand, and then in quick succession a low sweep with his other leg.

The magick poured over the ghost like a waterfall, drowning it and tugging the soul like a current into Hikaru’s hands. He cupped the soul, before bringing it to his lips and watching it fly off towards the heavens.

“Elegant enough for you, Sai?” Hikaru puffed up his chest, insanely proud of himself.

“You did well for a beginner. A stronger ghost would’ve resisted you,” Sai told him, before beaming. “But I’m so proud of you!”

Hikaru had never woken up so exhausted. It had been a couple of busy months of ghost hunting, sword practice, and the occasional odd job or errand that Kaga or Tsutsui assigned (telling him plainly that if he did not carry his weight, they would kick him out onto the streets). It all added up to all work, no play. Hikaru almost wanted to protest.

Dragging himself to practice, Hikaru took the shortcut and was still scuffing his sandals instead of walking properly.

Waya’s exuberant cheer diminished some at the sight of Hikaru’s exhaustion. Concerned, the brunet checked his forehead quickly before asking, “Hey Shindou, you okay? You look like a wagon ran you over and the horses danced on your body.”

Hikaru sagged against his friend. His eyes were drooping closed when a familiar deep voice spoke.

“Shindou is merely tired, Waya. A little rest and he will be fine,” Isumi shifted Hikaru’s weight from the Umeshichi to himself.

“I’m not that tired,” Hikaru rubbed his eyes, staring at his two friends through the haze of sleep. “I’m mostly sore!”

Waya laughed, punching him in the shoulder, “Morishita-sensei won’t go easy on you for that, especially not today!”

“What’s today?” Hikaru slowly came back to a state of alertness.

“It’s tournament day! Everyone matches off in battle, and the prize is a Chinese broadsword! You have to win all the battles in order to win it, one defeat and you’re out!” Waya punched his fist into the air, excited.

Isumi regarded the Umeshichi coldly, his dark blue eyes sharp, “Waya, you…”

“It’s fine, Isumi!” Waya grinned. “You’re here to watch and make sure nothing happens, just in case! Why else would I invite you?”

Hikaru looked between the two. That explains things, he had been wondering why Isumi was here when he wasn’t part of Morishita-sensei’s dojo. That Waya had thought to invite Isumi just so he wouldn’t harm anyone showed that he really was kind of thoughtful. Hikaru wouldn’t have thought to do so.

“Waya is a good person,” Sai said from where he was floating behind Hikaru. “Sometimes, you judge too quickly and easily.”

“I guess so…” Hikaru stared at the pair, wondering what else he’d assumed all his life that could be proven wrong. He asked, “Waya, how does this tournament work?”

This would be Hikaru's first tournament.

The brunet turned his attention to Hikaru, “It’s pretty simple. Preliminaries take all of us small folk out of the game, then the remaining players are paired up. The winner of the matches advances to play the winners of the other matches until only two people are left. Then those two battle it out and the winner takes the broadsword!”

“Don’t get hurt,” Isumi demanded, his tone flat. His voice reminded Hikaru of why he was there; to prevent a slaughter.

“It’ll be fine!” Waya snorted, before he stormed off to get changed into his practice gear.

Hikaru watched him leave. “Do you think so, Isumi?”

“He is quick on his feet and can hold a katana well. I believe he will be safe despite his clumsiness,” Isumi folded his arms together so that his long sleeves his arms and hands completely.

“You’re right,” Hikaru scratched the back of his head. “It must mean a lot to Waya to compete, so thanks for coming.”

“He reminds me of a monkey,” Isumi stated instead of a ‘you’re welcome’ or ‘no problem’, before turning his back on Hikaru and heading towards the main arena, which Hikaru presumed was where the tournament was held.

“He is far more worried than he seems,” Sai remarked.

Hikaru shot Sai a confused look before heading off to change into his own practice gear.

Saeki, Waya, and Hikaru were the youngest three to make it through the preliminaries. Hikaru had no idea how he’d done so, as he was sure that he was tiredest of the bunch. Not only that, but his match was the first one. Two battles in a row? He wasn’t sure he could do it.

But he really really wanted to. The broadsword gleamed in its case, and oh, did Hikaru want it.

It was thin and light for a broad sword, with a bronze (since Hikaru doubted the handle was actually gold; Morishita-sensei wasn’t that rich, was he?) handle. The handle had segments that delicately curled around the hilt and the base of the sword. It wasn’t blunt at the end but rather it ended with a brutal point like a kunai. It looked deadly, and it was beautiful.

“Hikaru, this is no time to be drooling," Sai fussed about, worrying like a mother hen.

Hikaru wiped his mouth, looking at the tournament roster.

If he got lucky, he could win his first match and advance to round two. Hikaru was facing a much more experienced man, by the name of Jochi. He looked to be in his 30’s, and strong. The odds weren’t in Hikaru’s favor.

“Focus, Hikaru!” he told himself, trying to find his inner calm. He’d never win if he psyched himself out beforehand.

Remember what you have learnt, Hikaru,” Sai tapped his fan against his hand. “Stability, analyze your opponent, then attack or defend accordingly. And use your stances!”

“Right,” Hikaru squared his shoulders and found some confidence as he entered the fighting platform. It was a soft mat on the bottom to prevent injury and was only slightly elevated.

His opponent, Jochi, laughed, “There’s no way some kid can win against me.”

“We’ll see,” Hikaru snarled, both hands clutching his practice sword.

Perfectly positioned on the sidelines, Morishita-sensei stood referee. He held up his hand, and announced to both contenders and the crowd of watchers that had amassed before the duel, “Begin!”

Stability first. Hikaru moved into a stance that favored balance.

Jochi didn’t wait or make a stance, immediately he attacked. Sword flying, he went in for a blow to Hikaru’s right side.

Damn, Hikaru thought as he swung his practice sword around to block as he went into a defensive stance without thinking. His arms rung with pain and the force of the connecting blow.

Jochi swung his leg around for a low sweep to knock Hikaru off balance. It was a risky move for Jochi, because he left himself open towards his head.

Jumping up to avoid the attack, Hikaru wasn’t sure if he could properly attack the neck. Hesitantly he struck, but the blow didn’t connect, Hikaru’s arms wrenched as Jochi had already blocked it, having seen it coming and moved to slice. It was a wide but powerful attack, and Hikaru landed in a crouch that avoided it by a hair.

Moving into an attack stance, Hikaru feinted to the left. Jochi sidestepped to the right, and into Hikaru’s oncoming kick. Yes, one hit for Hikaru’s side! But ow, shins…

“Strike one, Shindou!” Morishita announced.

Hikaru didn’t waste Jochi’s surprise, going in for a finishing blow.

Jochi barely blocked in time, and Hikaru had to jump back to avoid a swing. They had come to a standstill, trying to regain their breath.

Breathing heavily, Hikaru blinked to clear his vision and his pounding head. Sweat poured down his cheeks as he noticed the cheering and noise from the crowd and how loud his heart was and how all of his limbs tingled from exertion. Re-analyze the opponent, he reminded himself.

Jochi had strength and could block well. If Hikaru attacked too wildly, he would take advantage of his unguarded areas right away. But Hikaru was being far too cautious, he couldn’t get past Jochi’s defenses without some wild sort of attack.

Immediately, Hikaru knew what to do.

With the patter of his feet on the mat and blood pounding his in ears, Hikaru swung wildly at Jochi, the arc of his blade sure to miss.

Jochi moved to attack the obvious weaknesses Hikaru had left open, sword hissing as it sliced through the air, only to meet Hikaru’s practice katana with a dull metallic clang. Shit, that was a hard blow to block, but Hikaru managed even though his shoulders protested.

There! Hikaru’s eyes narrowed, victory in sight. So confident Jochi was, he expected to follow up with a kick and knock Hikaru right off the mat. He saw how unbalanced Hikaru looked and to take advantage of it, Jochi would sacrifice his balance for a flashy ending move.

As the leg swung towards Hikaru’s unguarded stomach, Hikaru dived underneath and hooked his leg around Jochi’s, using all of his strength to knock him to the floor.

Practice sword clinked against Jochi’s throat. Both of them panted for breath, as the entire dojo watched in a hushed silence.

“I resign!” Jochi spat, his eyes narrowed with hate and his pupils tiny with shock.

“Accepted! Shindou Hikaru wins this duel!” Morishita-sensei yelled, and the other competitors cheered from the sidelines.

Hikaru heard Waya’s voice loudest amongst the crowd, and as he got up numbly, he waved a little. Only three more battles, and that sword would be his!

“Hikaru, you are showing promise,” Sai smiled.

“Heh!” Hikaru grinned, his eyes squeezed shut.

Hushed whispers greeted Hikaru as he headed towards where Isumi and Waya were seated in the stands. They were talking in their low voices, and leaned close enough towards each other that their foreheads were touching and it was clear that they weren’t talking about something sweet and flowery.

“What are you two up to?” Hikaru leered as he approached his new friends.

Waya turned red at having been caught. “None of your beeswax--”

“Sai,” Isumi stated blandly. “Have you heard of him?”

Hikaru had no idea if they meant the ghost Sai or Hikaru-in-disguise Sai. He wanted to say yes, but he knew that it was best to lie shamelessly to save his skin.

“Don’t think I have,” Hikaru tried to back up his words with a smile, but it was so cheesy that he was afraid he’d get caught in his dishonesty.

“Hikaru…” Sai warned low, “This is dangerous territory.”

“We didn’t think so,” Waya shifted so he was looking at Hikaru, “It looks like he’s a enigmatic new exorcist with super strong cleansing abilities.”

“So he deals with ghosts,” Hikaru deadpanned, and upon Sai flashing him a look for saying this, Hikaru amended it with, “And stuff.”

“Basically,” Isumi answered, patting the empty spot they had saved for him.

Hikaru took that as a sign to plop down on the other side of Isumi. The stadium was really uncomfortable without cushions, but the spectators leapt out of their seats enough that Hikaru understood their lack. There was one match between Hikaru’s and Waya’s matches, leaving plenty of time for Waya to needlessly drill him on his hideous form now that they had ended their discussion on Sai.

“You were sloppy! That win was pure luck; if Jochi hadn’t fallen for your little trick, then you’d be toast!” He criticized even over the physical barrier between them named Isumi. Isumi smiled but didn’t seem at all impressed either. Hikaru’s ego really was taking a load of hits today.

“Cut it out, at least I won. If you loose, I have bragging rights,” Hikaru smirked, sticking his tongue out and making a face at Waya.

Waya turned an odd color of purple as the announcer called his name for his match just then, and determined not to be outdone, he left Hikaru and Isumi in the stands with an image of his inner eyelids.

“Way to be mature, Waya,” Hikaru snickered, watching as the contenders entered the ring. Waya was up against a taller man with a staff, and neither of them looked like the strength type.

Who do you think will win, Sai?

“We will see, Hikaru. Waya is not weak, but if he gets scared then Isumi will step in and stop the fight before Waya becomes truly dangerous,” Sai answered, sounding every bit the 1000 year old ghost mentor that he was. Something about his I-know-all tone of voice made Hikaru kind of scared.

Knowledge and power all in the soul of one undead ghost. It could be terrifying to think about, to say the least.

“Hey, Isumi? I know it’s not my business, but what’s so important about Sai?” Hikaru asked, tearing his eyes away from Waya’s fight. They were just beginning to circle each other, and Waya seemed overconfident even. Which probably was a good thing.

Sai flailed his arms, “Hikaru! Don’t be too eager!”

“Sai is an anomaly in the world of us monsters. Maybe he didn't sound odd to you, but we have a different society than you humans, and we do communicate between each other and share culture just like humans do. We are separated from human culture and we do not follow the same rules, do you understand?”

“Yeah, I guess so.”

Isumi’s eyes never left Waya as he continued to speak, “Frankly, we gossip just as much as humans do. The exorcists who live in this city have been complaining to everyone who will listen about how they’re losing all of their business.”

“Exorcists?” Hikaru asked. There were actual people who could take care of angry ghosts? But wasn’t that why the Kurosumomo was around? What was the grim reaper for if ghosts took care of themselves and souls would just float off to heaven?

“Exorcists take commission fees to take care of wayward ghosts. They aren’t as effective as say, the Kurosumomo, but they do get the job done after a couple of years of work and purification. They spend a lot of time and effort to learn how to release the souls of ghosts and they have become very upset that this new exorcist, Sai, is running rampantly around exorcising everything.”

“Shouldn’t they be happy that the ghosts aren’t a problem anymore?”

“They are finding it hard to get jobs when the ghosts are being taken care of,” Isumi explained carefully, his eyes narrowing as Waya barely managed to avoid a blow. “This might get nasty.”

“Is everything going okay down there?” Hikaru asked, looking carefully at Waya. He hadn’t grown claws, and he looked like he was having fun running around like a little monkey to dodge the opponent’s attacks.

The match looked fairly even, Waya giving the older competitor a run for his money and staying quick on his feet. He didn’t look scared, even going for a risky swing in an attempt to get the taller man in his blind-spot. Hikaru wasn’t seeing what Isumi was.

Isumi motioned with his right hand towards their friend, whose moves were loosing their fluidity and style as Waya tired himself out. “For now, yes. But I can sense the animal coming towards the surface. Normally this wouldn’t concern me, but Waya had suppressed his inner beast so well that it is nearly twice as ferocious when it does come to play. If he slips up and gets hurt, he may let it out accidentally.”

“Oh. Waya sure is a lot of trouble…” Hikaru sighed. He always had to pick the worst friends, didn’t he?

“I’m rather proud of him. For fighting so long and keeping control of himself, he is already showing amazing progress,” Isumi’s cheeks colored the tiniest bit red, and he looked like a mix between a proud parent and a fanboy.

Hikaru stuck out his tongue. Why was everyone else so gross, anyway? Isumi and his stupid face just because of Waya’s stupid fight. Ugh…

“Have you ever considered that you may be feeling left out instead?” Sai humored him.

Have you ever considered staying shut up when I’m having my internal soliloquies? Hikaru growled, grumpier than an old man with kids running around on his lawn. I’m the one with a fiancée. They can go suck it.

“A fiancée that you willingly gave up to come here.”

I wasn’t going to let Akari get hurt. And you told me to, anyway, Hikaru’s nose was in the air, but he still glowed a little inside. Sai had complimented him in his own way.

“Shindou. It is over, Waya has won,” Isumi told Hikaru with a little smug smile on his face. Hikaru blinked out of his internal discussions, and looked over the fighting platform. Waya was still fighting, but his opponent was tiring faster than he was, and it looked as if Waya’s endless energy and remarkable stamina would win the fight where his amateur skills couldn’t.

There was a total of three exchanged blows before Waya struck past the taller man’s defenses and took the win.

“Yes!” Hikaru pumped his fist into the air. “Go WAYA!!”

Isumi’s smug smile was somehow more self-satisfied than before. “You and Waya will fight each other next, then.”

“Oh. Right,” Hikaru’s excitement died, and he slumped back down with his energy drained and his eyes defeated. If he fought Waya, he wasn’t likely to win. Waya was his sempai and had practiced far more. Hikaru needed to win all of his matches; was it selfish to think that he’d rather Waya been defeated by someone else so that he could advance in the tournament guiltless?

Oh… and he really wanted that sword!

“You are really silly, Hikaru. You have already fought Waya, and won. Twice,” Sai laughed, his sleeves flopping with his little giggles.

Hikaru glared at him. I’ve never won against him in sword fighting.

Sai gave him a sharp look with his obsidian eyes. “A battle of the wills is still a battle, and he recognizes you as a fellow. Just do your best and neither of you will regret facing off!”

“I guess so,” Hikaru murmured, and upon receiving a questioning glance from Isumi, he shrugged, “It’s nothing.”

Brown eyes bore into dark grey. Both took an appropriate fighting stance. Hikaru stared down Waya, his hands balled into fists. He would win.

That sword was his, even though this fight had not yet been decided. It was a battle of two equals. The familiarity of their bodies was both a blessing and a curse.

Hikaru knew how Waya would fight. Waya knew how Hikaru would dance.

It all came down to will. And Hikaru wanted that sword.

“You’re being hasty!” Sai chided, his hands an invisible relief on Hikaru’s shoulders. “Calm, think of an appropriate way to outmatch him.”

I am calm! Hikaru thought, and sucking in a breath of the sweaty air around them, focused his mind. Waya was fast, not a heavy hitter, and particularly good at jumping and dodging blows. The fight would be quick and tiring. Hikaru couldn’t afford to waste too much energy.

Therefore, the solution was to out-think Waya. To confuse him, to frustrate him, to keep him from making any critical blows out of anger or rage. Waya had very little emotional control, and while Hikaru had nothing to boast of there, he could still try to take advantage of that to balance the scales in his favor.

“It’s too bad we met each other so early on in this tournament,” Waya smirked, still ruffled from his last fight, less than 30 minutes ago.

“It’s too bad you’re getting kicked out of this tournament so early on!” Hikaru grinned, circling his opponent. They were both waiting for a sign of weakness.

“Hasty~!” Sai sung, reminding him yet again.

Shut up, I’m totally winning this one.

“Ready?” Hikaru prodded.

“Of course,” Waya responded.

The battle begun with a large swipe of Waya’s blunt training sword, aimed towards Hikaru’s midsection. A quick jump back was enough to dodge it, and a clang of blunt metal on blunt metal sounded throughout the room as the two swords collided on Waya’s left side.

It was a tough position to hold or exert force, both retreated for another chance for better leverage. Hikaru took a large gulp of air, his heart already pounding in his chest.

Delicate footwork on Waya’s part kept Hikaru from effectively taunting him, and Hikaru knew he was going to have to catch up later, to outsmart in a critical movement, rather than to defeat soundly and surely. He was already behind and on his toes, Waya with the clear advantage.

Experience really did count for something. Wow, Sai was right. Hikaru would never actually tell the ghost that, though.

A slide underneath Waya’s blade and the impact of Hikaru’s elbow to his exposed, unguarded side turned the tables; now Waya was on his toes to avoid Hikaru’s swipes and slashes.

“This will definitely be a close battle…” Sai contemplated. “It’s looking like Waya will regain the upper hand soon, Hikaru, you’re tiring.”

Fuck, I know that! Hikaru spared a thought away from the battle, and found himself shoved off balance in the split second he lost his focus.

Sai had the dignity to pretend not to look guilty as Hikaru struggled to regain his position without running into the blunted end of the training sword that seeked him out hungrily. The delicate footwork he’d learnt in his dances with Sai helped Hikaru to find his balance and to put the two boys back on even ground.

The battle wasn’t to last; both of them were tiring quickly. Too quickly, even, because it had been a less jerky and active fight than both of their fights before. Exhaustion marked the both of them, lazy swings and less calculated moves were starting to slip their way into their fighting.

“Remember that sword, Hikaru! You cannot loose if you want it!” Sai called, and Hikaru did. The blade had been shining under the trillion lanterns decorating the ceiling of the dojo. A razor sharp edge, Hikaru supposed, with the gleaming bronze handle and the gaudy metalwork. The fact that it might have even been slightly double-edged. It was the sword he wanted, the sword he felt he was meant to have.

He was really sure that he was going to obtain it somehow. Therefore, this battle was a battle Hikaru could not loose.

A renewed vigor sustained him long enough to aim a lightning fast punch to Waya’s stomach, forcing him to kneel over. A well placed kick to the chest, and Waya was off-balance enough to fall to the floor. Dark brown eyes dilated, slitted, and while Hikaru knew it screamed danger, he pressed his blade down to Waya’s throat and said, “I win.”

Isumi could deal with the after math of that! Hikaru grinned, giddy from victory.

The crowd was cheering, Waya on the floor, and adrenaline pumping through Hikaru's veins and fueling his addiction to victory.  It was the perfect dramatic hero moment, predictable and it was just cliche enough, two rivals fighting with a bare victory on one side, that it seemed straight out of one of those novels that Akari liked.

But no one could have predicted what would happen next.

A drawn-out ping, quiet at first but then like a symphony of out-of-tune instruments, sirened in everyone’s ears. Hikaru looked around aimlessly, watching several audience members start and shift in their seats.

“What in the name of…” Hikaru covered both of his ears, his practice sword dropped uselessly to the ground.

“It’s the sound of a monster, Hikaru!” Sai shrieked, covered his own ears and yelling to be heard over the sound. “It’s a beast from the deep places, the forgotten ones. The bloodshed must have drawn it here, looking for the prey!”

With those words, the entire wall was smashed in and rock and debris catapulted into the room. Darkness filled it as Lanterns bobbed helplessly with the wind, their flames extinguished. A slithering sound was heard as the creature slipped inside, its 10 arms crawling on the floor.

It was covered in yellow and black scales, some dripping with fresh blood. A horse’s head met this serpentine body, and a roar echoed throughout the now silenced room. Despite the equestrian face, the beast still had razor sharp fangs.

It was about now that everyone started screaming.

“Waya’s bloodshed?” Hikaru breathed, staring into the glowing green eyes of the beast. His heart was beating out of his chest. What did one even do in a situation like this? Was Hikaru supposed to run or fight? “Sai?”

Hikaru, you’re a heir to the name of Kurosumomo, you are the only one with a fighting chance to beat this monster!” Sai clutched his head. 

“Why not Isumi or Waya, I don’t-- I don’t know how to fight that thing!” He stammered, looking at his ghost as he stood motionless, unsure of whether to run or defend himself. So far the beast was staring him down, waiting for him to move.

“See its stillness?” Sai yelled over the screaming. “It recognizes the even fight. A grim reaper can kill one of these beasts, and it does not yet know how strong you are. It is evaluating you now, and now you must not let it find your weakness!”

“So, I… do what, exactly?” Hikaru tried to keep his heart from beating out of his throat and choking him like it was threatening to. Fear froze his legs; he wasn’t sure if he could fight it. Whatever this was, it looked far too powerful for him to take down.

Sai made a fighting stance. “We fight it. I will not guide you entirely, Hikaru, because then you will loose your spirit and therefore your strength, but I will help you.”

“Together?” Hikaru asked, copying the stance and looking at his ghost.

“Of course. I can dance, you can fight. To defeat this beast, we need both,” Sai smiled, before turning his eyes into sharp glints and staring down their enemy.

The beast had a soul, and now that Hikaru had begun the dance, he could see it. A kiss would end the entire fight, but Hikaru didn’t think he could kiss the monster if he wanted to. Therefore, it came down to skill. Sai had the skill, but Hikaru knew Sai was right, the attacks would loose strength if Hikaru merely was a copy cat of the old master.

Hikaru had to fight his own battle now.

Spreading his arms wide, one in front and one stretched behind him, Hikaru leaned into a running position. He’d need a sharper weapon to pierce the armor, his blunted blade would save no one.

Looking around, his eyes found the broadsword and he took off in a sprint.

The creature smashed into a wall behind him, trying to catch up with his speed. Hikaru jumped over the railing of the arena and hopped over the seats in the stands to get towards the display case; the audience had already started running towards the exit and evacuated. Morishita-sensei directed the flow of people, but Hikaru had little time to notice this.

He jumped into the head table area and snatched the sword from the display, unsheathing it in one glorious second. It was heavier than he realized, a little unwieldy, but Hikaru had no other choice.

From the arena, Waya made a large hand motion, and Hikaru turned to look just in time to see the creature’s tail headed straight for him. He managed to avoid it by jumping off the stand and straight down to the arena’s floor. His feet hit just a little too hard on the mats, but thank the heavens they were there or else he might’ve gotten far worse of an injury.

“Hikaru, it is time to dance!” Sai called out, and Hikaru nodded, using both hands on the weapon to create more balance.

The creature slithered in circles after him, dizzy. With the blade singing in a wide arch, Hikaru sliced off two of it’s arms.

Having only seen carnage before and never having caused it, not to this amount, Hikaru had a hard time keeping down the bile rising in the back of his throat.

He could slice off people’s arms if he wanted to. He wasn’t sure how okay he was with that.

“Hikaru, you are only hurting his physical body, you must dance now! Dance while you fight, grab ahold of his soul! Use an offensive position, use an offensive dance move and stop fighting for one second!” Sai cried out.

He managed to stop his feet, and enter into a position with his arms crossed, one on the hilt of the blade and one on the tip. His legs were in a horse stance, spread apart and stabilized as he focused on grabbing the creature’s soul.

It pulled away fairly easily, and once the creature felt it, they both came to a complete stop.

“Don’t like that, do you, you stupid thing!” Hikaru grinned.

Sai frowned. “Hikaru, stop. Taunting it will not work.”

“I’m totally allowed to taunt!”

“You are not focused and are only engaging in a foolish activity. Treat your enemies with respect, no matter how strong or weak they may be.”

“Okay, fine,” Hikaru pouted a little, and give a stronger tug on the creature’s soul.

Realizing the danger it was in, the monster roared and charged forward, smashing into the ground right as Hikaru managed to jump to his right and to safety. It slithered after him, and he dove underneath its thrashing tail to jump on its back.

The scales shifted underneath him and he grabbed shakily onto them in hopes to stay on. Barely clinging, the beast looped around and tried to bite at him. Hikaru dropped his hold, falling to the ground and letting the horse head collide with its own body.

Its fangs had already sunk deep before it realized it had attacked itself, the looseness of its soul creating a distraction and disorientating the creature.

Hikaru had landed harshly on his back, the wind knocked out of his lungs. He barely scrambled to his feet before the creature attacked again.

Isumi shouted in the background, and Waya let out an inhuman roar. Barely catching Isumi’s words, Hikaru heard the deep voice yell, “Shindou! Waya will be a temporary distraction, do what you need to defeat it while its focus is on him!”

Waya’s claws sliced cleanly through the monster’s tail, severing the limb and causing the creature to cry out. Hikaru grinned; the power of a umeshichi in action and not killing other humans was incredible. He had time to lock eyes with Sai, and they both shifted into a basic position.

Hikaru knew what to do now. This is where Sai and he danced together. This is where he stole the beast’s soul and won the battle.

Holding his blade out in front of him, he focused his spiritual energy, letting his flow through his veins and his heart beating twice as fast as it should, letting it fill him up.

Sai glided into a dance that Hikaru mirrored, letting the power rise and ignoring the battle right in front of him. He soon felt the energy overflowing, everywhere, and like he had no more to give.

He felt like he was running at full speed, even though he was standing in one place, only shifting in the elegance dance that Sai directed.

Finally, he knew it was enough, that he could let it rush out like a tidal wave. Hikaru gathered the feeling in his chest, and swallowing a deep breath of air, he swung it forward with the broadsword and, right as he felt it grab the creature’s soul and yanked it towards himself, taking it, Hikaru swung through the monster’s horse head.

It gave one last death cry, the ringing whistle in everyone’s ears, before collapsing down, dead.

Hikaru felt its soul still with his own. It felt dirty, and he didn’t want to keep it with him. It was easy, simple even, to grab it with his hands and let it fly off towards the stars. Even though Hikaru could only see the remnants of the lanterns on the ceiling, he knew it had only gone straight up. He could feel it.

“Hikaru! You did it! We did it!” Sai gather him in a hug that Hikaru could only lean into, being watched by both Isumi, Waya, and Morishita-sensei.

“Yeah,” Hikaru blinked. He was exhausted. His legs felt like stone; he had no idea how he could even still move them. His arms were lead and the sword dropped from his limp hand to the floor with a clang. He wobbled on his feet, his eyes suddenly heavy.

Isumi picked his way over through the debris, a puppy-Waya following him. “Shindou, are you alright?”

“I think so,” Hikaru swallowed, trying to keep his eyes open. The adrenaline had faded fast, way too fast. “I might have bruised up my legs a lot.”

He did. Blood dripped from a cut on his arm that he didn’t remember getting, his legs blossomed black and purple and yellow with bruises, and he could taste blood in his mouth that he hadn’t noticed before.

“We’ll take you back to… we’ll take you back to your home,” Isumi said softly, taking Hikaru’s arm and placing it around his shoulders to help support him.

“Tsutsui can probably patch me up,” Hikaru smiled weakly, leaning heavily on the Ryûame. “I live in a little apartment building down near the main road, it’s pretty big. I can probably stay awake long enough to direct you there.”

They hobbled together towards the door, Waya following silently after.

“Wait!” cried Morishita-sensei. “Shindou, you forgot your sword.”

Hikaru stopped and looked back, “I don’t have a sword, I use the practice swords… Please, can’t I just go home?”

“You deserve this one,” Morishita-sensei grinned and held up the broadsword, having rescued it from where he had dropped it in the rubble.

Hikaru’s eyes widened.

“You… but I… it’s the prize of the tournament?”

“You fought that thing and won; you deserve a sword for it. Plus you got it all bloody, it’s an unsuitable prize now. We can just go find a new prize. You deserve this, kid. You own it.” Morishita tossed it over, and Waya caught it.

“I’ll carry it for him,” Waya said softly, in a tone of voice that sounded way more like Isumi speaking through Waya’s mouth than Waya talking for himself.

But Hikaru glanced at his eyes and Waya grinned a little, and apparently going into Umeshichi mode willingly kept Waya from a total takeover.

It made sense to Hikaru’s tired brain; without the fear that Waya usually used to trigger the undesired transformation, this time Waya had wanted to fight the monster and used that as a trigger. The battle being won, there was no fear that kept him stuck in umeshichi mode. Isumi was there, Isumi kept him from doing anything stupid.

The walk home was bearable, but Hikaru closed his tired eyes before he’d even reached his bed.

Hikaru woke up to Tsutsui dabbing a wet cloth on his forehead. It was impossible to tell the time, but Kaga was snoring against the back wall so it must have been late.

“Hey…” Hikaru managed, staring up at concerned brown eyes. “I don’t…”

“I would doubt you’d remember much,” Tsutsui smiled. Hikaru leaned up, and held the damp towel to his forehead himself.

Gulping down the bad taste in his mouth, Hikaru rasped the words, “What happened?”

“You defeated a monster in the dojo. Your friends dropped you off here with express instructions to send you over once you felt well enough to talk. I bandaged your arm and put salve on your legs but there wasn’t much else I could do.” Tsutsui stood up, brushing off his robes. “You should sleep the rest of the night and go meet your friends in the morning.”

Sai, who Hikaru hadn’t seen right away, shook his head. “Hikaru, they need to know soon. You should go now; I get the feeling that Isumi and Waya will not keep their curious mouths shut forever. The sooner we can clear up the mess, the better.”

Nodding, Hikaru tried to stand up. His legs were shaky but decent. Tsutsui looked over at him, worried.

Noticing only one other cot than his own, Hikaru grinned, seeing an oppurtunity to be bitter and tease, “You two are sleeping in the same bed? That’s pretty risqué for roommates, Tsutsui-san.”

The teenager blushed up to his ears. “I-I…”

“I’m going out to go talk to them. I’ll be back tomorrow.” He said cheerfully, heading on out. Sai drifted after him as usual.

They walked in relative silence for a bit while Hikaru tried to remember where Isumi’s house was. He knew the section of town but he’d been rather shaken the first time they’d gone there so the details were shaky.

“Hikaru, I’m proud of you.” Sai said softly, his eyes warm with pride.

“Really?” Hikaru felt warm and tingly all over. Sai, who had taught other korosumomo-to-be, ones that were better groomed and better for the job, was complimenting him? It was one of the best things Hikaru had ever felt. It was like when his mom, and his heart panged painfully with how much he missed her, made him homemade ramen because he’d done something she was proud of him for.

“Really.” Sai beamed.

The rest of the walk was filled with bragging on Hikaru’s part and loving scolding on Sai’s.

Isumi’s place, which Hikaru could now really appreciate that he wasn’t coming back from having stopped Waya from killing people, was in a fancier apartment building, on the second floor. It was more spacious, and the door had Isumi’s name on it printed in neat calligraphy.

Knocking, Hikaru waited with Sai floating beside him.

A tired, but awake, Isumi answered it, a small smile gracing his otherwise emotionless face. He let Hikaru inside without a word, pointed to the cushions on the floor, where Waya was curled up and sleeping.

Hikaru nodded, understanding the easy message of, ‘let’s let him get some sleep for now,’ and they both congregated into the dimly lit kitchen.

Only one lantern lit the room, and they both sat down on opposing sides of Isumi’s kotatsu. Hikaru’s legs thanked him for it, releasing the tensed bruised muscles.

The silence was awkward for a moment, neither of them sure what to say, before Hikaru started to talk.

“I guess I should tell you what was up with that.” He whispered.

“It would be nice to have you reassure what I have only considered.” Isumi answered softly.

Sai nodded, and Hikaru talked. “I’m an heir to become korosumomo. That’s how I could defeat the monster, because I could grab and drag out its soul.”

“That… was not was I had expected.” Isumi stared at him numbly. “I know Touya, I have met him. He’s the heir, and there is only one heir. How can that be, unless you are lying to me?”

His last words were sharp and Hikaru tried not to visibly wince.

“I don’t know… I… I’ll start from the beginning. You see, I was running out in the woods when…”

The story rolled off his tongue so easily, and a weight felt as if it was lifted off of Hikaru’s shoulders. He hadn’t realized how much he’d wanted to tell someone about this before. It all came so easily to him, recounting his kiss with Touya and all of the ghosts he’d fought using Sai as his pseudonym, how Morishita had saved him and how he’d met Waya.

Isumi was a good listener, silent and his eyes were the only things that showed that he was still focused.

Hikaru finished with how he’d danced with Sai to defeat the monster, and Isumi nodded.

“I have never heard of a Sai before you but your story rings true. There were once legends that Torajiro, one of the greatest korosumomo, had a teacher for a traveling companion, one that no one had ever seen.” The Ryûame ran his fingers through his dark hair. His sleeve dropped down to show metallic blue scales on his forearms, the reason for his long sleeves.

“It’s all true, I promise I’m not lying!” Hikaru said. “I don’t know why there’re two heirs to become korosumomo but there are, you’ve got to believe me.”

“I do.”

It was a relief to hear.

“Thank you, Isumi!” Hikaru wrapped his arms around his disgruntled friend and borrowed his head into the soft fabric of his robe. “Thank you!”

“Now, you need sleep. We can discuss what we will do tomorrow. For now, rest is what we all need.” Isumi rubbed Hikaru’s shoulder and detached himself from the much smaller boy.

The one lantern was snuffed out, and Hikaru snuggled under the blankets of the kotatsu table, warm all over.

Chapter Text

Isumi’s little room was brightened up in the morning, or what Hikaru just took to be the morning. Three lanterns were lit and placed in strategic locations around the room. Breakfast was a simple meal of rice, Isumi having cooked because he somehow managed to rouse himself before the rest of them.

They all sat around the kotatsu, their empty dishes in front of them.

Waya had taken the whole explanation with a grain of salt and a lot more disbelief once they had told him Hikaru’s situation. It had taken longer to fully illustrate it for him, mainly because the brunet couldn’t seem to keep his mouth shut.

Once it had all sunk in, Waya leaned back and folded his arms behind his head.

“Touya is such a brat; I hate him. He thinks he’s the world.” Waya snorted. “I’d much rather have someone like Shindou be korosumomo. Actually, anyone but Touya would be nice.”

“What’s so bad with him?” Hikaru asked, and Sai’s confusion copied his own. They had only met Touya twice, but he hadn’t seemed like a rude or unkind person at the time. Just aloof and oddly polite? Okay, so maybe the killing kiss thing wasn’t so nice, but to be fair to Touya, Hikaru had totally started that.

Isumi’s lips quirked up. “He’s a two-faced person. When you aren’t fighting him, you are met with a polite mask of kindness and calm. When you are engaged in a battle, you begin to see his fangs and they are vicious.”

“But how does that--”

Waya interrupted loudly, “He beat me in a duel and he didn’t even care because he’s an asshole!”

“In other words, Waya is a sore loser.” Hikaru teased.

“Shut up.” Waya’s eyes narrowed. “I could beat you in a fair fight still. Isumi has to keep me held back all the time but if I took you on with full power, you’d not be so smug over your one little win.”

“I thought you didn’t want to eat me.” Hikaru laughed. “I’m all skin and bones; you should go eat Morishita-sensei instead!”

“Shut up!”

Isumi cleared his throat. “The both of you, stop.”

“You’re both being childish.” Sai nodded in agreement.

Hikaru shut his mouth quickly and looked down at the table, having the decency to be at least a little ashamed. Waya was in much the same position, only his brown eyes found Isumi’s and he may have lowered his head a little more over the expression he found there.

“Now, Shindou, if you please.” Isumi started, “We need to discuss our next actions. Unfortunately, the beast did not go unnoticed by the exorcists. They may know by word of mouth that you, or a young trainee of Morishita’s, defeated a beast they could never hope to. This news will spread like wildfire. We have very little time before bigger fish start looking for you, Shindou.”

“What does that even mean…?” Hikaru mumbled, looking over at Sai. Sai returned his clueless look with one of his own.

“He means that since you jumped headfirst into a lake, you kind of made more than a few ripples. Everyone’s gonna talk about you, and eventually some scary guys are gonna wanna see what you’re made of.” Waya added in helpfully, if one thought most helpful statements were meant to terrify someone half to death.

Hikaru gulped. Multiple strong enemies wanting to test him? How about super scary! One great big monster from the deep was enough, he wasn’t cocky enough to think he would get lucky every time he fought a stronger opponent. He didn’t want people to actively seek him out to fight, he wasn’t ready for that.

“Hikaru, this may be dangerous… We need to tread carefully.” Sai warned.

Hikaru nodded, “So Isumi, what should I do? I’m still learning about magick and I don’t think I’m ready for really strong opponents yet!”

Isumi poured himself a cup of tea, and one for both Waya and Hikaru. Hikaru held his in his hands like a precious stone, savoring the warmth in his hands. Fear chilled him but the tea felt nice, warm, like hope only corporeal.

“There is something we can do.” Isumi started, his voice deep and thick.

“We ditch this joint, right?” Waya jumped in. “We run away somewhere together, we’re the better fighters so we keep Shindou safe while he learns all the stuff he needs to from this Sai guy, and when he’s ready to go toe-to-toe with Touya, we let them go at. Whoever wins gets to be korosumomo and whoever looses gets an early death, sounds pretty simple.”

Death?! Hikaru swallowed his shock and hid behind his tea.

“I fear that may be the safest option. We could go somewhere secluded but not entirely alone, so Shindou could have opponents to fight. Somewhere in the world of the supernatural, but not anywhere in the Shinimikami.” Isumi took a sip of his tea, and furrowed his eyebrows. His elbows were stiff and he sat in seiza even in his own home. Hikaru was pretty sure he didn’t feel safe, and, thinking about the situation, Hikaru wasn’t sure he felt safe either.

Waya was the only one completely relaxed. He was spread out on multiple cushions with his legs hogging up much of the space under the kotatsu they were all gathered around.

“I don’t know… I came to Ekone to work with lots of ghosts because Ekone has a high death rate and loads of unresolved ghost issues. I can’t just learn how to fight, I need to learn how to dance too. Being a korosumomo is far more about dancing than fighting; ghosts don’t really work with fighting.” Hikaru told them, even though he was sure he was only repeating facts they already knew.

“I’d show off my old camp to you guys but it’s not really a good place. There’re lots of ghosts but no people, which kind of fails to help.” Waya frowned. “I would owe you if we stopped by on the way to where-ever though. I’d like my tribe to get some peace.”

Sai smiled forlornly. “They were all killed brutally, so they all remain. If only Waya survived, it must have been a fellow tribe.”

“That sucks. If it’s on the way we can go, sure, but if it’s not, maybe later?” Hikaru said. “Can’t you get Touya or his dad to go fix that? Aren’t korosumomo supposed to do that sort of thing?”

“I don’t want to ask either of them for any favors.” Waya hissed. Isumi made a clicking sound with his tongue and Waya shivered all up and down his spine. Turning on the Ryûame, he sniped, “Can you not do that, please, Isumi-san?”

Hikaru laughed. “Even while you’re in complete control, you’re still his puppy dog!”

“I resent to being called that!” Waya protested. He glanced over at Isumi, who was still smiling softly in the intelligent, ‘I’m watching you,’ way he had.

Hikaru looked between them, and was suddenly struck by a familiar longing feeling. It was the feeling he got whenever he thought of fighting Touya, the feeling he got when he wanted to fight Touya and win, the feeling he got when he’d fought along with Sai the second time they kissed and the irrational and probably suicidal desire to kiss him again just so he could fight Touya without any help and win by his own power.

“You have a weird look on your face.” Sai remarked. “Hikaru, are you feeling okay?”

Huh? Yeah, I’m doing great.

“Oh, well… you were acting strangely, looking off into the distance. Were you thinking about something?” Sai leaned down and looked at him closely.

Hikaru smiled. I was thinking about Touya. With the news of that fight, he’ll come after me again huh?

“There’s definitely a possibility… Hikaru, I would love to fight with Touya and his father myself too.” Sai beamed. “Especially his father; I want to compare myself to the current korosumomo and see if I am still proper to teach one the ways. I want to learn!”

“Shindou, I can think of a place that would be suitable, but I’m not sure if it will be best. We would have to travel through the outer reaches of the Shinimikami to get there, but otherwise it would be completely safe and a good location for secrecy and training.” Isumi’s voice broke into Hikaru’s thoughts.

“Where is it?” Hikaru asked, leaning forward, his thoughts focused on the immediate problem once again.

“Ikioi.” Waya said, looking between the two of them. “Right, Isumi? It’s definitely Ikioi you’re thinking of. It’s your home and it’s sort of in the middle of nowhere.”

“Ikioi? Now there is a place that I have never been.” Sai asked. Hikaru shrugged, he’d never heard of it either.

Isumi lowered his head sheepishly. “I do want to return, so my feeling may be entirely selfish, but… the village of the dragons, Ikioi, is in a perfect location. It’s secluded, in the middle of the Ookimizuto, unable to be found by anyone but Ryûame and their dragons.”

“His egg.” Sai realized. “I wondered but I did not think. Isumi is a Ryûame, they have dragon eggs. Isumi does not have a dragon, and so his egg has not hatched. He may want to go back to check on it, to see if it has. It is rare to see Ryûame without their dragons…”

“Ikioi is completely detached from most of the society in Edo or the Shinimikami, so it would be safe and rumor-less.” Isumi drank the rest of his tea, setting his cup down on the kotatsu lightly. “There are excellent fighters there, and you would be able to experience the lifestyle of a different species to acclimate yourself to how we non-humans function. Also, it would keep you safe from most of your adversaries.”

“Okay, well… I may not be able to work with the dead there, but otherwise it sounds good. You want to go get your egg then?” Hikaru asked.

“Yes, exactly.”

Waya frowned, turning his head away from Isumi to hide his expression.

Isumi looked at him oddly for a second, before continuing. “We should leave here soon. Today or tomorrow if at all possible.”

“We’re all going together?” Hikaru asked.

“What, you wanna split up?” Waya grumbled.

“No, I---” the boy smiled. “Of course not. Traveling with friends is more fun anyway.”

Sai and Hikaru were going on a few last rounds of ghost dismissal before they left so Hikaru could get some more practice in when a ghost had screamed it before he had evaporated, “The boy with the white cloak stalks through Ekone!”

Hikaru had heard all of the ghosts whispering to him similar things and even Sai looked uneasy but somehow excited. “Touya,” Hikaru said, and he felt something rise up in him that he couldn’t really identify.

Grinning, he bolted out the door, still decked in his Sai costume.

“Hikaru, this is dangerous!” the specter whined, waving around his large kimono sleeves.

“Sai, it’s Touya!” Hikaru wanted to see him, to fight him again, as soon as possible. He didn’t mind the danger; he wanted it. Touya and he were rivals, he wanted to make Touya see that, acknowledge that.

It had been months since their first kiss; almost a year.

Hikaru had to be nearly as good as he was now, it probably wasn’t as much of a risk as Sai thought anyway. Touya could definitely refuse to fight him, which would really hurt, but it was still a total possibility.

“Hikaru, he could kill you if he wanted to!” Sai protested.

“Sai, I can fight back, please, let me try to fight him myself!” Hikaru begged, looking through the dimly lit crowds of people for a familiar white cloak.

He didn’t see one. That didn’t stop Hikaru from running to some of the places he’d gone before, when he’d exorcised the ghosts. Touya might have gone there to look for clues about Sai.

Ekone was too large a city for Hikaru to have any real hope of finding Touya, but that didn’t stop Hikaru from trying. He was not going to leave for a place like Ikioi, with no hope of seeing Touya again until he was ready to kill him? And…

Hikaru wasn’t sure he even wanted to kill Touya. The other boy was elegant and when he remembered dark locks falling on pale skin, dark eyes, soft lips, it felt like hurting a girl. It was like thinking of killing Akari. Couldn’t he just beat him, was the whole death thing necessary?

Everyone used terms like rival, Hikaru thought as he ran from one location to the next in his search, and everyone alluded to the fact that Hikaru would have to kill Touya if he wanted to become korosumomo.

Hikaru wanted to beat Touya with magick, he knew that much. He wanted that, and if becoming his rival for korosumomo was the only way to ensure fighting him again, Hikaru wouldn’t hesitate. Hikaru liked fighting with magick.

His past battles had proved that much.

Was it worth killing Touya? Was it necessary?

“Hikaru, there!” Sai pointed out. Hikaru followed the long-haired man’s fingers, and he blinked at the stainless white cloak that was draped over someone’s shoulders. They were walking towards Morishita-sensei’s dojo, and Hikaru knew at once.

“Touya…” Hikaru prayed.

His feet carried him after the glimpse he’d caught, and he followed his target all the way into the main arena, where the wall was still crumbling around the hole and the monster’s blood still coated the floor.

“I assume you are Sai.” Touya said softly. The boy still tall in his white cloak, and his dark hair was cut in the same stupid pageboy cut. His skin was somehow yellow under the lanterns, and Hikaru remembered how white it had been in the moonlight.

“He uses my name and it makes me want to be the one to fight him. I am the one he wants to duel with, but despite my desires, rational thinking invades again… You still need me, Hikaru, and so...” Sai frowned. “He needs to stay unaware of me, for now. Completely as unaware as possible, please, Hikaru…”

I know.

"Therefore you should fight him this time." Sai decided.

Sai was the one who knew how to work with magick. Hikaru was just a beginner, was he really ready to face Touya again? He’d thought so, but… Touya didn’t want to fight with Hikaru, he wanted another rematch with Sai. Hikaru looked down at himself, wearing the disguise he’d made to become Sai, and he looked back at Touya, before beckoning the boy closer without a word.

You can fight him this time, Sai. Hikaru thought.

“Why? Hikaru, I thought…” Sai looked bewildered, but then excited.

I’m not ready yet, we both know that much. He’ll never know it was you, he’ll think it was this anonymous guy in a disguise. We can fight your battles out like this now.

“Silence, then?” Touya whipped around, meeting Hikaru’s eyes through the mask. “Let us battle, if you please.”

Hikaru nodded, before looking to Sai. Sai formed a stance, and Hikaru copied it.

“I apologize for having to use you like this, Hikaru.” Sai murmured, starting to move in an elegant dance.

It’s okay, I don’t mind. I learn a lot by watching. This’ll be the first dance we’ve used to fight with magick anyway! I can study how Touya dances too.

“Why must you…” Sai wondered. “Why would you want to dance, to weaken yourself, when both of you are strongest dancing with your minds? Your final battle with him will not be a dance, it will be a kiss. Your last kiss, most likely.”

Hikaru snatched a glimpse at the tiny holes above and below Sai’s lips and remembered how they’d been sewn together, something that would happen to either himself or Touya eventually.

Sai so far had led him in a complicated dance that Hikaru could barely keep track of. He wasn’t using stances very often, or if he was, he barely was able to get into one before shifting out of it into another move. It was fast-paced and beautiful, the dance of a geisha.

Touya, on the other hand, had no difficulty in keeping up. He moved quickly, darting close and spinning back depending on how Hikaru, no… how Sai moved.

Once the two of them were pressed flush against each other, dancing together in sync somehow, before breaking apart. The entire room buzzed with so much magick, Hikaru could see it.

Touya spun and used the long fabric of his cloak to weave delicate traps of magick, the glow of it lighting up the whole floor to Hikaru’s eyes. It glowed a harsh green, and Hikaru noticed how his own dance was creating waves of lavender, because it was Sai’s dance and therefore Sai’s magick.

The waves collided, and the moves were causing Touya to falter, Sai’s magick dominating and overwhelming. Hikaru was just a tool in this game to create the waves, Sai was the master who directed them.

Lavender was the more dominant of colors, in every corner of the room, while green was trapped, sparingly used in sprinkles everywhere but with no large presence. Touya was loosing this battle.

Soon enough, lavender washed through the entire building, dissolving green and Touya fell down abruptly, completely overpowered.

Sai folded his arms together neatly, but even he looked frazzled. “He was a tough opponent.”

Hikaru looked at Sai, and then rushed over to Touya. These battles could kill someone, he knew that much. And, maybe because he didn’t want to, Hikaru saw Touya’s soul trapped in the boy’s closed mouth, struggling for escape.

“You almost killed him!” Hikaru exclaimed despite the obviously redundancy, even though he should have already known and expected something like this. Sai nodded, watching Hikaru trying to hold Touya’s mouth together to keep his soul inside from floating up into the heavens; Hikaru didn’t want Touya to die, not like this.

Why did their fighting have to be so brutal?  Who knew it was so easy to cause death?

“He fought to the end and he very much knew that it would be his death if he did. He could have resigned. I… didn’t intend to use brutal force, but he almost managed to exorcize me from you, Hikaru, and we couldn’t have that.”  Sai looked forlorn and regretful, and Hikaru forgave him instantly.

Hikaru looked between the two, torn, before looking back to Sai. “Tell me how to get his soul to stay inside of him. He’s not allowed to die yet.”

“I see.” Sai said softly. “Placing souls back in is difficult work, almost impossible, but it has not yet left him so for you, it shall be easy. It will be most beneficial for you to place it back much the way you pull it out, for now. Use your magick to push it back towards his chest.”

“I don’t know how!” Hikaru panicked, before realizing, that he did.

Sai had said himself earlier, a kiss was the best way for him to command his magicks and the closest he could get to Touya’s soul. Hikaru didn’t know how to dance like Sai, he didn’t know all of the intricate moves, and what he did know, by now, was that he knew how to work his magick best when he kissed Touya.

Placing his mouth over Touya’s, he tried his best not to panic. If he messed up, Touya would die. That was definitely not a gamble Hikaru wanted to risk. Touya’s soul’s light was even fading, quickly, and Touya’s heartbeat was staggering.

Hikaru was very much not okay with this.

The soul was still struggling in the hands of his magick, but once he’d grasped it, washing it back away from him and focusing on Touya’s heartbeat wasn’t so hard. It took waves of magick to keep it from rising back up, trying to escape still even once it had reached Touya’s chest.

Once it had settled, Hikaru took a deep breath himself and turned on his ghost. “Don’t you ever do that again, Sai. It’s not very nice.”

Sai smiled. “I’ll try my best.”

“Okay, so… Don’t be alarmed but we sort of need to leave right now.” Hikaru announced, entering into Isumi’s apartment.

Isumi and Waya dropped the things they were packing into their travel bags.

“WHAT?!” Waya shouted, grabbing at Hikaru’s collar. “What did you do?!”

“Shindou, what’s happened that’s so immediate?!” Isumi, even calm Isumi, had wide eyes and a worried frown.

Hikaru grinned, smart enough to know when to be embarrassed. “Sai fought with Touya, and now he’s knocked out on the floor of Morishita-sensei’s dojo… so, uh… if we could be gone before he wakes up, that’d be awesome.”

“This is distressing news, Shindou.” Isumi returned to packing with a renewed vigor. “We’ll have to leave the city walls within the next three hours, if we’re lucky.”

“It was a near death experience, so we might have a bit more time than that…?” Hikaru tried his best not to look extremely guilty. Unluckily, he was failing.

Waya let out a loud laugh before rolling around on his back. “Shindou, you guys… you almost killed Touya already and we haven’t even left yet! This is great, we’ll only stay in Ikioi for about 3 seconds before you’re ready to finish the twerp off!”

“Waya, stop it!” Hikaru protested. “I didn’t do anything, it was all Sai!”

Sai crossed his arms. “That is right, Hikaru, I did most of the work. Your next battles with him will be alone.”

I know, already. That’s why we’re going to Ikioi so I can learn some more stuff, okay?

“If you want to leave so soon, then you should head back to Tsutsui’s and Kaga’s and start packing, Shindou.” Isumi pointed out, interrupting Hikaru’s mind talk with Sai.

“Right…” Hikaru moaned. Packing. He was lucky he didn’t have very much stuff. Nothing equaled of much weight, except for that broadsword. And, Hikaru thought, it was worth all the of the weight it carried.

“Tsutsui, you’re not my mom.” Hikaru whined, watching the older teenager fuss over him. Instead of letting Hikaru stuff everything inside a bag and be done with it, which is what he’d done the first time, Tsutsui insisted on… folding everything.

Hikaru wasn’t even sure how effective the whole process was, everything all neat like his mother used to when she’d done the laundry. It seemed more like something that would help when Hikaru was trying to fit one more half kimono into his old chest at home, not when he wanted to get out of this stupid city as soon as possible.

Kaga too had his bright red eyebrows raised at Tsutsui’s actions.

“I get to father this kid now…?” Kaga grunted, before throwing something heavy in Hikaru’s direction.

Hikaru barely caught it, before he got a good look at it. It was a belt with place to connect his sheath, so he could carry his sword on his side. A slow smile crept onto his face, and he beamed at Kaga. “Thank you so much, the both of you!”

“Whatever.” Kaga looked away, but he was grinning himself.

“You two will be fine without me, right?” Hikaru asked, looking back to Tsutsui. “You’ll be safe?”

Tsutsui finished his packing with a grin. “Of course, Hikaru. We got along fine by ourselves, you barely did anything for us this whole time.”

Other than deal with shit loads of ghosts and keep you two from being eaten by an Umeshichi… Hikaru couldn’t find it in himself to really take offense to that, not when he knew that it was better they thought he didn’t know anything.

“Write me or somebody if you ever need help, okay?” Hikaru frowned.

“Sure.” Tsutsui handed Hikaru his bag, before patting him on the back. “You’ll want to use that belt now, carrying a sword on your back isn’t very convenient.”

“Uhuh.” Hikaru wiggled inside of it and slipped the broadsword on his side. That was it, packing as all finished. His bag was slung over his shoulders, his sword at his side. The only thing left was the actual leaving part.

It was harder than Hikaru had expected. He hadn’t thought he’d miss Kaga and Tsutsui, but leaving the little apartment they’d existed in the city of darkness reminded him that he was leaving yet another home. He couldn’t get attached like he had before, he was just going to have to accept that he’d have to travel his entire life unless something changed.

They all stared at each other awkwardly, Hikaru fidgeting nervously and worried but excited, Tsutsui just worried, and Kaga trying and failing to look aloof.

“I guess this is goodbye?” Hikaru spoke up once again.

“Yeah, squirt, this is goodbye. Don’t get killed. Be careful with Touya Akira.” Kaga punched him lightly in the shoulder, and Hikaru almost felt betrayed by the last statement, because why had… Kaga even said that? He hadn’t told Kaga or Tsutsui about the whole korosumomo deal, they shouldn’t know anything about Touya.

But Kaga did.

Hikaru decided it did matter. “Kaga, how do you even know Touya?”

Kaga gave him a dirty look, but it settled into a sort of reluctant acceptance with an elbow to his side from Tsutsui.

“Once, before I came to live with my dad and Akari in Ojekeshi, my mother came close to dying. A korosumomo came for her, but decided that she wasn’t yet ready to die. He had a soft spot for her.” Kaga’s eyes turned sharp. “His son introduced himself briefly to me, and told me simply, ‘Your mother deserves to die quickly. My father is being selfish for letting her continue to suffer.’ His son was Akira.”

Hikaru blinked.

“She was sick?” he asked.

“Yeah, she died not two days after, unable to drink water or eat food. She did suffer as she died. I know Touya Akira said what he did for he felt it was true. But I hate him for it, because I’m glad for the last bit of time I got with her. My mother was a wonderful woman.” Kaga smiled, and Tsutsui placed a delicate hand on his forearm, leaning towards him in a comforting gesture.

“That sounds like Touya.” Hikaru let his shoulders droop. “He’s brutal.”

“Shindou, don’t let anything bring you down on your journey.” Tsutsui said, placing a hand on Hikaru’s shoulder.

“I won’t, I promise!” he perked back up. “I’ll be super careful too!”

That was all that really needed to be said before Hikaru ran out the door and headed towards the place where he would leave the city of darkness behind.

He hadn’t realized how much he wanted the sun again.

The brightness of the dojo had nothing on the real sun. While the dojo had been blinding, Hikaru had actually need to keep his eyes entirely squinted for about an hour upon leaving Ekone.

They had been walking across empty plains and through only slightly worn roads through the forest. It was beautiful, but there was always a dark, wide tan brown marsh lying just to the south of them, ruining the view.

“That’s Shinimikami…” Hikaru wondered aloud. “That’s where we’re headed.”

“Ookimizuto is on the outer edges, we won’t travel towards the center for some time.” Isumi reassured.

Waya sniffed. “It’s not that big of a deal. I used to live there from time to time.”

“You’re an adventurous soul, Waya.” Isumi chuckled. “Not many humans can enter and live, and we must remember that Hikaru here is still very much a human.”

Hikaru rubbed his nose and looked off into the distance. He wasn’t sure why but he felt oddly offended, somehow, like there was a bridge of camaderie and it was broken with that. Sai sighed, following along after them in their little traveling party.

“Hikaru, they only mean that you were raised by humans. Ours is a different culture from yours.” Sai explained, placing his hand on Hikaru’s shoulder.

I’m not angry! Hikaru huffed. Really, he wasn’t. He just felt like the one ugly duckling that was left out. He was too human for them? Wasn’t it usually that they were too monster for him?

But no, now he was in their territory and it was reversed. He had to change himself now, adapt to the ways of the non-humans, because he was the minority now. There were more monsters than men, and maybe Hikaru felt like he needed to prove he was just as monstrous as they were.

“Are we still going to my old place to get rid of all of those ghosts or is that going too far into the Shinimikami for our poor human?” Waya sneered.

“Fuck you, of course we’re going there!” Hikaru hissed back. “I’m going in and defeating all of those ghosts so hard, it’ll make Touya cry!”

A smirk adorned the brunet’s face, “Good to know.”

Sai frowned. “Good to know, yes, but… how was Waya’s clan completely defeated before?”

Yeah… huh, Hikaru spoke up, “Waya, just wondering, how did everyone in your clan die anyway? You never told us.”

“It’s sort of a long story.” Waya frowned, looking off into the distance. “And I haven’t ever told it before…”

Isumi placed a hand on the umeshichi’s shoulder and squeezed gently. “You can tell us.”

“I--!” Waya took a deep breath. “I know. And I will. It started a while back, about a year or so. The entire clan had chosen to stay in a clearing known as Usuitaki for the waterfalls and springs in the area…”

…It was a fairly well populated place, known to most of us by name and by location. We stopped there every year. The clan leader, the Alpha, liked to bathe in the local river and the water was good for the month sacrificial rites.

Despite the warning that the spot was taken, fresh blood of a dear smeared on a tree, the Alpha decided to unpack the caravans and set up camp in Usuitaki. The Beta, the second in command, protested against it. We weren’t the strongest tribe, only about 50 strong, including women and children. The tribe that had sent the warning could very well take out all of us.

Still, we stopped. The Alpha assured all of us that it was safe as long as we stayed together and moved along soon, because all we needed was a place to stay for one night.

I, and I’m really not proud to say it, didn’t want to listen. Usuitaki is a very pretty place, and of course I wanted to explore. Who wouldn’t have? There were waterfalls and animals everywhere, perfect for hunting and living and I loved it. I wanted to find out everything, so of course I wasn’t going to stick close to the rest of camp.

Another young one of us joined me, his name was Ochi, and I brought him along with me when I went exploring. I saw that there was more blood on more trees the farther we wandered from Usuitaki. I was used to blood, I charged right in. Ochi probably understood that it wasn’t safe, but he always was determined to keep himself from being outdone by me.

We managed to get so far away from camp that we were in the dark of the woods. It was almost midnight when we started hearing the chants. It sounded like one of our sacrificial rites, so for both of us who had skipped dinner and went exploring, we got pretty hungry and followed the noises.

It was a bad idea. We found another clearing, and the other tribe’s Alpha was roasting something over a fire while the others drained someone’s body of blood. We weren’t too disgusted at first, until we realized that they were cooking a baby alive over the fire, and that it was our Alpha’s mate’s child. Our prized heir, and they were roasting him alive over a bonfire.

His eyes were slitted and he growled at us, a victory noise, all animal. It was then that I realized that it was the beast that did those things, not the man, and that I had a similar creature inside of me too. If I surrendered to my animal instincts, I would eat babies too. I didn’t want that, it was wrong to our clan.

We only eat our traitors, if that. Usually, we eat big animals, occasionally humans if they run into us. We never eat from our own tribe if we can help it. And most of all, we never eat our young. Even traitors under the age of 18 are spared death. And even traitors aren’t always eaten. If a large animal has been killed recently, usually they are only executed.

We would never roast a child, it went against our clan’s rules. But this clan had no issues with it. And the body on the ground, we quickly realized it had been also brutalized. The other clan had taken our Alpha’s mate, her baby, and decimated them both.

We’d been gone the whole time, in the woods, not even there to fight the other clan.

And, running back to Usuitaki to see if everyone else was still alive, we came back to a battle. Ochi and I were separated by fangs and claws and blades made of bone, both of us were trying to find our families and protect them.

It was a failed venture. Grabbed by my arm, I never even made it that far. The opposing tribe captured me as a prisoner of war, and I don’t know what happened to Ochi or the rest of them while they caged me.

Perhaps I was insurance if they lost? I don’t know, I just tried to escape. I beat the bars of my cage, I bared my fangs, I slashed at anyone close enough, anything to break free.

I didn’t. I was left alone over the day while the rest of the tribe slumbered, and I barely picked the lock on my manacles before sunset. I ran back to Usuitaki, only to find everything burnt and the charred bodies of our deceased littering the floor and pools and blood flowing in the waterfalls.

I… I was lost after that. I wandered until I reached Mizuame, and I stayed with them for about 3 months. They taught me the basics of human culture, before telling me that if I wanted to find someone or something lost or something that I needed, Ekone was the capital and a good place to start.

I didn’t have any other plans. I’d spent all of my time with the animal inside me locked up, because humans didn’t live like that. No humans had fangs that extend or eyes that turn to slits or super speed and I needed to fit in. If the people of Mizuame had suspected me to be an Umeshichi, I would have been killed. I thought Ekone was the same. I couldn’t let anyone see what I was.

It turned me into an anxious wreck, really. That’s when I started loosing control due to fear, I hadn’t let myself out, I couldn’t accept the beast.

And, in not accepting it, I made it so much worse. I can’t control it, at all. I… I never should have left Usuitaki with Ochi. We never should have stopped there…”

Waya leaned against Isumi’s touch. “We were cocky and stupid and I’m still like that, I didn’t even learn.”

“Oh.” Sai laid his head down on Hikaru’s shoulder. “It’s all so horrible.”

Yeah… I… I think it really is pretty awful.

Isumi’s hands threaded through Waya’s hair and ruffled it. The oldest of them said softly, “It was a lesson not meant to teach, but to punish.”

“I’m sorry I asked!” Hikaru said quickly, avoiding eye contact.

“Nah, it’s okay. I feel relieved somehow?” Waya grinned, but it barely reached his eyes.

Probably needless to say, Hikaru stayed silent for the rest of the day.

Usuitaki was fairly easy to find. It was along the way, luckily enough, but even the feeling of approaching it made Hikaru and Sai shiver down to their bones. The place looked pretty enough on a simple, purely scenic level, but only Hikaru and Sai could see how well inhabited it was with the screeching, aching souls of those who couldn’t pass on.

A small note was left on a rock, with neat handwriting in black ink, only slightly smeared. Isumi read it aloud, his deep voice easing the fear of the place. “To any of those who pass by, this area is inhabited with the souls of the damned. Until further notice, or until the place is deemed clean by exorcists or the Korosumomo, Touya-Meijin himself, no one should be allowed to stay here or in the surrounding areas. Please turn back.”

“That’s fucking creepy news.” Waya rolled his shoulders, looking around at the shadows as if something would jump out at him.

Hikaru cringed. “For good reason, too. You don’t wanna see or deal with these ghosts.”

“It’s terrible, Hikaru, there are so many! Waya had a fairly large tribe, and even then, not all of these ghosts were solely from Waya’s clan. Some are the opposing clan’s warriors.” Sai hiccupped. “Let me deal with this, it’s too horrible to go on!”

“No!” Hikaru blurted out, before waving off Isumi and Waya’s attentions. “Sorry, talking to Sai, go on.”

Hikaru was very careful to think. No, Sai. I need to work with ghosts, so I’ll have to deal with these myself. There are a lot of them, but I can manage myself. We’ve dealt with ghosts before. Let me do this, please!

“This is dangerous, Hikaru.” Sai warned, but it fell on deaf ears as Hikaru took a dancing stance.

It was a simple dance to release those who wanted to leave. They didn’t fight, and mostly the ghosts of women and children in pain were happy to let Hikaru push them around.

Sai was watching carefully with a hawk’s eye, barely keeping his mouth shut. Every time he twitched, Hikaru knew that he’d either messed up or missed a perfectly good change to use a powerful stance and solve the problem quicker.

“This…” Sai interrupted, as Hikaru was trying to get a small child to float upwards to the heavens and failing. “…is a good opportunity to teach you something more, Hikaru.”

What? Hikaru whined, trying to shove the child’s ghost upward with a flailing move that probably didn’t even count as dancing.

Sai made a soft sound of disapproval.  “Dances have rhythm, they are usually done to music. You lack rhythm, you lack balance, you lack elegance and grace in your movements. You are boisterous and quick and stubborn, but not balanced or elegant.”

So what, I’m getting the job done. Sort of.

“Trying to actually dance would benefit you more than this quasi-dance-fighting you use. I understand you do not want to dance, but try to incorporate grace and rhythm. Use a common song, one you like, and move to it.”

I’ll try, no guarantees.

Hikaru didn’t even know of any songs he liked well enough to remember. There were the lullabies he remembered his mom would sing, and softly, he started humming it.

Odoma iya iya,
Naku ko no mori nya.
Naku to iwarete uramareru,
Naku to iwarete uramareru.
Nenne shita ko no
Kawai sa, muzo sa.
Okite naku ko no tsura niku sa.
Okite naku ko no tsura niku sa.

Isumi and Waya stared at him as he hummed, but all Hikaru could think of was that the song had always seemed odd to him. That was probably why he remembered it.

Yet, the song seemed to help because he could feel the irregularity of his feet and how he could move to help himself keep on track. And, lo and behold, Sai was right of course. Keeping a regular beat was part of dancing and it helped.

He managed to send the willing ghosts back to where they came, before he looked at the ghosts that were more than attached to this world.

“Sai?” He whispered. “Am I allowed to be scared, to be uncertain of what to do here?”

“You’re allowed.”

“It feels nicer now.” Isumi pointed out, looking around. “Like the air is less agitated. I still feel goosebumps though, I feel as if the work is not yet over.

“I second that. Bad memories everywhere.” Waya shook from head to toe.

Deciding that, judging from the dead bone feeling in his body, he was done for the day, Hikaru let out a yawn. “I’m dead tired. No more magick tonight.”

“Hikaru, you did well.” Sai smiled.

“Are you actually completed?” Isumi asked gently.

“Nah.” Hikaru rubbed his arms. “We’ll have to stay again. Sorry…?”

“Is it even safe? That note…” Waya frowned, looking at the unassuming piece of paper on the rock.

“I think so. If the spirits were going to attack, they would have already.” Sai answered, which Hikaru relayed to the other two.

Isumi looked between Hikaru and Waya before sighing, “We’ll need firewood then. I’ll be back.”

“Okay!” Hikaru grinned. A nice warm fire sounded great, to ease his sore muscles and to maybe eat something cooked.

“It’s been an hour. Where’s Isumi?” Waya sniffed. Despite having unearthed some furs and Hikaru his large white kimono from his disguise, the night had set in and they were freezing.

“It’s Isumi. He’s always careful. How could we even doubt him?” Hikaru moaned, holding his arms.

“I guess so…”

They both went silent, and waited.  Even Sai kept his mouth shut, although he was spared from the chill and the sneezing that plagued the boys.

A moment later, Waya’s head jerked up. “You hear that?”


With the fluttering of a cape, a tall figure landed on the ground in front of them. Four more shapes followed, and the leader approached enough for Waya and Hikaru to see their faces.

The choked noise that escaped Waya’s throat identified them.

“It’s you! From that clan!” He shouted.

Hikaru glanced at the tied up package on the leader’s shoulder. “Wha-- Isumi!”

Isumi slumped to the ground, dropped as the leader’s frame shook with laughter. The horrible sound echoed throughout the clearing.

Sai? Hikaru panicked. What do I do?

“You haven’t regained any of your magick yet!” Sai wailed.

“You hurt Isumi!” Waya charged forward, his nails sharpening into dark claws and his pupils turning to slits. Hikaru flinched backwards as one movement flung Waya backward into the trunk of a tree.

Isumi jerked from his place on the ground. Hikaru, seeing how unguarded he ways, lurched forwards, his sword pulled out of its scabbard, diving for the captive Ryûame.

One of the other umeshichi, a woman with long wild blonde hair and burning red eyes, grabbed his arm and dragged him around, away from Isumi. His skin broke and bled where her claws pierced his skin, and Hikaru sliced at her grip on his left bicep to break away. Backing away carefully, Hikaru could hear the sounds of Waya and the other umeshichi battling.

“Shindou!” Isumi managed a hoarse whisper. “I’m sorry!”

“Save it!” Hikaru grunted. “How am I gonna defeat her?”

“You could kiss her.” Sai whispered.

“Not many other choices!” Hikaru yelled, forced to jump out of the way of the blonde’s claws.

“Stop talking to yourself, boy!” She cackled, dancing close.

I’m gonna have to take a hit to get close, Hikaru realized.

Seeing her jump near for another swipe, he stayed still long enough. Her claws were inches from slicing into his stomach. Bracing himself, Hikaru waited for the perfect moment.

The woman’s breath rattled in her throat as she stopped her lunge abruptly. The deafening battle noises seemed to silence as a black clawed hand held itself through her chest.

Blood dripped to the ground as the body slumped to the forest floor, blood staining the leaves, rocks, grass, nature.

A short boy, spectacled with a bowl-cut, flung the blood off of his hands. “Are you stupid?” He demanded, turning to Hikaru.

“Uh…?” Hikaru mouthed but wasn’t able to say much more. His thoughts raced, yet he couldn’t sort through them.  Who was this boy?  What was with his weird hair cut?  Did he really just claw out her heart?

“Idiot, move!” The boy demanded, giving Hikaru one last disapproving glance before diving back into the fray.

Right, Hikaru thought, and went to unite Isumi.

“Thanks. Now, where’s Waya?” Isumi said, looking into the brawl.

Gasping, Sai cheered, “The Warrior ghosts!”

The remaining thirty or so souls Hikaru had left to banish had joined the fight by using the occasional distracting cries, picking up what sticks and branches they could, or throwing around rocks as a distraction. Waya and the boy with the bowl-cut were attacking as a team, completely in sync.

Isumi closed his eyes before snapping and whistling in conjunction, so loud that the trees rung and echoed the sound back. The sound vibrated throughout the clearing and all of the umeshichi froze, temporarily in a trance.

Waya snapped out of it first. “Thanks, Isumi!” he called, attacking one of the confused and disorientated umeshichi, who were completely defenseless while still under Isumi’s hold.

Bowl-cut didn’t snap out of it, looking around aimlessly. The leader, snarling as he regained his senses, dove for the opportunity.

Hikaru didn’t know who the boy was, but he had saved him earlier. He jumped in between Bowl-cut and the attack, sword in hand in a solid block.

“Can you fight with that?” Isumi demanded, using his powers to disorient the leader and causing him to miss Hikaru and bowl-cut widely.

The sword was heavy in his hands. “Probably not well.”

“Then kiss him! I need to aid Waya; even with the ghosts, he is brutally outnumbered!”

“Got it!” Hikaru slapped bowl-cut into his senses, then turned to face the leader.

He was still crouched on the ground, watching Isumi carefully. Hikaru guessed that a Ryûame would be a worrisome fore, but Isumi was too weak to be too much of a threat…

Faster than Hikaru could see, the leader dove towards Isumi, aiming for his neck. Bowl-cut charged after him, grabbing the leader’s shoulders with his claws.

It wasn’t enough. A thin line of crimson stretched across the back of Isumi’s neck and the tall Ryûame slumped to his knees, his eyes glossy.

“Isumi!” Waya dropped the umeshichi he was fighting and ran to help hold up the dark headed teenager. “Oh, good. He’s just unconscious.”

Hikaru let out a breath he didn’t know he’d been holding.

“Waya, leave him! This battle is not yet won!” Bowl-cut demanded.

Waya’s eyes flashed as he jumped, Isumi over his shoulder, to avoid one of the remaining umeshichis attacks.

Bowl-cut, who’d been pinning the leader down by his shoulders, was flung off balance as the leader shoved him off. Hikaru, slamming his sword down into the leader’s cap, jumped onto the man’s body to help Bowl-cut hold him down.

Keep still, dammit! Hikaru thought, hoping to get this bastard’s soul no matter what he had to do to get it.

“Bowl-cut, hold him still!” Hikaru demanded.

“My name--” Bowl-cut snarled, “--is Ochi!”

And despite growling about the order, he pinned the leader firmly to the ground with great effort.

Laughing, the leader said, “What are you going to do now? Slap me a little?”

Hikaru slammed their teeth together, barely even a kiss. The leader’s soul was garish, bloody, shriveled. Hikaru’s magick, a gold-orange-red color, snatched it up with no resistance. He didn’t even have to try. The soul shattered instead of floating up, probably from how distorted it was.

Climbing off the leader, Hikaru wiped his mouth. He’d never be clean again. “Yeah! And stay dead!”

Bowl-cut-- no, Ochi, gasped, eyes blinking and mouth wrenched open. “You’re a… but… huh?”

“Explanations later!” Hikaru pulled his sword out from the leader’s cape.

The rest of the battle was a jumbled mess. Waya was struggling to stand, still fending off the remaining two Umeshichi. The other two minions the leader had brought with them had already been taken out, showing signs of either death of unconciousness, Hikaru wasn’t sure which was which. Either way, they weren’t moving.

Isumi was bleeding steadily, but not extreme amounts. Hikaru had seen worse bleeding when he’d lost a toenail but it hadn‘t been as consistent, so as long as this battle ended shortly, hopefully Sai could help them stop it from getting worse.

Ochi and Hikaru were both weak, and, Hikaru knew that there was little else to do but try and scare off the two remaining attackers.

“I killed your leader! Now leave, and don’t come back! We outnumber you and I can kill you with just a simple look! That’s how I took out your all powerful leader!” Hikaru bluffed.

The two umeshichi laughed, one even holding his stomach.

“Nice try, Hikaru, but that won’t work on them. You’re going to have to regenerate some magick, and quickly, if you want to win this battle.” Sai tapped his fan against the palm of his hand. “I have an idea, but it will be dangerous.  How much do you trust me?”

Hikaru stood back to back with Ochi, watching the last two start to circle them. Any ideas about now would be great.

“It’s a technique called ‘Lifestealer’ and it’s very dangerous. Alternatively, it’s called ‘The Doomed Lover’s Kiss’ in the cases of Kurosumomo like yourself.” Sai gave him a meaningful look. “You could die if you don’t pull it off right.”

I get it, now give me the technique ‘cause otherwise I will die anyway, you know! Can barely hold this sword! Hikaru grimaced, tensing.

“Get up close enough to kiss one of your opponents. Try to feel their energy, and then, pull it towards yourself like always. Then, here is where the danger comes in. You must force your soul towards theirs, until they touch. And then, you try and swallow their soul with your own. If you accomplish this, all of their energy is yours, but their soul will be a part of you until it is all spent. They can affect you from the inside.”  Sai frowned, eyebrows furrowed.  It sounded dangerous, even to Hikaru.

What if I can’t swallow their soul, what happens then?

“You could do anything, from accidentally swapping bodies, to killing yourself, to simply taking their soul like normal. It’s a tricky technique, but it may save you.”

I got it.

Hikaru dove towards the closest Umeshichi, and latched unto his knee like a leech. Biting hard enough to draw blood, he leapt on to the umeshichi’s arm and then shoved them both to the ground.

“Keep the other one away, Ochi! Waya, stop Isumi’s bleeding! I’ll take this one!”

The umeshichi struggled to get out, but Hikaru was quick enough to shove their faces together.

Soul, soul, soul… Hikaru felt the wild, feral energy from the umeshichi and the senseless struggle it fought against itself. Reason lost to madness.

Hikaru was scared. He didn’t want to open up his own soul to something like that. To something so… vicious and evil and crazy. There was no sense there at all. But there was energy, and Hikaru was going to pass out soon if he didn’t get some. Kissing people like this was draining.

His arms were shaking.

Hikaru’s soul tentatively touched the other, and it shuddered in revolt from the sick aura radiating from the other soul. Com’n, Hikaru thought, I can do this!

He could do this!

He shoved his soul forward with the last of his strength and felt the lesser soul slurp into his own. He felt violated for a second, and suddenly screams echoed throughout his head.


Hikaru winced, feeling his limbs regain strength and his grainy eyes clear up. Ochi was trembling and Waya was shaking, but Hikaru could stand steadily now.


Ignore him, Hikaru reminded himself. Until he used up all of his energy, the umeshichi’s soul would still be inside of his own. It wouldn’t be pleasant, but Hikaru needed it.

And, the difference had been astounding.

“Yum. I ate your partner. Now it’s your turn!” Hikaru heard himself saying, not entirely of his free will. Yes, he did feel the desire to eat. How had he not noticed how hungry he was…?

That umeshichi looked tasty.

No, what was he thinking? Hikaru clenched his fists. He was not a umeshichi! He was not a cannibal! He was not!

“No, I swear, your eyes!” The very last umeshichi shrieked.

Oh, when had Hikaru moved? He was so close now. To his prey.


No! Hikaru tried to clear his mind, to focus, but the hunger… No! No! No! He wasn’t hungry! He wasn’t hungry! He wasn’t hungry!

A hand touching his shoulder sent waves of calm through him.

“I was afraid of this…” Sai said softly, holding Hikaru back.


Hikaru felt tears gather around his eyes. He… thought he was stronger than this. He could hold his own. But he’d been so weak, and even with all this new energy, he was… he could barely understand how he was moving.

“Shit, Hikaru! Hikaru, snap out of it!” Waya called, his voice distant as the wind.

“Hikaru, stop!”

Hikaru paused. Stop what? Hikaru looked down at the corpse. Oh. When had that gotten there? When had he… killed the last one?


Hikaru looked at the blood all over his fingers, and vomitted.  The stight, stench, and memories were all enough, spots swam across his vision, and his eyes rolled to the back of his head.

Chapter Text

Waking up again seemed like the worst idea Hikaru had ever had.

Waking up again was a really, really bad idea. In fact, Hikaru leaned up, only blearily recognized a bucket on the other side of his bed, and threw up.

The taste in his mouth said that he’d been doing this for a while.

“Hikaru?” A soft voice, feminine only in the slightest, not at all like his mother’s, made him open his eyes. He looked around for the source, until his eyes focused on Sai. Of course, Sai. How could he have forgotten Sai’s voice like that?

Hikaru tried to speak, but his voice was hoarse and it was too painful to get out more than a squeak.

Sai! Sai, what’s going on? He thought wildly, panic and confusion his main two emotions.

“It’s fairly simple. When you absorbed that man’s soul, you intended to use his energy. However, his soul was too strong and the two of you fought for dominance over your body. Unfortunately, he almost won.” Sai’s expression here made a kicked puppy look happy. “You used up his remaining strength, so he fell out of the power struggle, but you have yet to release his soul. If you feel up to it, now would be a good time.”

Um, okay, but how?

“I’d like to say it’s simple, really, but I’ve overestimated your abilities in the past out of pride. I am sorry. This really is all my fault.”

Sai’s shoulders drooped and his head hung in shame. It made Hikaru feel equally guilty for causing the expression in the first place.

No, Sai, it’s not… you just taught me how to save myself, you didn’t hurt me!

“Hikaru, have you noticed where you are recently?”

Well, no, but that doesn’t mean anything. Hikaru sat up in protest, and then regretted it. Laying back down, his head pounding and the need to throw up again in his stomach and burning the back of his throat, he smiled wobbly and tried to reassure himself that as long as everyone was safe now, it didn’t matter where he was.

“You were brought into Ikioi by Ochi, Waya, and Isumi. The city is beautiful, and larger than I thought. But that isn’t the problem, Hikaru. You still have that soul inside you and if it regains any more power, it’ll fight over your body with you.”

Then tell me how to get rid of it so I stop puking my guts out and can go track down everyone and see what the hell happened while I was out! Hikaru thought, feeling the nausea triple and bile rise in his throat. That thing never left? It was still in him?!

“It’s not so simple… First, you need to find it inside of your own soul. You ‘ate’ it, remember? It has no energy now, so it should be easy to pull it out of your own and then attempt to throw it out of your body and send it off.” Sai still managed to look even more guilty here, and Hikaru thought that the puppy dog eyes were going to make him sick.

I’ll have to dance, won’t I? Hikaru thought weakly.


Screw this, gimme a sec or five before I stand up and puke again.

Hikaru made a face, his head smarting and the rest of his body sore in odd places. The backs of his needs and his stomach felt pulled gingerly taut, and stretching didn’t make any of it better. It only made nausea race through his digestive system and his head pound even more.

Ready to dance now, he thought with as much spite as he could muster.

“Figure the dance out on your own, Hikaru, one wayward soul is easy for you now.” Sai smiled sadly. “I can’t tell you what you need with this soul. It’s inside of you.”

“That’s just peachy fun now then, isn’t it!” Hikaru grumbled, using his voice because actively thinking had become tiresome. He needed to exercise those vocal chords anyway.


“I can do this, Sai, I’m just super tired.” Hikaru focused, feeling around for exactly what was wrong inside of him. His entire soul felt battered and sore, but one side also felt more blistery, like there was something puss-like under his skin. He groped at it with his mind, and it felt distinctly wrong.

Okay, identified the bad guy.

Gathering up what energy he could spare, he poked at it, trying to pop it and get out whatever was stuck inside. Eventually, after a couple painful prods, he formed a needle with his energy, trying to visualize his own soul popping and letting out all the grossness he felt inside.

The other soul dribbled out slowly, and eventually it rested inside of his body, an intruder.

Moving his arms, Hikaru closed his eyes and formed a defensive stance. The enemy was uncovered, and Hikaru had little idea how to fight himself. Or really, something inside of himself.

The soul moved towards his, causing a burning feeling in Hikaru’s chest, and Hikaru grunted with the pain as he lashed out with a kick, releasing energy from both his soul and his foot.

The soul bounced off of his rib cage, before floating back towards his heart.

A hole, Hikaru thought. When Touya’s soul had tried to escape, it had tried to go out of his mouth. So, if Hikaru could get the soul up his to mouth, he could kick it out of his body. Constant offense. With how sick he felt, he wasn’t sure if he could do that.

A punch, a kick, and a battering of energy later, and the invading soul scorched his mouth. Hikaru used his tongue to push it out of him, despite its feeble resistance, and watched it shatter upon meeting air.

“That was unconventional, Hikaru.” Sai clapped. “You could have just pushed it out through your stomach or chest. It’s not made of flesh. The only cage that can confine a soul is its original body.”


Hikaru laughed lightly. Now sleep?

“Yes, you can sleep now.”

Ikioi was, because Hikaru couldn’t think of something better to describe it with, grand and alien. While Hikaru had been forewarned of culture shock, he hadn’t really been expecting it, which was rather dumb of him.

The marble stone constructs that held up the buildings in Ikioi were nothing that Hikaru had ever seen before. Everything gleamed white or reflected a sugary blue hue from the pushing and pulling shores of the great lake Ookimizuto around them. White sand and tiny shells formed shimmering beaches and the sun was never direct enough to make it seem actually sunny.

Mist, fog, and clouds were apparently the common weather here, and while the sun peeked out from behind the clouds more than once already, nothing held the glow of the sun and the skies weren’t the normal blue he was used to.

They were more of a whitish color than blue, an indescribable difference from anything Hikaru was accustomed to.

Everything seemed to be in a haze, and Hikaru wasn’t sure whether it was disturbing or not.

But the location was only one half of the culture shock. Waya and Isumi had told him quite clearly, the world of monsters had different customs and cultures.

Girls were predominant here. Whereas Hikaru was used to men being the tribe elders and chiefs, here the women were. Women were far rarer, however, and so most of the individuals Hikaru saw were males. To preserve customs and cultures, Ryûame tried their best not to introduce outsiders, so they were all as in awe of Hikaru as he was of them.

It could be a volatile mix.

Hikaru had already had one such encounter. The young man’s name had been Yashiro, and they were like oil and water together. In fact, it had gotten to the point where Hikaru was glad to have walked away from him with both arms, legs, and his head still attached.

It had been a fun little spar, despite the dangerous stakes. Hikaru promised Yashiro could come back and try to fight him again later.

“You seem to like the beach best, so far.” Isumi’s low voice broke him out of his thoughts.

“Yeah, beaches are awesome. So, what’s the plan from here?” Hikaru grinned, confident. He’d gotten rid of that stupid ghost that had been bugging him, he’d managed to beat a bunch of psychotic umeshichi with a little help from his friends, he was here and ready to learn!

Isumi smiled and took a seat next to Hikaru on the log he’d commandeered. It was a nice piece of driftwood and the soft sound of the waves that dragged it ashore were a distant roar. “We can find you a teacher, but… If you can’t get along with Yashiro, you’ll never get along with Ko, and he’s my first choice.”

“Ko?” Hikaru crossed his arms. “And hey, I can be nice! It’s not my fault he told me I had chicken hair, that was an unprecedented interracial accident.”

“Certainly, it’s not you I’m doubting… oh, dear, it seems I have misspoke.” Isumi made a face, looking up from the rough beach sand and into the innocent eyes of a kid with a bowl-cut. “Hello, Hon. It’s… a pleasure…?”

A snort. Hon, as he had been identified, crossed his arms over his too-big yukata and glared down at them. “You want this idiot to fight Ko Yeong-ha? Isumi, I have only respect for you, but that’s fucking stupid.”

Hikaru felt his temper flare. How dare he! They weren’t even that different in age, the kid couldn’t have been more than 11 years to Hikaru’s… oh, wow, Hikaru had lost count. When he’d left Ojikeshi, his home village, he was 13 years, approaching 14. Now, he had to be at least 14 if not making his way towards 15. Time really flew, he hadn’t even noticed.

What day even was it? The sky didn’t betray the season. Hikaru had left in the fall, had probably stayed throughout winter in Ekone and then most of spring. Now, it had to be summer if not already fall again. He probably should ask.

“Dude, you’re like, eleven. How can you judge my skills on my appearance when people probably do the same to you all the time?” Hikaru pointed out.

“I’m twelve, if you must know, even if that doesn’t really matter.” Hon scrunched up his nose, a clear sign of irritation. Wow, Hikaru was awesome at making friends.

Isumi coughed lightly. “You two… really do amuse me. Now, if you want to beat Touya, Hikaru, you’ll need the best training Ikioi can offer, and unfortunately, that means you’ll have to train under Ko, a young master of sword-fighting. This here is Hon, Ko’s teammate.”

“Are you for real?” Hikaru gave Hon a look-over, trying to see anything spectacular he’d obviously missed the first go.

“Shut up, weakling. I’m more than his teammate, okay, I’m his partner. He’s lucky to have me.” Hon flicked Hikaru’s forehead, diverted the dual-haired human’s gaze from his body back to his face.

A twelve year old partner? Were there no better swordfighters to choose from or was Hon really that good? If he was, then… Hikaru wanted to know for himself.

He knew he still had a lot to learn, but he was sure that the basics were mastered for him and he was inventive, he could hold his own. And no better way to improve than to fight!

Hikaru let a frenetic smile stretch its way from ear to ear. “Okay, let’s see who’s better! Mr. Esteemed partner here or me. Dueling with katana, stop at first blood? Sound good to you?”

Hon regarded him doubtfully. “I guess I don’t care. Isumi, referee, keep this idiot from cheating! No underhanded tactics!”

Heh, like Hikaru, who had trained under Morishita, one of the best swordfighters and most known for his honor, needed to use a groin kick or something to take down an smaller opponent.

Hikaru drew his sword, which technically wasn’t a katana but it was his prize and therefore lucky, from his sash, where he kept it slung in its sheath. Hon held his hand out for Isumi’s, as he had no weapons strapped to him by his obi.

Isumi’s katana seemed long and awkward in the boy’s hands, and Hikaru felt pretty confident.

Until he barely managed to block Hon’s first blow, a strike he had only managed to see coming out of luck. Shit, that speed was incredible! Hon was only making smart strikes aimed for vitals, leaving little area for a counterattack. Whilst Hikaru had to jump back several paces and reevaluate this fight.

“I see you’ve got magick, but you aren’t using it.” Hon acknowledged. “I do too. I’m guessing you only know human fighting. You’ll have to learn the magick aspect from Ko and I. Here, let’s even this playing field.”

Hikaru blinked, as he felt something in Hon change. He wasn’t sure what.

Sai? Sai, do you know what he’s talking about? Magick in fighting?

“I do. It’s a technique that is much like your dancing. Only, your magick is mainly made to counter effect those souls with magick or a strong will, because of your heritage as heir to the kurosumomo. Hon uses his magick to boost his speed and accuracy, a trick that most magick users, like exorcists and demon-hunters, can use.  It's obviously developed far more since my time.” Sai materialized out of thin air. Hikaru had let Sai explore Ikioi on his own, because the place was so new for both of them, but Sai never could deny him and not return if he called.

Would have been nice to know. Hikaru shrugged. Sort of rude of you, you know.

Sai flipped his hair over his shoulder calmly, giving him a condescending look. “You have much to learn about this new culture, and so do I. It gives them a distinct edge, one that I never used. I was never a warrior, Hikaru.”

“Are you done standing around yet? Let’s fight!” Hon catcalled, tossing the sword from hand to hand.

“Right, sorry.” Hikaru jumped right back to the comforting feel of sword clashing with sword. Despite his short stature, Hon obviously knew how to counterbalance his weaknesses even without magick.

He was still quick, but not so much so, and his blows didn’t carry the same weight. The accuracy remained though, and Hikaru had a hard time maneuvering around hits aimed for his weak spots.

The fight was only until first blood, so none of the blows were too heavy, and Hikaru wasn’t trying for a grand hit or a dramatic move to take out Hon. He sort of wanted to, but he didn’t like that much flair anyway, so he mainly focused on just landing a hit, a tiny not-lethal one.

Difficult to plan ahead when thoroughly kept on his toes.

Hikaru slid back in the sand, unstable on the softness that made it almost impossible to form a decent counterattack against him.

But, first blood, he reminded himself. He’d just be sneaky.

Hikaru aimed a karate kick towards Hon’s stomach, left temporarily unguarded in his attack, and Hon moved to protect himself, sword’s sharp edge now threatening Hikaru’s foot if it dared come closer. But, it left Hon’s face unguarded, so feinting a follow up kick, Hikaru readied himself for a quick swipe at Hon’s wrist.

Hon blocked the kick and knocked Hikaru off-balance, but not before a tiny red line appeared running sideways across his tiny wrist.

“Shit, I said no cheating!” Hon growled angrily.

“Feints aren’t cheating! I totally just won that fair and square!” Hikaru taunted from his place on his ass, covered in sea shells and white powder that one maybe could mistake as snow if they didn’t look close enough.

“Unfortunately, Hon, he did win. It was only until first blood.”

Hon gave him a dirty look. “Your name, then?”

“It’s Shindou Hikaru.” Hikaru told him bluntly, still smiling. His heart was racing and his cheeks were blotchy and red from the exertion, but… he got the feeling he’d grudgingly made a new friend.

“I’m Hon Suyon. I’ll remember your name, Shindou. And next time, I won’t loose.” Hon held out his hand. “My partner’ll be happy to take you on, but he’s way tougher than me.”

Isumi made a sound that might’ve been laughter, but he had rearranged his face into a mask of polite concern. “Ko Yeong-ha isn’t that much stronger than you, Hon, you give yourself too little credit. You are just… different in your strengths.”

“No shit.” Hon deadpanned. “Of course we’re different, we’re supposed to be. And anyway, what’s the point of a partner if they don’t balance you?”

“See, now I’m super curious!” Hikaru whined. “I want to meet this Ko person and get to learning all this awesome magick fighting stuff and knock Touya’s socks off, so can we get going already?”

“And he calls me a brat.” Hon let out a sigh.

“You are wise beyond your years, Hon, and Hikaru is still young.” Isumi excused. Hikaru gave him the stink-eye. Betrayer, going to the side of that little twelve year old when they had been friends for longer.

Not fair, not fair.

In comparison to the shadowy but still bright dojo that Morishita kept, Ko Yeong-ha didn’t have a dojo at all. Here Hikaru had been expecting all the stops pulled, but he only saw a ginger haired boy sitting on a bench, katana and polish in hand.

Who polished their katana? The boy’s katana wasn’t even dirty.

Hikaru thought about his sword and grimaced. He might actually need to rethink his policy of no-polishing. It wouldn’t stay shiny forever… but he certainly wasn’t going to worry about that quite yet.

“Hon.” Ko said without even looking up from his sword polishing. “You brought me guests.”

“Well, I thought you’d want to see Isumi and his tag-alongs.” Hon loped his way over, long strides and quick hands. He reached out and grabbed the sword polish from the ginger’s hands, and snatched the sword away.

Ko looked first at Hon, then his eyes seemed to find Hikaru like a korosumomo-seeking arrow. “I see.”

“He beat me.” Hon admitted grudgingly, eyes narrowed.

Ko stood up and smirked. It somehow rubbed Hikaru in all of the wrong ways.

“Hey, don’t talk about me like I’m not here!” Hikaru demanded. “I’ll have you all know I’m very corporal. In the flesh.”

“You look like an arrogant pale freak, with low magickal potential, shabby training, and ridiculous hair. I‘m not impressed, Hon. Do I need to train you more?” Ko remarked.

Hon blistered in the background, seething. “It was a match with no magick, first blood. I just didn’t use my full potential.”

“You’ve been on a loosing streak, Hon, we can’t have that.” Ko seemed to have completely forgotten Hikaru again, and Hikaru wanted to stamp his foot. He was above that.

Instead, he wrinkled his nose. “Excuse me, Ko, but I was under the impression that you’d teach me some advanced sword-fighting?”

Isumi cleared his throat, and the two of them turned their eyes back to the two outsiders.

Ko looked Isumi over. “You weren’t so bad yourself, why did you not teach him magickal sword-fighting?”

“I didn’t know of his magick until it was too late, and we left for here immediately. We were on the run, there was no time.” Isumi answered. “You’ve made something of yourself. I see you two have already gone to the war.”

Ko let one side of his mouth twitch upwards into a real smile. “You shouldn’t have expected less of me.”

“I hated it.” Hon crossed his arms. “Also, your future pupil looks like he’s going to explode into splinters, so…”

Ko looked back at the red-faced, steaming Hikaru. Hikaru clenched his fist.

“I had no intentions of fighting him or teaching him anything.” Ko stated, flipping his ginger hair over his shoulder. “He’s not good enough. Not looking like that. He doesn’t have the muscles of a fighter, he has the muscles of a dancer.”

Hikaru felt the muscles in his arms clench and his teeth grind together.

“A fighter is a dancer, but a dancer isn’t a fighter. My teacher said that to me once. So yeah, I went to learn how to fight instead of dance, but I still dance. That doesn’t make me just a dancer.” Hikaru justified.

“It means you’re confused.” Ko criticized, his voice like wasabi in Hikaru’s ears. “No dancer has ever taught anything to a successful fighter, and no successful fighter will ever dance. Your teacher sucked.”

Sai wasn’t a sucky teacher… Hikaru wanted to punch him. Sai was an awesome teacher, and his dance had helped him out of a lot of tricky situations. Sai wasn’t here to defend himself even, so Hikaru had to do it for him.

“Fight me then.” Hikaru demanded. “Fight me, and I’ll show you why you can still learn something from a dancer!”

Narrowed eyes and a smirk. “You’re challenging me?”

“Hell yeah!” Hikaru puffed out his chest in order to try to match Ko’s height.

“No rules, practice swords only, magick allowed. How about those rules?” Ko let one corner of his mouth curl up to match the other, a full smile.

Hikaru stuttered, “I don’t know magick fighting though, how can I--?”

“I guess you’ll have to learn those from Isumi, and quickly.” The ginger Ryûame’s eyes were sharp but his tone was filled with mirth. “We’ll fight two days from now, and if you manage to cut me in five different places, my arms, my legs, and my chest, before I knock you down, I’ll take you on as a student.”

Isumi made a soft grunt. “The five spots of crucial attack. A serious blow to any of those will maim or kill the opponent. He’s testing your ruthlessness, Shindou, but also your restraint. You don’t want to hurt your future instructor.”

“He won’t hurt Ko.” Hon said quickly. “I’m around for that.”

Hikaru gave Hon a look. Even though they were fighting partners, weren’t they a bit too attached to each other? Teammates weren’t so defensive or critical of each other; certainly Hikaru wasn’t to either Isumi or Waya.

“What’re you looking at?” Hon snapped at Hikaru’s look.

“I beat you in a fight, but somehow you think you can jump in the middle of a one-on-one fight with enough time to prevent me from landing a blow?” Hikaru asked, without any insult in his tone, only genuine curiosity.

Hon rolled his eyes. “Ko, can I toss this idiot into the lake and leave him to drown?”

Ko, who had been silent, was holding his hand over his mouth and laughing silently behind it. It took him a few chuckles before he removed his hand, although keeping a smile, and said, “He’s an outsider. He means no disrespect.”

Hikaru shrugged, “It was just a question.”

“Hon is a dragon, Shindou.” Isumi spoke up.

Hikaru’s head swiveled around 180 degrees to stare at the boy with the dark bowl-cut, who he had never even suspected for a moment not to be human. Hon looked the same as the rest of them: slight slouch, cocky smirk, almond eyes, still had baby fat, looking a year younger than twelve, wearing a ridiculously long yukata for his size. Nothing about him screamed dragon.

Hon crossed his arms. “Do I have to show you to make you believe it?”

Hikaru nodded. A second later and he immediately regretted that nod.

Dragons, although Hikaru didn’t know it at the time, didn’t have the same basic build Hon did. Hon had two back legs, which he stood upon and let him reach a full height of about 7 feet, wings not included. The rest of his body was like a serpent’s, minus the two massive wings sprouting from his back.

As for colors, Hon’s underbelly was a bright scarlet, with the rest of his body a shining gold. His eyes changed from a simple black to a cosmic blend of violet and aquamarine, a black slit running down the middle like a cat’s eye. His wings, while gold along the backside and along the main bone, were a burning fire of scarlet feathers; so burning in fact, that Hikaru swore they were actually on fire. The same feathers that adorned the insides of Hon’s wings created an equally burning mane and the tip of Hon’s tail.

For a human who had never seen a dragon before, Hikaru screamed.

Isumi looked awfully green in the background.


Hon turned back into a human, and it happened so quickly that Hikaru could barely see wings that morphed into arms, a snout turn into a button nose, short legs elongate but loose bulk, and a tail that shrunk into nothing.

“Magick, dumbshit. You take your magickal energy, and you use it to morph yourself into a shape. Dragons are one of the few creatures that can do it, and even they are limited. We can only pick one human form, and then we stick to it.” Hon grinned.

Hikaru’s head was spinning. Magick, really, was a fairly new concept to him, and he’d thought that kurosumomo were the only creatures with actual magick until recently. Then, the whirlwind of magick that started with Waya and Isumi messed him up. Suddenly everything he thought was fiction was not?

Monsters were everywhere, and they were always filled with this force they called magick, and Hikaru had no idea how it worked.

“Culture shock, I’m assuming.” Ko waved his hand in a dismissive manner. “A regular human background creates problems. And he’s disturbed by the simplest of matters. He hasn’t even considered the rest of monster society and its intricacies.”

Hikaru swallowed dryly. “There’s more confusing stuff?”

“Hikaru, of course there is. Even back when I was kurosumomo, I was submerged in a completely different culture. Finding the human’s world was, even though it was far more similar back then, so alien, of course it was shocking. To think, you must do things so strictly there!”

Fabulous. I see you’re back, Sai.

“Of course.” Sai smiled, robes flowing around him from a nonexistent wind. “I cover so much more ground this way.”

I see. Hikaru shrugged. I guess I did feel pretty lonely without you. Did you hear? I need to learn how to fight with magick, so I can defend your honor to Ko!

“I was not aware I had been insulted.”

He said you were a sucky teacher.

“That may very well be true.”

“Hey crazy! We’re leaving. Remember, you fight Ko in two days, so get learning!” Hon called, a good few yards away, his partner halfway to the main part of town.

Hikaru waved, and then turned to Isumi. “Please, teach me?”

Isumi was not a bad teacher. To Hikaru’s surprise, he actually learned a lot. Magick fighting was a lot like magick dancing, except that it included a fair amount more practice and magick.

If Hikaru could concentrate long enough, he could boost his abilities and go faster, hit harder, and dodge quicker than ever before, but it drained his stamina and he lost the will to keep it all up quickly.

Sai actually seemed to approve of the whole thing. “I won’t say that dancing requires those things, but you are learning to control and manipulate your magick in new ways. I, also, am learning new things from this.”

But it’s fighting, Hikaru reminded the ghost.

“When will you learn, Hikaru, that nothing is completely constrained to itself? The makings of a kimono can change the pattern of the feet, and the crane that drinks the water can keep the koi fish safe in the deep.” Sai lectured, and Hikaru made a face.

“Shindou, lessons?” Isumi coughed, bringing the two-tone haired boy back to attention.

“Right, sorry Isumi!” Hikaru apologized.

A sigh from the Ryûame came first, but was accompanied with a slight smile. “Please try not to become too distracted by your specter.”

Hikaru nodded, trying to look at least a little sheepish.

Isumi made a hand motion. “Copy me now, please.”

The next few stances showed off magick’s ability for flexibility. So, Hikaru ended up doing the splits. Never, ever, ever do the splits with magick and then run out of juice to aid your flexibility.

Hikaru whimpered from the memory.

It was all very good, he thought, but it wasn’t really what he wanted. He wanted to learn more than just the basics of how to use magick to boost his abilities, he wanted to learn how to really fight with it. And knock the smug smirk right off Ko’s face!

Isumi took his full two days to teach Hikaru, and even then, Hikaru wasn’t a transformed student. He could actually use magick in his abilities, but it was incredibly unpractical. He ran out of magick too quickly.

Even encouragement from Isumi and Waya didn’t make it better. Sai’s wayward attempts sort of helped, but then again, Sai knew the secret ways of his mind and sometimes how manipulative Sai could be scared Hikaru.

“Think about Touya, Hikaru.” Sai kept saying, and dammit was that a good trigger for him to work harder. He wanted to beat him, to shove all of his magick onto him and overwhelm him completely so they never had to fight for real, like this, again. And if it meant magick fighting or anything else that would end this stupid death match and let them be real rivals who could actually compete without having to kill each other, because honestly that was all Hikaru wanted, then he could do anything to accomplish it.

Hikaru didn’t want to kill Touya. He wanted to fight him repetitively and maybe not only with dances but kiss him some too, and maybe stop having the odd feeling in his chest that decided to strangle his common sense when he thought about Touya.

Eventually, Hikaru had little choice but to declare his training over. They had run out of time. Hikaru was going to fight Ko tomorrow, and he had to pretend he felt ready for it.

“Ready to fight?” Ko mocked, standing heel deep in the sand.

Hikaru nodded. He could fight with magick now, he had no reason to be too intimidated. At least he’d get a few good hits in before he lost. Ko couldn’t be that much tougher than Hon, and Hikaru had beaten Hon.

“Let’s get this party started.”

The two of them were standing on the beach, white shells and beach glistening underneath their feet. Both of them had practice swords in hand, so they didn’t cause too much damage. In case they did, Hon and Isumi were standing on the sidelines watching. Waya was there for sheer moral support, and even then maybe it was more for the pleasure of watching Hikaru get beaten.

Sai, of course, was there. He seemed a little distracted, but he was happily watching with the rest of them as the two combatants got ready to fight.

Hikaru readied his sword. Maybe if he made the first strike, this would turn in his favor. If he established an advantage and kept it, the odds might not be so hopeless after all.

“!… 2... 3... Fight!” Hon and Isumi counted down together.

Okay, one attack for-- he coughed, the blunt back end of a sword slamming into his stomach. And, that was just the very beginning. Oh pain.

In less than a minute, Hikaru was down in the sand and Ko was floating on the sand! How in any world, was that fair? That was ridiculous! That was ridiculously unfair! Hikaru didn’t know how to float! Hikaru had never even thought he might need to float!

Hikaru coughed up blood into the sand. Ugh. This. This had been a bad idea.

He’d gotten too cocky and no one had warned him. They had only exchanged two blows and already Hikaru was down for the count. Ko Yeong-ha was ridiculous. That was the only true way to describe it that gave credit to how absolutely silly this was.

Two blows.

Hikaru picked himself up, and grabbed his sword out of the sand.

Yeah, that too. Fighting on sand, not so easy. Fighting on sand with magickal abilities that let one float? Ridiculously not fair.

Ko laughed. “Wow, you’re not done yet?”

“Wow, you’re a jerk!” Hikaru growled, trying to up his agility. His magick feebly responded. Not a good sign. He was almost out of juice somehow, and he’d barely used it.

Ko lazily swiped forward, and Hikaru sliced back desperately, his heels grinding back in the sand. His sword was the same as Ko’s, but Hikaru was also disadvantaged in so many other ways that it hardly mattered now.

How had Hikaru managed to beat Hon if they were on the same skill level?

Oh right. Magick.

Hikaru wanted to cry out of frustration. If he kept calm, he could do this. He could succesfully start fighting back.

They both swung their swords, and this time it was Ko blocking Hikaru. Hikaru had liked the fact they’d picked ‘no rules’ because it meant that he could essentially cheat.

Like, swings to the knees, totally cheating. But floating above the ground by a few inches sustained only by magick? TOTALLY CHEATING.

Hikaru went for his planned low blow, but it’s hard to knock a Ryûame off balance when he’s floating on magick.

Even the temporary tumble from grace didn’t give Ko any less of an advantage. He used his backward fall to create forward momentum and Hikaru could barely hold his practice sword steady against the force.

Hikaru tried to push more into giving himself more strength, but he found his magick was completely depleted. Now it was just waiting for Ko to really finish him off. For some reason, inevitable defeat made him want so much to win that he couldn’t stand himself.

It didn’t take many more blows for Ko to knock Hikaru back on his face and stick his practice sword onto the younger boy’s neck.

“I lost, get your sword out of my face.” Hikaru groaned. “Whatever, this is only because you had tons more experience than me, not cause of anything else.”

Ko laughed. “I’m actually fairly impressed.”

“Shut up already.” Hikaru whined, holding his stomach. He hurt. Everywhere and everything hurt. Especially his pride.

Ko didn’t leave, and he remained standing there, Hon coming up to be a nearby shadow. Hikaru wanted to kick them both and tell them that gloating wasn’t nice.

A hand was extended to Hikaru.

A hand.

Hikaru grabbed it and felt himself pulled up to his feet.

“Meet me next morning, we’ll get started on your training then. Congratulations on the fight. You didn’t loose as horribly as you should’ve.  You didn't accomplish hitting any of my five crucial spots, but it was still a good fight.  I accept you.” Ko said, before grabbing onto Hon and dragging him away with him as well.

Hikaru blinked wearily. “Did anyone just see what happened there, or am I hallucinating from tiredness?”

“You did well, Hikaru. Thank you for trying to defend my pride.” Sai said, clearly happy. “You didn’t imagine it, they agreed to teach you. If you want to start learning tomorrow, then you have to get some rest.”

“Really?” Hikaru said, unable to really become excited because of the sheer exhaustion. Maybe his eyes lit up or something, because Sai seemed to know that he wasn’t really disappointed. Just… about… to… … fall?


Chapter Text

Hikaru expected, like most teenage boys, to wake up comfortably in his bed and to do a couple morning stretches as the early rays of sun tanned the back of his neck through his window. So, the darkness was kind of confusing.

It was like he had woken up in Ekone again even though it had been several months since Hikaru had left there, until Hikaru saw the tiny moonbeams coming in the window.

Sai? What’s going on?

The ghost looked equally as confused and alarmed. “Hikaru, I cannot know. I’ve been resting, just as you.”

Great, Hikaru thought indignantly, and I was supposed to train with Ko again tomorrow. I’ll see what’s making so much noise and hopefully get more rest.

The two-toned haired teen poked his head out of his guest chambers that he’d been graciously allowed to stay in, located in Isumi’s house. Waya, whose guest room was next door, as looked around, and it was a bit unnerving for Hikaru to see Waya’s eyes glow yellow in the dark, like a cat’s. Ochi had been delegated to another home because Isumi had run out of guest quarters, so only the three original travelers that had set out from Ekone were here to look about.

Bells were ringing loudly and the entire village was bustling with panic. Hikaru, Isumi, and Waya joined the crowd, all trying to fight towards where the commotion was gathered. It was centered around a hut that Hikaru had only briefly walked by, and while Waya had a similar reaction of confusion, Isumi’s expression morphed into sheer terror and he started pushing against everyone to get to the front.

Once they’d squeezed their way in, Isumi took a deep breath before his shoulders began shaking with rage.

“It’s the nesting place of the Ryûame!” Sai exclaimed, ignoring the multitude of people who were walking through his incorporeal form. “It’s where they store their eggs while they are waiting for them to show signs of hatching. Generations of future dragons should be here, and I can sense the magick of none!”

And, suddenly everything made a lot more sense. Did they die, Sai, or did they get stolen?

“There was no death here. It was theft. The power of that many dragons is great, Hikaru, and if they all end up in the wrong hands… “ Sai took a shuddering breath, and looked around at the distress of everyone who had seen the hatching place. “There has always been a reason for the Ryûame to care for their dragon relatives and form bonds. Even back in my day, the Ryûame never let anything who didn’t have the blood of a dragon in their line bond with a dragon or deal with a dragon egg because there is a dangerous power there not meant for those not responsible.”

So we go save them? Hikaru thought. Oh no, Isumi!

Sai had said, and Isumi had implied, that Isumi’s egg had not yet hatched. That meant that Isumi might loose his dragon forever, if he couldn’t save it and get it to hatch like it should.

Isumi’s face was white, and even Waya’s steady hand on his shoulder wasn’t keeping him from shaking in anger and scrunching up his features in wrath. Looking at it made Hikaru feel like… like a disappointment somehow, because he’d been so focused on what this would do for his future, that he had forgotten about his friends. He knew they understood about Touya, but that wasn’t meaning he should be selfish all the time.

His training would just have to be put off.

“It’s just terrible; I can’t believe anyone would do such a thing to those precious eggs!” A female Ryûame cried out.

“They’re stolen, aren’t they? So, since I’m guessing the eggs are precious cargo, they’ll be fine. We just need to find the bandits or thieves who took the eggs and get them back.” Hikaru said, and he was surprised at how the tone of his voice made his seem almost mature, almost in charge. He was used to his voice being higher pitched and squeakier and it impressed upon him the opinion that he hadn’t actually looked in a mirror in ages.

His clothes didn’t fit as well as they did before. He’d gotten taller, because now he and Waya were the same height. Isumi towered over them both, but that didn’t mean there hadn’t been improvement.

“It makes sense, Hikaru. You’re growing into yourself.” Sai reassured.

You think? Hikaru held back a tiny smile, before continuing to talk, “We need a small and strong group of people if we want to do this. Who volunteers?”

Ko Yeong-ha, unsurprisingly, had his hand dragged into the air by a far more enthusiastic Hon. “We do!”

“Me as well, Shindou.” Isumi raised his hand. His sleeve drooped down to expose a set of dark blue scales on his forearms. Huh. Explained why he always wore long sleeves, then.

“I can’t let you knuckleheads get hurt without me. Where’s the fun in that?” Waya snorted. Isumi gave him a grateful glance, and the brunette grinned back at him.

Ochi unearthed himself from the crowd. “You’ll need me if you want to stay out of trouble. You’re all idiots.”

“When do we leave, boss?” Hon demanded. “Right now?”

“What? I’m the boss?” Hikaru blinked. “Well, if that’s so, we’ll get going as soon as possible.”

Sai smiled at him with a sort of pride that made Hikaru beam back at him.

As discussed by the group as a whole, the only way off of the island was by boat. There were only so many boats, and a small dingy had gone missing. Therefore, the thief of the eggs was a fairly small individual who knew the island.

“Has anyone gone missing?” Hikaru asked, looking at a map of the surrounding area. Isumi had suggested he get to know it before they headed out to find their thief. “Only Ryûame get onto this island, you said.”

“It would be. I think… I think it’s a widower.” Isumi answered, eyes scanning the passing traffic outside of his home.

“What’s a widower?” Hikaru looked up.

The Ryûame let out a deep breath, crossing his arms over his chest. “A Ryûame who has lost his or her dragon in battle.”

“That reminds me--Hon said something about going to war? Is there a war where the dragons are getting killed?”

“There is a war being fought, between us and the Chine from across the great sea. They have a different breed of dragon and a different way of life.” Isumi smiled softly. “They want our land and our resources so they travel to attack us. We defend Ikioi with our lives. For the past decades, we’ve been winning. They no longer raid us as they used to.”

“Could the thief be one of them? A Ryûame who was a Chine, planning to get the eggs to turn the tide of the war?” Sai pointed out. Hikaru dropped his map and stared at his ghost. Of course, that made a lot of sense! A foreigner could disguise themselves and make a big move like that.

The logic added up. But did the circumstances?

Hikaru relayed Sai’s thoughts to Isumi, and Isumi had the same sort of epiphany as he did.

“I know who the thief is!” Isumi declared, his eyes shining with betrayal. “Of course, it makes sense now, the thief must be--”

Waya burst into the room, having almost knocked the fabric door hanging off it’s rod and tracked dirt in from his sandals. “This guy, I think his name is An Taeson, he’s been missing! No one can find him and everyone else is accounted for. He’s totally our guy!”

Isumi smiled bitterly, “--An Taeson. Thank you, Waya. That widower in particular had been widowed during the war, and everyone was surprised how horrible it was that he lost his dragon and his wife, yet he kept his strength and sanity. If anyone was to turn on us, it would be him.”

Waya stopped. “I totally missed something here. Isumi, you look really sick. Are you okay?”

Hikaru looked, and Isumi did look unnaturally pale. He’d waved it off as nerves combined with Isumi’s skin tone from Ekone and the lack of sun, but now Isumi’s skin looked too translucent.

“I’m fine. It’s just, we’re now on a much stricter time limit. The Chine wouldn’t want to kill any dragons of ours, but An Taeson would have to be harboring a hatred for them, ever since he lost both Hon and his original dragon.”


Hikaru was so confused. What was even going on anymore? He was supposed to be training to defeat Touya and maybe find a way to save his life, but now he was on a dragon-egg-hunt? It was like their plan had been completely derailed as easy as pie.

“So, someone needs to clear all this up later. Right now, we need to find this An Taeson.” Hikaru commanded, and he was fairly surprised himself when both Isumi and Waya nodded in agreement, and went off to gather Hon, Ochi, and Ko.

The six of them were assembled in the town square, with meager rations on their backs. It was a one day’s journey to the battlefield, and if their assumption about the Chine was correct, that’s where An Taeson was heading. The journey on foot was longer, but Hon had offered his services.

“You sure about this?” Isumi asked, tightening the saddle they’d put on the dragon’s back.

“Definitely not sure. But Yeong-ha isn’t going to let me get hurt.” Hon said, and Hikaru still found it a tinsy bit terrifying to hear the young boy’s voice come out of the scaly flying lizard that could breathe fire-- if Ko’s bragging was true.

“Stop whining about what you can’t change. We’ve got to save those eggs.” Ko said sharply, but his hand was distracted by soothing the restless dragon through petting his snout. Hon flicked his tail like a dog whenever that hand found a good spot, and Hikaru now had the image of Hon as a really big Pomeranian or some other stuck up person’s dog. Because that’s what Hon was. A partner to some stuck up person.

Hikaru maybe, just maybe, hated Ko Yeong-ha with a passion. Respected him, sure, but if he wasn’t so lost all the time and stuck under that ass's tutelage, he’d have made the ginger’s life regrettably miserable. Make no mistake, he took what he could get away with as Ko's pupil far and square, but there was only so much Ko would take before throwing a diva fit.  Eh, the jerk deserved it.  Fair trade, in his opinion.

Sai, floating along, had been more silent these days. Hikaru had noticed it more, as Sai didn’t respond as if he was spacing out or Sai wandered off topic or disappeared entirely without leaving a reason. It was making Hikaru nervous.

“So, um, you can carry all of us?” Hikaru double-checked. Hon sent him a death glare, and a dragon’s death glare is fucking terrifying. “…my mistake, sorry.”

“He’s a light and air hybrid. Nothing gets him out of the air if he doesn’t want it.” Ko said snidely, stroking Hon’s nose one last time before patting him gently and swinging himself up onto Hon’s back.

“He doesn’t look like he can carry five people. That saddle barely fits on his back.” Waya mentioned lightly, and Isumi started laughing.

“He won’t be carrying us at all if we keep doubting him. Hon, I believe in your strength.” Isumi said, and his sheer sagacity made him seem a lot older than the eighteen years Hikaru had roughly estimated him at.

Hikaru decided to show his love of teamwork by clamoring onto the saddle, sliding in behind Ko. It was already a bit tight. Ochi squished himself on after, with room enough for only one more person. Isumi and Waya traded glances.

“I can always just s-stay behind!” Waya squeaked. “I don’t want to fall off and die!”

“Are you scared of heights still?  You should've mentioned that weakness before because...” Ochi pushed up his spectacles. “That’s just pitiful.”

Hikaru kicked the bowl-cut headed umeshichi in the shins in a sneaky way that meant Waya wouldn’t even see it. Ochi howled in pain before shoving at Hikaru, which only pushed him up against Ko’s back more. Ko hissed words that aren't meant to be heard in polite company.

This wasn’t going as well as planned.

Isumi climbed into the last spot, and motioned for Waya to come over to him. Waya approached warily, from what Hikaru could see, and then was abruptly dragged onto the saddle.  Isumi wrapped himself around him like a big blanket and Waya groaned in his discontent.  Everyone else barked out a nice "Shut up!" because really, no one was more comfortable than Waya anyway. Everyone was squished so much more by Waya’s sudden weight, and Hon muffled a moan.

“God, you’re all fat.” The dragon whined. “How did you even fit the last one?”

“He’s sitting on my lap.” Isumi said warmly, his arms pinning Waya in the saddle.

Ko stroked his dragon’s neck. “Hush, Hon. It’s going to be better once we’re in the air. I’ll use what magick I have to aid your flight.”

That placated the dragon, and Hon flapped his wings and dove into flight, his legs skimming the lake just a bit.

Dragon travel with five other people in a saddle was not a comfortable ride make. Hikaru stretched out his back, looking around at the place they’d chosen to let poor Hon take a break.

They were in a clearing of dense forest, with cherry trees and even a couple trees that Hikaru had never seen before. Usually, this time of year, Hikaru would be seeing poppies everywhere. The familiar ecosystem called to him and told him that he was the closest to his home that he’d been in a year.

It let Hikaru spare a thought to Tsutsui and Kaga. Were they doing okay for themselves in Ekone? And what about Akari; was she still as button cute and horribly excitable as before? Or maybe Hikaru’s parents. Was his mom still going on strong, and was his dad still not home as much? It almost made him feel homesick.

“We traveled north…” Hikaru said with a tone of wonder in his voice.

“Yes. The air currents made that the easiest route to the coast.” Ko said shortly, unbuckling Hon’s saddle for him. Hon couldn’t transform back into a human until the thing was off.

“The west coast? I’ve never been there before!” Hikaru was almost excited about it, but then the thought kicked in that he was going to a battlefield. He wasn’t going there to see the ocean. That made his hopes fall. He was probably going to a place with a lot of death.

And with death, ghosts.

Sai? Hikaru thought, and the absent ghost flickered to his side. Do you think we’re going to have problems with ghosts at the battlefield?

“It’s a possibility. However, those eggs should be your first priority, not the deceased. The deceased will linger for a lot longer than those innocent children waiting to be born.” Sai said softly, folding his hands together and letting the invisible wind of that other place blow his hair about.

Right. Hikaru frowned a bit. No time to worry about kurosumomo stuff when they had to get those eggs back.

“It’s not pretty right now.” Ko intoned, stroking Hon’s fiery mane. “It is blood and death and the carcasses of dragons and their bonded. Hon and I escaped relatively unharmed but no one ever leaves that war without scars.”

“Oh.” Hikaru laughed awkwardly. “How much longer until we can head up into the skies again?”

“Yeah, no offense, but even while we’re stopped like this, we should keep on walking!” Waya joined in, an armful of hastily gathered mushrooms in his grip. Isumi relieved him of his shroomy load, and started in on making soup.

“Says the person who gathered up ingredients for soup.” Hon snorted, and actual flames came out of his nose, as well as a plume of black smoke. “Sorry, too tired for much control over that.”

Waya gulped. “You can breathe fire out of your nose.”

Hon allowed his wings to spread, and as they caught the light of the sun, the feathers, which had only seemed like fire before, turned into a glorious blaze of flames licking out from the inside. “I can do a lot more than that.”

Ko tapped him harshly on the nose. “Stop showing off. It’s a waste of energy.”

“I’m using solar right now, totally energy efficient--”

“You’re embarrassing me.” Ko flipped his ginger hair over his shoulder in a way that was really quite unfairly fabulous, and Hikaru and Waya were snickering underneath their breaths. Yes, because the giant flaming dragon was embarrassing compared to Ko’s giant flaming stick in his arse.

Hikaru did think that it was nice to see them being so happy. A close friend like that, bonded, it all sounded nice.

Waya apparently didn’t share his jealousy, because the umeshichi abruptly turned away from the scene and walked back over to Isumi and Ochi. Hikaru blinked, then followed him.

“Miss everyone from your tribe?” Hikaru whispered softly to his friend.

“Not really, it’s just that… Isumi is gonna have a dragon someday too. And he’ll treat it even more like a precious little gem than Ko doting on Hon. Where will we come in?” Waya whispered back.

Hikaru shrugged. Isumi would be a lot happier if they managed to save his egg so he would eventually have his dragon and then he would be a ton happier when he actually had a hatched dragon by his side, so Hikaru didn’t see an issue.

“Doesn’t mean he can’t have other friends.” Hikaru said.

“Shindou--dragons and Ryûame? They bond for life. They don’t have romances with anymore after they bond, because a bond makes any of those feelings impossible. They mate to procreate and nothing more. It’s not like humans!” Waya said, and Hikaru was surprised he knew so much. Then again, Waya had to have been doing something while Hikaru chased after Ko and Hon getting training. “He won’t care enough to want to be around other people, and that includes you and me.”

“So what if he’s not going to get married and stuff because of a dragon bond, it’s not like he won’t still be around once the whole honeymoon thing dies off like with Ko and Hon. And it’s not like either of us want to date him--” Hikaru promptly shut up at the look Waya shot him.

The umeshichi had the nerve to smile sheepishly and wave a couple fingers in dissent.

Oh dear lord, how did Hikaru find all these people? He’d thought, back at the tournament, that they were closer than expected, and that they might have something weird and romancy between them but then Sai distracted him with thoughts of Touya, and seriously, it wasn’t just a suspicion but a real issue? They had no time for anything like that, and not wanting Isumi to find his dragon was pretty low of Waya, if they really were doing stuff.

Hikaru flushed at the mere thought of stuff. He would stick by the fact he hadn’t been properly kissed before, so everything else seemed creepy and reminded him of Akari and the whole fianceé deal that he’d escaped.

“It’s almost cute.” Sai made a mournful sound, before fanning himself. Hikaru glared at him a little.

Quiet about this, it’s bad enough to think about without a ghost over a thousand years old thinking about it too!

“I suppose so. Anyway, don’t you want to get some soup and then get going? Those eggs are still in danger.”

Hon can’t fly just yet. We have a tiny bit of time.

“Shindou, you’ve been staring off at the trees for about five minutes.” Waya said sharply, like he was insulted. Oh shit.

“No, I mean, just talking with Sai! Not anything to do with the Isumi thing!” Hikaru protested, making a wild hand gesture he hoped wouldn’t be misinterpreted.

“Right.” The umeshichi laughed jauntily, “So you didn’t think about it at all? Thanks.”

“It’s okay for you to want something more with him, so I guess just don’t worry about the dragon until it becomes a problem? Before he bonds, he might want to try it out with you or… something.” Hikaru finished, mortified. Gods, spare his soul. Kaga and Tsutsui, Waya and Isumi, it was like everyone was infected with a case of abnormal-- wait, what was he even having a row about? He killed people when he kissed them! He could suck people’s souls out of their bodies with his damn mouth, what was so abnormal about two guys in the first place?

“If you’re going to eat,” Isumi called, “please do so soon. We’re running out of soup, and Hon is looking more energized already. We’ll head off soon.”

“More pain,” Hon whined, but it was mostly playful. It earned him a flick on the nose from Ko.

They landed on the coast at approximately twilight. The darkness reminded Hikaru of Ekone, but he saw fire blazing in the distance, south of where they set down. The ocean roared back and forth, and he knew the longing and awed look he shot it was not nearly enough for his eyes. But even the mass of water wasn’t enough to distract him from the view in the distance.

There were hoards of black shapes barely outlined in the sky, like a swarm of bugs, and lightening and acid and fire and bright bursts of magick radiated outward from said swarm. It was a distant roar, loader than the sea and more horrible to listen to. The sky lit up and crackled around the area.

“We’re trying to push the battles farther back into the ocean, but they’re persistent.” Ko said softly, looking at the scene. “I am certain that if we can find the enemy camp, we’ll find An Taeson. We should join in and help for now. If we can fight them into a retreat, we’ll follow them right back to their hiding place.”

“Sounds like a plan, except for the fact that Hon is completely passed out.” Hikaru said, looking at the dragon, who’d fallen over and transformed back into human form, his legs getting soaked by the rush of waves.

Ko looked over. “Surely he can’t be that tired.”

“I flew all day.” Hon whimpered. “With about 600 lbs of weight on my back!”

“You have magick.” Ko admonished.

“I will piss in your miso soup if you so much as dare ask me to do more flying with you five fat-asses on me--!” Hon screeched, pulling himself up to glare at his bonded partner.

Isumi yawned at an alarmingly good spot. “We should rest for the night. The battle will not be over for a while. We’ll wait until it seems there is a clear winner or loser, they’ll have to retreat back to their camp eventually.”

“I’d thought you’d want to get to the eggs right away out of everyone, Isumi.” Ochi said, sparing a quick glance at Waya, who had been surprising (to everyone but Hikaru) silent for the whole trip. “Considering that you are missing yours. Who knows what this An Taeson will do to it. I personally vote on eating it.”

There was a pregnant pause.

Hikaru wasn’t sure who exactly got there first, but Ochi was unconscious on the ground with a very angry Isumi and Waya towering over him, identical evil grins on their faces. Hikaru could even hear the ‘oh, I dare you to say that again’ coming from the both of them. If Ochi didn’t have two black eyes tomorrow, Hikaru would be damned.

“Ew.” Hon said. “Cannibalism.”

“Hey, culturally insensitive.” Waya called, but his tone was light and shaky from the remnants of his anger.

“Sorry!” Hon called back. “Eating dragon eggs, culturally insensitive!”

“Everyone shut up!” Ko yelled, having (while everyone else goofed off and completely ignored the situation) set up a nice burning fire, speared several fish on his sword, and started to roast them.

“Planning time?” Hikaru said, sitting down next to the ginger near the fire. “We need someone to watch the battle at all times, just to make sure nothing happens. As soon as we see anyone that we can follow, a small team of three should head out after. I say Hon, Isumi, and I.”

“Why you three?” Waya asked, folding his legs beneath him and reaching for one of the fish. Isumi swatted his hand away with a sharp slap.

“It makes more sense that way, doesn’t it? Isumi is pretty light, and so am I. Also, if we find the eggs, there is no one more willing to protect them at the cost of anything than Isumi. I want to go and help anyway, I’ll cause the least stress on Hon’s back besides.”

“And why not me?” Ko said dryly.

“You calling me fat?” Ochi’s glasses glinted maliciously.

“No, it’s just you have more muscle mass than me! And Ko, they already know what you look like. It’d be a big issue if they saw you. I wouldn’t want Hon to come either, but it’s pretty obvious we can only get to their camp on dragon back.” Hikaru gave the long suffering dragon an apologetic look. Hon would just have to tough it out.

Hon whined softly, “Ko, you are so pampering me for weeks after this. Weeks!”

Ko barked out a laugh and deadpanned, “No.”

“The enemy dragons are retreating!” Isumi pointed out the dark shapes moving on the horizon. The lightning and fire storm was fading as the battle dwindled down to the last few stragglers.

Hon took a moment to slide into his dragon form once again, shaking off his wings. “Steak, Ko. You are getting me steak, and also rice dumplings. There is just no debating it.”

Hikaru and Isumi reattached the saddle and hopped aboard their transportation. Hon’s liftoff was slower than usual, but he had the wind whipping their hair about their chilled faces and the sea soaring below their feet fast enough to keep the retreating force in sight.

“Can you… uh…” Hikaru motioned to the flames that adorned Hon’s mane, tail, and wings. “…dim that? We’re really noticeable.”

“If I could, I would have. I’m following far enough back that no one will notice, and if you two want to freeze, I can gain some altitude.” The dragon growled, flapping his wings.

“Whatever to make us less visible.” Isumi bargained, softly, “Even at the cost of our discomfort.”

Hon caught an updraft and soon, they were flying close enough to see the lowest clouds soar by. As Hon had warned, they were freezing. I should’ve brought a jacket, Hikaru thought as he shivered.

“The view is beautiful, isn’t it? And there, an island in the distance!” said the voice of a ghostly specter that Hikaru hadn’t heard from almost all day.

Sai! I missed you! Hikaru grinned. Where did you go all day?

Sai smiled gently, and floated alongside Hikaru. Hon’s wing regularly passed through the ghost, but there was no other better spot to float. “I was speaking with what souls I could from the battlefield. It seems that the Kurosumomo himself is there, taking souls and freeing them. It has been his station as of late, with the disproportionate amount of insane things left behind.”

Um… insane things? Not just ghosts?

“There are more things of the dead than just spirits. I believe there are ghouls, wraiths, and even demons there, feeding off the violent energy.” Sai frowned. “Oh, the Kurosumomo himself! What I would give to battle him. Is he as good as I was? I can feel it, I have learned much during my time with you about this changing world. I wonder if I could match his strength!”

I bet you definitely can. Sai, if I… if I can get to talk to the real kurosumomo, maybe I can figure out about Touya and I; why there are two of us! Hikaru recalled the dragon, and oh, right, the stolen eggs. Once we get those eggs back, I have to go find him if he’s there. And maybe he’ll agree to battling you, even!

But Sai didn’t have a chance to do much more than try to hug him in delight, as Isumi cried out, “Incoming!”

Hon narrowly dodged a fireball.

“What--?” Hikaru shuffled to get a better look at where the blast had come from. An enemy dragon from below had spotted them, and was firing at them.

The island that Sai had spotted was only a few paces away, and Hon made for a desperate and rocky landing on the shore. Sand flew everywhere as they crashed into the ground.

Isumi pulled out two short Japanese swords, not quite katana, and Hikaru pulled out his own. The camp was close by, and if Hon transformed back into a human quickly, they could all escape and hide in the shadows while the dragons searched the beaches for intruders.

But, that was if Hon transformed back quickly.

“They already spotted me-- go!” Hon called out, stubbornly still in his dragon form. “I can be the distraction! Yeong-ha’s status will protect me, now get those eggs!”

Isumi lingered for a second too long, but Hikaru had already grabbed his arm and began to run with him towards the rows tents set up around a central mess hall. It was not a very permanent type of settlement and there were many places they could hide.

Hikaru pulled Isumi into one of the tents that was empty, and waited.

Isumi stiffened beside him as they could hear Hon’s high pitched voice in the distance.

“I have the mark of a bonded dragon! You don’t have a choice but to wait for my master to come claim me for ransom!”

“I saw you with riders; who were they? Where are they?” An unknown man's voice boomed.

“You saw wrong. I came alone! I disobeyed my partner--I don’t want to fight my brothers!”

That seemed to stop the yelling, and the whole area went nearly silent. Anything said after was too soft for Hikaru to pick up, and the sounds of the riders and their dragons marching through the camp towards the mess hall made them both terrified to breathe, because even that may be too loud.

Hon’s safety with them seemed ensured as long as they didn’t find out about his lie.

“I can sense the eggs.” Isumi breathed into Hikaru’s ear once the noise was constrained to the mess hall. “They are nearby, probably in the commander or captain’s tents.”

“Got it. Lead us there and once we get them, we can escape with Hon.”

“We can’t--that’ll alert them to our presence. We can’t risk being hit with any attacks while we’re holding the eggs. We need to send out a signal without alerting the enemies and get help from the others. I can’t think of a way unless we have a messenger of some sort!”

Hikaru turned to Sai, who’d flickered in and out since their landing. Could you send a message to our friends back on shore?

“They can’t hear or see me!” Sai said, affronted. “What would I even do? I can’t touch the corporeal world!”

It was worth a shot. Hikaru's shoulder's slumped.

“I’m sorry, Hikaru!” Sai teared up a bit.

“We’ll think of something. If we’re desperate, we’ll just have to have someone swim back.”

“That’s several kilometers, Shindou, it’s impossible to swim that in either of our conditions. I could try to escape using the clouds, but the other dragon riders will sense me immediately. Unnatural rain is easy to spot. Unless we get a rainstorm, it’s not a safe way to go.” Isumi shook his head, and his hair dangled into his darkened eyes. He was defeated.

Hikaru didn’t want to admit it, but getting seen was definitely the mistake they had made here. Spying was all good, but they didn’t come prepared to steal back the eggs-- there was a reason all six of them signed up for the job. Two humans and one dragon didn’t fulfill the requirements needed.

This had turned into a giant mess.

“You might want to think about summoning some unnatural rain to get us backup, because we’re stuck here.” Hikaru rubbed his forehead.

They really were trapped.

The sound of footsteps alerted them to the enemy ryûame walking past. The two who were walking past were gossiping, and from the sounds of it, they were drunk on sake.

“Eveh shince I shaw that babeh dragon I shwore that it was gonna be minshe.” A loud guffaw sounded from the man, almost too loud even for him to be drunk.

Isumi bit his lip, eyes staring at their retreating footsteps. “One of the eggs hatched. How could it? It’s bonded partner wasn’t there, and eggs won’t hatch without!” Horror dawned in the Ryûame’s eyes. “Unless… they wouldn’t!”

“They wouldn’t what?” Hikaru asked.

“There is a technique--” Isumi silenced himself as they watched the outline of another pair of boots pass by. Once they were out of sight and hearing, he continued, “It allows one to force a dragon egg to hatch before it’s time. It’s dangerous, and it could kill those eggs. Then, the bond can be forced on the dragon by the old fashioned method of soul-bonding, through a kiss.”

What is it, Hikaru thought, that was so damn important about kisses? He could steal people’s soul through kissing, and now apparently Ryûame and dragons could bond through soul-kisses too. Did souls just naturally become unshielded or unprotected during the meeting of mouths or was it just irony?

“No one really knows why,” Sai said unhelpfully.

Thanks, Sai. Thanks.

“No need to be so snippety!” Sai huffed.

“So, we need to get those eggs away from them and stop it from happening!” Hikaru demanded, and he pulled Isumi to his feet. “No use hiding in here. Let’s get to some egg-saving!”

Isumi nodded back in confirmation. The two of them untangled themselves from the tents, looked around for any guards that might have seen them emerge, and made a run for the forest.

The trees enveloped them in rough protection, leaves cackling underfoot. Hikaru’s attempts for silence were in vain, but luckily they sounded far more like a close by woodland creature than a pair of spies.

Keeping close enough to view the camps, it was a snitch to find the one tent with more tassels and bells than the rest of them. It was adorned with a tiny gold dragon figurine that almost reminded Hikaru of Hon, minus the flowing mustache on the thing.

“Now what, we sneak in that?” Hikaru asked.

“Shindou! Quiet!” Isumi hushed, and he stared forlornly at it. “They definitely are located in there. Do we just hope to sneak inside, or do we form a plan?”

“I guess we could go for another diversion, but I’d rather not split up.” Hikaru looked at the tent. The light was still glowing faintly from it, and the inhabitants were inside. Until that tent went dark or was emptied about, they couldn’t even think about moving. “I guess we have to wait.”

“I suppose you’re right.” Isumi slumped, but, as an obvious spark came to him, he brightened and smiled tightly.

“What is it?” The younger of the two boys asked.

Isumi‘s eyes twinkled in the dark. “I have an idea.”

Chapter Text

“This is going to fail. You’re going to get us both killed and Sai’ll be exorcised; that’s how bad this plan is!” Hikaru grumbled.

“Do I hear a better idea? Wow, let’s use yours.” Isumi remarked, arms crossed in the tent. His blue eyes narrowed and turned sharp as he stared at Hikaru.

Hikaru rolled his eyes, but gave in. “Point taken.”

“Now let’s get moving.” Isumi grabbed onto the two-tone haired boy’s bicep and dragged him outside into the camp. The tents were still the same, if not some of them more lit than before. Everything was fairly quiet and most of the warriors were collapsed in their tents. It was a good of a time as any for some sneaking.

The main tent. Oh god, why was Isumi’s idea just about the worst, most reckless plan anyone could think of? In fact, swimming back might’ve been a safer plan. But no, they were here, and as long as they were, it was what they had to do.

Hikaru only hoped that Sai was okay. This was more risky than Hikaru would’ve liked, but he credited himself with the ability to adapt. After all, he hit the ground running with accepting Waya’s strange cannibalism condition. He killed that big monster despite not knowing a thing about it. He fought a ton of umeshichi and exorcised a ton of ghosts. Hikaru had to be at least a little adaptable.

The two of them spoke through hand signals as they crept through camp. None of the signals were too advanced, but talking proved too risky when someone could look outside of their tent at any moment if they heard you.

The main tent had a back entrance, and the two snuck in through there, peering around for proof of the eggs being where Isumi had predicted.

Two Ryûame, wearing weird dragon skins as cloaks and holding staffs (shamans’ clothing, as Hikaru found out later), were standing over the eggs and chanting in a language that sounded more like hissing and growling than words to Hikaru.

Magick, a sick green color that was very unlike anything Hikaru had seen before, poured over the nearest egg and surrounded it in the aura. The egg began to shake, and Hikaru could hear Isumi’s sharp intake of breath as the egg shattered and a dead lump lay in the middle.

Hikaru felt rage filter through his veins. How could anyone do that to an innocent unborn dragon? According to what Hikaru knew of dragons from his time with Ko and Hon and in Ikioi, dragons were fully alive, thinking, developing things in the egg. The spark of life entered the egg when it left the mother dragon’s body. When the egg hatched, it was fully conscious and managing higher thinking.

Forcefully hatching those eggs like this was like killing babies. Not smart enough to talk or move or care for themselves, but would be soon.

Hikaru could only imagine how Isumi felt about this.

“What now?” Hikaru whispered quietly.

“You distract, I find my egg.”

Hikaru was more than on board with that plan. He gathered up his energy from inside himself, grabbed the hilt of his sword, and powered up his abilities with magick. Any second now, he’d be able to strike. As soon as he did, Isumi would jump out and look through the eggs.

Feeling the new boost of strength settle into his muscles, Hikaru jumped out into the main area and unleashed a magickal backlash.

It was one of Ko’s favorite tricks for a reason. A delicate series of moves, what Sai would call a dance (but Ko hated calling it so), and a wave of energy would pummel everything on the same vertical plane within striking distance. Hikaru wasn’t very good at it, since his magick existed to touch ghosts, but Ko had beaten it into him and now he could force it on corporeal beings too well enough. The Ryûame were knocked on their asses, bewildered and more than a little bruised so Hikaru counted it as a success.

Hikaru focused himself on their spirits, and used a flick of his sword to slam another wave of energy into them. Better to beat them down quickly than give them a chance to retaliate.

“Any luck, Isumi?” Hikaru asked, looking around for rope. He couldn’t keep using his energy like this, and they were resisting more than he’d ever had to deal with before.

He didn’t spot any. Well, time to get inventive.

Hikaru wasn’t given the chance. One of the Ryûame struggled to his feet and sent a green and blue spell that looked like acid lightning headed directly for Hikaru.

He had half a mind to dodge, but his senses got the better of him. If he moved, then the dragon eggs behind him would be hurt and so would Isumi. He’d have to try and deflect it.

His sword and a temporary shield were thrown up in quick succession, but it did little to bear the brunt of the spell, and Hikaru toppled backwards, moaning as the air quickly exited his lungs. Shit. He kept getting hurt like this, even with defenses. No fair.

“Shindou, success! Now knock them out before they call their backup!” Isumi called from behind him somewhere. Hikaru spied him in the back of the tent, edging towards the exit, laden down with a large coppery bronze type egg. So he’d found it.

Well, now for the next part of the plan.

Hikaru ambled to his feet, holding his head a little from the blood rushing around, and stared down his two opponents. “Who’s next?” He asked, wiping off his mouth with the back of his hand.

Interlude: Sai’s lone mission.

Sai had, to his discomfort, been sent off to find the current kurosumomo. He admitted to traveling away from Hikaru, but not as much Sai had led Hikaru to believe, so going this far away caused him no small discomfort.

A tiny fear had sparked in his heart and it led Sai to believe that this was a terrible idea.

Underneath his ghostly feet lay the ruins of the battlefield, were two white silhouettes standing together, dark hair rustling underneath their hoods. Touya and the Kurosumomo, obviously. The people Sai had been sent here to find.

They had dispatched all of the ghosts at record speed, and Touya didn’t look a bit ruffled. Hikaru would’ve been panting and laughing and making jokes, while Touya stood stolid and solemn. There had been a time when Sai had wished not to have Hikaru as his student, when Sai had wished to teach Touya with his steel resolve and sharp mind and proper appearance.

The novelty of the other heir to the title of kurosumomo wore off when Sai thought about all the times Hikaru and he had been friends instead of teacher and student, and how Hikaru always greeted him with a large smile when he arrived home from his exploring.

It would have been an honor to teach Touya, but Hikaru was no longer just a student.

Because of that feeling that worried Sai (the fact Sai knew he had little time left before Hikaru would come into full and fight with Touya for his right, the fact Sai could not remain long and that he was fading and soon the afterlife would reclaim him), he was determined to stay with his friend as long as possible despite any obstacles laid in their way. Touya and his father were obstacles. If they knew about Sai, they probably would dispatch him before he could explain his situation. Sai had, however, promised Hikaru that he would call them and rouse them to action to save the eggs, and that was exactly what he planned to do, fear of being sent away forever or not.

“Ehem.” Sai cleared his throat and did his best to materialize in front of them.

Touya picked up on him first, making his mouth into a little ‘o’ shape. “Father, I believe we have company.”

“As I noticed. Will you fight, ghost, or will you leave on your own terms?” the older Touya's voice echoed, but his mouth was thoroughly sewn shut.  Magickal telepathy then, as was customary, was the only way Touya-senior could speak. Sai had expected nothing less of the kurosumomo, it was of course vanish or be vanquished.

“My own terms, if you don’t mind. We have to speak!” Sai demanded, but at the unresponsiveness and the hardening of the kurosumomo’s jaw, he realized they couldn’t hear him. That made things more difficult for him.

Sai made some hand gestures in hopes of conveying visually what he wanted.

“I think he’s trying to speak.” Touya, the younger, raised a dark eyebrow at him. “If he has a message, we should listen before letting him receive peace.”

Praise the younger Touya! Sai almost started crying tears of joy as he nodded happily to it.

“Ghost, can you write?” The younger Touya continued, pulling out a tiny pad of paper and a pencil.

Sai fretted a bit--he couldn’t physically affect things in the real world anymore like other ghosts. He’d traded that ability for full control over his magick while incorporeal, and it had always been worth it. Except for right about now.

Right, magick! He could use his magick to write words in the air. Spinning a bit to gain proper buildup of power, he let it burst from him and write in glowing lines against the star-spotted black of the night sky. Lines of written text flowed out, as much as he could fit, while he waited for their eyes to catch up with him and read all he had to say.

The kurosumomo grunted, if one could grunt with their mind, “Stolen Ryûame eggs are not the business of a kurosumomo. We cannot help you, ghost.”

“It’s just to convey a message!” Touya turned on his father. “Why can’t we get involved if it’ll help them?”

“We aren’t here for such nonsense. I don’t want to be delayed with my duties. I haven’t been home to see your mother in months and you demand we get involved in a mortal fight?” The kurosumomo shook his head, eyes hard and not giving an inch to the concerns of his son.

The man has power, Sai thought sadly, but his heart has been made cold by something in his personal events. Fighting him with magick was still Sai’s dream, but Sai felt that either of his successors would be far better kurosumomo than he. Someday, Sai thought wistfully.

“It will take seconds, seconds we are wasting here fighting over this! Just tell them the situation, and then they’ll go and fix it. They won’t require us to stop by and help anyway! Father, if we don’t deliver the message, there will be the souls of all those dragon eggs to help release from suffering and we’ll still extend our stay!” Touya spoke more with his facial expressions than his words, Sai thought, his eyes burning with the passion of a tiger and his hair strewn in his face unevenly.

His father seemed to consider this. Sai could only hope. “You may do as you like, Akira, but I am leaving here before the battle begins again tomorrow.”

Akira didn’t look too pleased, but he bowed, his head low. “Thank you, Father.”

Sai was celebrating internally. Someone was going to deliver his message.

“Now leave this plane of existance, ghost, because don’t forget that we can still see you.” Touya senior added before leaving his son alone in the carnage of a still and dead battlefield.

Sai faded his existence as much as he dared.

The younger Touya smiled in his direction and held up a finger to his lips. A secret? Ah, yes, Touya would keep it a secret. Once the kurosumomo was out of earshot, Touya whispered, “I recognized the feel of your magick because it has fought mine. I thank you for the mercy of my life, so I’ll do this favor for you.”

Right, Sai thought. Their last fight had ended with Sai almost stealing Touya’s soul. If not for Hikaru’s determination to save him, Touya would be dead. Sai smiled thinly. Yes, Touya didn’t know about Hikaru’s interference in that matter. Well, everything had worked out on his end. He could only hope that everything was also going fine on Isumi and Hikaru’s end.

Back to Hikaru

Isumi and Hikaru had retreated into a small forest clearing, Isumi cradling his egg like a treasure worth more than the largest amount of gold imaginable. And, Hikaru thought, it was. Gold wasn’t life. Few things were worth more than life.

Hikaru felt pretty strongly about life and death considering how often he was forced into thinking about it.

“It hasn’t hatched in my presence any of the other times we tried to visit it, but hopefully I can channel enough energy into it to hatch it early. It’s ready, I know it. I can feel it.” Isumi stroked it lovingly. “Any luck on Sai’s side?”

“Not that he’s informed me of. Are you sure this is safe?” HIkaru looked at the bronze egg carefully, wanting to reach out and touch to see if it was as smooth as it looked.

“Don’t touch.” Isumi swatted Hikaru’s offending limb away when he tentatively moved his hand. “This is a very delicate process, I’m sure you understand.”

Hikaru pouted a tiny bit, but steeled himself back into proper form. He didn’t have time for that now. They needed to kick ass and take some names and get off this island with all those eggs before anyone took their names, so speed was really the best form of action.

Dragons, when hatching in the presence of their bonded partner, will explode with energy, a signal beam of sorts. It was a pretty strong message and hopefully, the flare would alert the right people. It was dangerous, but even if Sai could report back with positive news, it was something they had to risk.  There was no other signal the Ikioi Ryûame would recognize.

Hikaru fought back the gripping fear in his heart. What if Touya exorcized Sai, and Hikaru was lost forever without his friend and mentor? He hated that their only options were dangerous beyond comprehension to both them and Sai.

Whoever did this deserved nothing but pain. Not only was Hikaru trapped between a rock and a hard place, he was unable to help in any way that might matter.

Isumi placed the bronze egg down on a rock, “Eggs responded best with their element,” Isumi explained, “and therefore if the egg had been blue, placing it in the surf would’ve surved the same purpose,” and held his arms out at an even level with the egg, his palm of one hand laid over the back of the other, creating a sort of ‘x’ with his hands.

A blue energy built up in a ball, glowing lightly and looking very much like water, and Isumi pushed his ball of energy against the shell of the egg, both hands coming to cup the egg.

Hikaru expected a signal beam, for the egg to start glowing, for Isumi’s eyes to flutter open, for the egg to crack like before with the other egg and start to open, something similar like that.

The egg ate up the magick without a change.

Hikaru continued to watch with baited breath. Maybe it would take a while? Maybe it had a waiting time?

Time was passing, and nothing was changing but Isumi. He was only getting more and more tired, sweat beading on his cheeks and his eyes getting glassy. He grunted from the strain, his hands turning from a gentle touch to a grip.

Sai’s lack of presence only prompted Isumi to pour more magick into the egg.

“Will it only accept your magick?” Hikaru murmured, feeling Isumi’s magick falter and flicker, running out of energy to sustain it.

“Only that of a Ryûame’s--Hikaru, it’s not working! Unless Sai gets us help, we’re dead!” Isumi panicked, dropping his hands from the egg. He was sweating too much and his mouth was slack and his eyelids drooping.

Hikaru stood up, brushing off mud from his pants, “I’ll create a distraction. Promise I’ll stay safe, you keep working at it.”

“We really should’ve thought this out much more. Even if we’re lucky, Sai can’t alert our side of the Ryûame army, only our friends. A rescue could be days from now. Its far more likely that we’ll die--”

“We’ll die if we give up.” He grimaced. The only thing he hoped was that if he got more fire power on their side… “I’ll work on saving Hon for now, that should be a good distraction!”

Isumi’s mouth dropped open, and he made a lunge for Hikaru’s leg, “You’ll get yourself killed! If Hon gets hurt, Ko will end us both!”

“Let’s hope it doesn’t get to that.” Hikaru tried for a laugh, hopelessly looking back to the camp.

Isumi gave him one of those Shindou-I-hate-this-stupid-plan looks, and Hikaru had the audacity to completely ignore it. Being pessimistic wasn’t going to rescue any of their friends or save those eggs. They had to do some action, some disruption, or else nothing was going to change.

Hikaru made it about as far as the main tent before coming to the realization he had no idea where Hon would even be, or even in what form. What a distraction, he thought, when I can’t even get it started.

“I could help with that.” Sai flickered into existance next to him, waving a little.

Sai! Hikaru grinned widely. You’re back!

He stopped his aimless ambling, tucking his body behind a tree and hopefully well out of sight. Turning, Hikaru continued to smile at his newly returned specter. He’d been really worried about his ghostly mentor, a tugging helplessness at the back of his mind that Sai’s return had quelled, and honestly, very lost on the island with no idea where he was really heading. Sai’s guidance was almost dire at this point.

“I’m glad to be back. The kurosumomo isn’t very appreciative of my continuing presence, but I got Touya to aid us. He promised to inform our comrades of our situation and whereabouts…” Sai stopped to consider their situation, pouting, “What are you doing, Hikaru? I thought you were supposed to be with Isumi?”

I’m the distraction. Now would be a good time if there’s any cool magick tricks you haven’t taught me yet to come out, Sai, because if I can’t at least try for time, Isumi’s not gonna be able to beacon the army.

Sai smiled slightly and scratched the back of his head. “Well… unfortunately, Hikaru, none of these people are dead. Which means anything I could teach you would be wasted on them.”

Sucks. Hikaru scrunched up his nose, and turned back to look at the camp. Looks like you’re useless. It’s up to me to think of something.

Unbeknownst to Hikaru, his words made Sai’s face drop and his mouth to fall slack, his shoulders slumping in defeat. “Oh well,” Sai whispered, so lightly that Hikaru could barely hear him, “Such is the fate of the dead.”

Hikaru’s eyes snapped back to Sai. Seriously? Com’n, at least tell me where I can find Hon. Time’s a ticking!

“I can’t pull such knowledge out of the air, Hikaru!” Sai crossed his sleeves, white fabric billowing with the movement.

Old fashioned way then, Hikaru rolled his eyes.

Moving as silently as possible, Hikaru ducked behind the main tent, where the Ryûame were still woozy and in no position to cast anymore spells on the eggs, but not quite unconcious or unable to cause Hikaru problems. If they saw him… He tried to keep inconspiquous as he could, sticking towards the forest line and taking light steps, wincing everytime he heard the crack and snap of branches underneath his shoes.

Finally past the first obstacle, Hikaru moved towards the next biggest tent. With any luck, Hon wouldn’t have changed back into his dragon form, and would be kept in a space large enough to accommodate. He lurched to a stop, the tent’s flaps a hair’s breath away from his fingers.

It was his death or his salvation if he dared to open them and see what was inside.

Gulping down his fears, Hikaru opened one just slightly enough to peer inside. It was dark, and therefore he couldn’t see much of anything, but no dragon shapes assaulted his eyes. Sai?

Sai shook his head, “No such luck. We’ll have to try another tent. He may be back in his human form and we cannot find him so easily.”

Don’t ruin my day so easy, Sai. I need something going for me.

“Sorry, Hikaru, just pointing out facts.”

I know, I know.

Hikaru peered around the edge of the tent for guards. There was nothing that immediately moved or seemed to stir, so he marked it as safe. The third largest tent was closer to the center of the camp, and looked to be a probable mess hall type construction. The communial eating area was the last building in the entire camp that would be large enough for Hon, and the process of checking every other tent for the tiny human-shape that Hon assumed would be far too strenuous for even Sai, who, after their stressful separation, Hikaru didn’t want to send away so soon.

He’d been worried, dammit, and he didn’t want to get worried again.

The only way Hikaru could protect Sai from the kurosumomo was to use his own magick to defend the ghost; although Hikaru was almost as eager for Sai to fight the monster as Sai himself was. It just couldn’t be on such premanent terms with an outcome such as the one facing them both if Sai were to loose the battle. Which meant that Sai was staying right next to Hikaru, which is where he usually was anyway, and therefore shouldn’t mind one bit.

Heading for the mess hall, Hikaru ducked behind every unlit tent, hoping to keep his shadow out of sight of any Ryûame not yet asleep in their tents, with their lights on and causing his shadow to be enlarged on the fabric walls of their tents.

“It’s clear, Hikaru, you need to stop dilly-dalling. If you’re so worried, I can go ahead--”

No! Sai, stay here. I’ll get moving.

Hikaru jumped towards the hall, diving into a roll at the last moment before he hit the ground, and stopping right at the flaps of the tent. The coarse material grasped firmly in his hand, Hikaru peered inside the mess hall, one grey eye searching for signs of golden scales and firey wings.

Glowing like cooling embers, Hon’s large wings created a soft halo of light around him, and the rest of his golden scales twinkled with the light. A combination of red and blue magick, not intermixing into purple like one would expect, made heavy magickal chains that glued him in place and to the ground-- unless Hikaru broke through those chains, Hon wasn’t moving anywhere.

And he said he couldn’t turn off the flames.

“It’s because he’s asleep. It’s a low energy state. Wake him up and they’ll relight.” Sai pointed out.

Hikaru rolled his eyes, It’s just the specifics. Point is, he lied.

“He might not even be aware of it.”

Stop it with your logic. Let’s go wake him up. Hikaru started to move--

Sai screeched, “Wait! Did you check for guards?”

He sighed, and turned to his specter. Was that necessary? Even if I did check for guards, we’d have to knock them out anyway! There’s still gonna be a fight.

“This way you could surprise them!” The long-haired ghost waved his sleeves around in a big gesture. “An ambush!”

Hikaru raised both of his eyebrows and stayed silent.

Sai waved his sleeves around a bit more, before admitting defeat. Hikaru was too stubborn to see the error of his ways this time and apologize, especially because Sai had a point. Hikaru really should’ve checked to see if there were others before trying to charge in, because then they had the jump on him instead. Fight or no fight.

He didn’t say anything to Sai, not even a tiny, “You’re right, sorry,” and instead stuck his eye back in the tiny opening he recreated in the opening of the tent.

Looks clear, Hikaru thought, noticing no guards.

“Looking for us?” A voice sneered from behind him.

A cold laugh, and a scaled hand snatched up the scruff of Hikaru’s yukata and held him in the air, his feet dangling. “We knew there were more of you than just your stupid dragon.”

Hikaru struggled, his arms going backwards to try and hit a foe he couldn’t even see. “Let go of me!”

“Not a chance! Tie him up with the dragon and wait for reinforcements. There’s got to be more of them-- we’ll have to wake up the troops and get ready for an invasion,” said the first voice.

“That’s right,” said the other, “We’ll slaughter them all, and finally take what’s rightfully ours.”

Hikaru gulped. Sai?

“Yes, Hikaru?” Sai looked back at him, his large eyes worried, and his fingernails making little cresent moons in his palms. “What should I do?”

I don’t care what you do-- stay safe and get a warning somehow to the rest of them! Especially Isumi! Please, this is bad, I royally screwed up!

Chapter Text

Every Ryûame was born and hatched from their egg with another’s life dependant on their own; their destined partner, their dragon.

Ryûame were raised learning both the intellectual and combat arts until the age of thirteen, by which their dragons should’ve hatched and from then on they spend all of their time training and caring for the young dragons and developing their bond into something beneficial to both dragon and Ryûame.

Animal handling came naturally to the Ryûame, and so they don’t get to work with their dragon until after they have trained in the basic arts, even if their egg has hatched. Still, the dragon is their responsibility and their life, and so they care for it and teach it the ways of the world, even if they aren’t allowed to train it yet.

And sometimes they don’t meet their dragon even then. Sometimes the dragon egg assigned to a Ryûame didn’t hatch until after the age of 13. The longest recorded waiting time for an egg to hatch was 30 years. It was rare to wait any longer than 13 years, but it was even less common that the dragon egg would hatch during the infancy or toddler years of its Ryûame.

And so, when Ko Yeong-ha was 12 and the last one in his class without his dragon, he was pissy. At least he wasn’t Isumi, he was 16 and his egg wasn’t even close to hatching.

Yeong-ha looked at the boring robin’s egg blue of his egg, nestled right next to the glowing gold of Isumi’s. Twelve years, and his egg might as well have been a rock.

It wasn’t like he had a special egg. Blue eggs meant water dragons, and even though a Ryuame’s natural affinity was with water, it didn’t mean that Yeong-ha had to want a water dragon. Water dragons were known for being vain, curious, and somewhat difficult to control. They were easy to bond with and train, but they were known to ignore all their training and their bond at a moment’s notice.

Yeong-ha didn’t want a water dragon. Especially not one like this one, this robin’s egg blue, because it meant that his dragon would be weak as well as vain and too curious.

Isumi approached him and squeezed his shoulder. He understood the pain of waiting, but not the irritating knowledge that he was doomed to a weak dragon that he wouldn’t stand. Isumi was soft and loving, and he didn’t care about the strength of his dragon.

Despite that, he wasn’t even doomed to a weak dragon in the first place. His egg was a glittery gold, with flecks of copper and emerald. The beauty was not for show, Isumi’s dragon would be an earth dragon and strong and immovable.

Earth dragons were known for their strength, their boldness, and their greed. While they were difficult to bond with, they were easy to control and easy to train. They would always follow their master’s orders, but they were known to be a handful in keeping happy. They always demanded riches and finery, meaning Isumi would have to treat it like a little princess when it hatched.

“Ours will be hatching soon. It’s just a matter of time.” Isumi glowered at the eggs, as if willing them to hatch faster.

“What could a dragon even do in an egg for twelve years, anyway?” Yeong-ha demanded bitterly, the boring blue of his egg seeming especially dull today.

While it was well know that the egg was conscious and fully capable of thinking for itself, even at higher levels than possible in any other species, it really did nothing but incubate inside the egg, building up magick and its mental capabilities.

His entire class mocked him, his parents and his sisters were disappointed in him just because of this stupid egg and its lack of hatching already.

“I hate it. Why must we have bonded dragons anyway?” He spat, turning away from the source of his misery. “If I was human, they’d all think I was the best Samurai they’ve ever seen and that I was one of the smartest scholars too. I’m the best swordsman in my age group and I have the best grades. This stupid dragon is the only reason I’m being held back!”

Isumi gave his egg a soft rub, whispered some nice things to it, and then said to Yeong-ha, “Maybe it’s your negativity. You don’t want to love what’s inside your egg, you want to gain the benefits of its presence.”

“I can’t love something that I don’t know.” He retorted with his arms crossed and his lip sticking out.

“I wonder,” Isumi paused, “If it will ever hatch. My egg, that is. I’ve spent so much time pouring my love and desire into it that I wonder if it needs me to accept that I know nothing of the being that will hatch from it and cannot therefore guarantee that I will truly love it.”

Yeong-ha looked at the plain blue robin’s egg. He’d never been like Isumi; his relationship with his dragon would be purely a business partnership. That was all. He’d never love it.

It probably didn’t want to be born into a place without love.

Class seemed entirely disrupted when Yeong-ha showed up the next morning. Endless chatter and gossip flowed around the room like currency. Gossip sometimes was currency around here, where the latest news of the war was worth far more than the shells or the coins they passed around.

He wandered over to the closest pair of girls, because for some reason they had always liked him better than any of the boys in his class, and asked, “What’s ruffling everyone’s scales?”

“It’s not confirmed yet--” one girl, brunette with nice assets, gossiped.

“--but a wild dragon was spotting in the mountains by the last group of hunters!” The other finished, her eyes narrowed to look conspiratory.

“A wild dragon.” Yeong-ha deadpanned. They still existed, of course, but they were rare. Ryûame rarely dealt with wild dragons, although they tried really hard to snag them for themselves.

The brunette blushed, “Everyone is talking about who will try to tame it.”

“And you’re a suspect!” The other one, who was dark haired with wide hips, giggled. “Isumi too-- but everyone is saying that it’ll definitely be one of the widowers who actually catches it.

Widowers were what Ryûame called those who lost their dragons in battle or to disease, and were without their bonded partner. There weren’t too many in the village, only five or six, but they were all much more experienced and they were the most likely to hunt for and capture wild dragons.

“What type of dragon is it?” He found himself asking. They were right, he could go try to tame this dragon instead of waiting for his egg to hatch. He wouldn’t have to nurse it through its hatchling period, teach it how to fly or fight… and it wouldn’t expect love from him.

Most of all, everyone knew that wild dragons were the hardest to tame, hardest to capture, and hardest to bond with no matter the type. They were always stronger than bred dragons, and they usually came in a variety of rare types or hybrids.

Ryûame tried really hard to avoid hybrids, because hybrid dragons could not mate. They were all sterile. Always, a water dragon with a water dragon, an earth dragon with an earth dragon, a fire dragon with a fire dragon, and an air dragon with an air dragon. The other types of dragons were far too rare to consider mating, even if bonded, and rarely entered eggs into the system. It had been a hundred years since the last one, and the threat of incest ruined any chances of them ever becoming more mainstream.

Not only could a wild dragon be a hybrid, they could also be one of the extremely rare types of dragons, a light or darkness dragon.

This was an opportunity, and he felt as if he had to at least try. Even if the widowers would be out trying to tame it as well, maybe he could get lucky.

“The hunters were in awe of it. One of them shamelessly called it a ‘creature of heaven’!”

What even was a creature of heaven? An air dragon? A light dragon? A fire dragon? Yeong-ha frowned, it was a terrible description.

‘It’s a mixed breed, most likely.” The other clarified. “It has the scales and coloring of a light dragon but the feathers of an air dragon. It’s very young too, only in its childhood stages.”

So it was a young dragon. Damn, he should’ve known.

Older dragons had such an aura that they were always found and captured right away. Only a hatchling or a child dragon would escape notice.

But still, it wasn’t an egg that refused to hatch. It wasn’t only a hatchling. He could save so much time just by finding it and taming it, even if he had to put up with its childishness for far longer than he would‘ve liked. While hatched dragons speed up their aging to catch up with the age of their bonded partner and had extreme growth spurts, wild dragons had never caught up to their bonded partner in years with any types of growth no matter how strong the bond.

Yeong-ha had no idea why that was, just that it was a fact of life and was as widely accepted as the sky was blue and the Ookimizuto sang them songs in the night, like hushed versions of nature’s lullabies.

“I’ll do it.” He said, and his conviction surprised even himself. “Tell the teacher that I’m out taming it, I’ll be back within the week.”

They stared back at him in shock. They must’ve been lying then, when they said they had expected him to do so. He didn’t care, he turned heels and walked out to go get supplies. There were lots of things he would need to capture a dragon and bond with it.

Bonds were traditionally executed at the dragon’s birth, where the souls of the two partners brushed together at first touch, and first blood. After that, it was a lot more difficult. First kiss was a common one, if the dragon was young, but sometimes first marking was also necessary. If Yeong-ha wanted to secure his business partnership, he was going to need to make sure he brought along a tattoo kit, a fair number of knives, food and water, rope, and an undefeatable spirit.

Shouldn’t be too hard for him. After all, Yeong-ha was never defeated. If there was anything the ginger took pride on, it was that everything he set his mind to, he accomplished, which meant one thing.

This dragon was going to be his.

On top of the one day’s boat ride over the sometimes unstable waters of Ookimizuto and another day’s hike into the mountains, it took him two days to find this dragon. And he hadn’t even known it right away.

A 9 year old, sleeping with his geta in a mountain stream and the sunshine pouring on his face, in the highest peaks of the mountains way high above where anyone’s child should be, had set off Yeong-ha’s internal moral alarms. (Wasn’t the child cold? Was the child dead? Was the child drowned or murdered or hurt or unconscious, and what should Yeong-ha do to fix it? Certainly not leave him there!)

But not his dragon finding ones.

The child looked peaceful. His hair was a normal ink black, and cut short around his head in a bowl-cut. His face was chubby from baby fat and his full lips were open just a tiny bit. A healthy flush on his cheeks kept Yeong-ha from thinking he was dead.

A sakura blossom landed on the child’s forehead, and the Ryûame carefully crouched down to pluck it off.

When the child’s eyes snapped open, Yeong-ha jumped back a foot. Muttering, he crossed his arms, “You had something on your face.”

“Huh…?” The kid jumped up, the blossom floating down as he blinked rapidly. “Hey! Don’t touch me! All those other guys tried to, and--!”

The child fell over, the stream proving to bee too much for his precarious balance. With a multitude of splashes, the boy struggled for his dignity as Yeong-ha watched with amusement.

“Smart move, Shorty.” He patronized, but offered his palm anyways as the child snarled at him.

Even once they were both on dry land, the dripping child had an enormous aversion to Yeong-ha’s presence.

“Don’t go sneaking up on people like that! It’s rude!” The child huffed, struggling to pull off his wet yukata.

“You were sleeping, you little brat!” Yeong-ha snorted back, before grabbing the boy’s Obi and untying it for him. He knew from experience that yukata were a difficult feat to pull off the way the child was trying to, even if the clothes were as big on him as the child’s were.

Who wore clothes that were so big they looked like girl’s clothes anyway? Even the kid’s breeches were too big and held up by a piece of string.

“I’m not a brat, my name is Hon Su-yon! And whatever, thanks, I guess. Now I have to get going ‘cause a lot of people are looking for me.” The child said, before slipping off the rest of his clothes shamelessly.

Yeong-ha covered his eyes and protested, “You aren’t supposed to get naked, you know!”

The kid snorted, and the sound of scales and wind and the wet clothes squishing made Yeong-ha peer between his fingers.

And, there was no longer a kid. Instead, there was a small, but still about a meter taller than Yeong-ha, dragon, with shimmering gold scales and wings made up of feathers that looked like air and fire and light, and Yeong-ha fell backwards on his butt and stared at it-- him.

It was the kid, because the dragon had the clothes clenched in his claw and the scales were glittering from the water dripping off of him, water that had been pearled upon soft human skin seconds before. Yeong-ha wanted to punch himself; because why else would there be a child this far up in the mountains if it wasn’t a dragon?

“You’re a dragon!” Yeong-ha gasped, stating the obvious much, and he reached out to touch one of the wet feathers. It was silk under his fingers, and the dragon’s eyes narrowed at him.

The eyes were stunning opals, and even though he’d thought the description was bullshit, this dragon deserved the name ‘creature of heaven’.

Hon was a hybrid, probably a mix of a air dragon and a light dragon, meaning he wasn’t an egg gone missing or abandoned, like a few wild dragons turned out to be, and he was, while smaller than most dragons Yeong-ha had seen, he was magnificent.

Despite the fact that he was also a total brat.

Yeong-ha wondered at the fire that graced the dragon’s wings, and how, despite having his hand buried in the feathers, the fire did little more than heat his hand.

“Stop touching me, or those guys will come find me and I don’t want to hit you.” Hon nudged him away with his wing, violently enough to actually be called a hit, which pretty much made him a hypocrite.

Once he’d regained his footing, Yeong-ha frowned. “Those guys? You must mean the widowers.”

“Whoever, I don’t care. They keep doing stuff to me and I don’t like it! If one of their nasty faces comes near mine again, I‘ll roast them!” The dragon child flapped his wings a couple of time to get the water out. A wet bird didn’t fly very well, and Yeong-ha knew that the dragon wouldn’t either.

“Like, they try and tame you? I’m surprised you haven’t been tamed yet, you’re such a little brat.” Yeong-ha laughed, before remembering he was here to tame him too, and that if he flew away, it would be another two days or more before he found him again.

“How can I trust you when you’re just like the rest of them too?” Hon shook once, eyes glaring at the ginger. “Stupid Ryûame.”

Yeong-ha blinked, before looking down at himself. None of his scales were showing, right? His scales were bright red after all, and mostly on his upper thighs and under arms, both of which were completely covered by his clothes.

“I don’t have my scales showing--” He started, but was interrupted.

“I’m a dragon, stupid. We sense it in your aura.” Hon budged him in the chest with his nose. His nose was shaped more like a beak than a nose, probably from his air dragon side.

“Oh…” Yeong-ha felt a little dumb. If they could sense dragons; something he hadn’t even thought of doing this whole time because frankly while he was good in theory, his execution sucked; what kept dragons from sensing them?

Nothing of course, the sensing went both ways. But it did bring to mind…

“If you could sense me, then why didn’t you run away?” he asked, wondering if just maybe he might have a chance with this dragon because he was also young and maybe that helped and maybe Hon liked him a little or something…?

He supposed he’d been unconditionally nice to the dragon so far. For Yeong-ha’s usual standards, anyway.

“I was sleeping, dumbass.” Hon stuck his dragon tongue out, flicked it a couple time in a way that Yeong-ha was sure was either disrespectful or childish to other dragons, and then rolled his big, opal eyes.

Creature of heaven, Yeong-ha’s ass. This dragon was insufferable.

Did he even want to tame him? Yeong-ha’s thoughts flashed back to the egg, boring robin’s blue with the occasional speckle, nothing special, nothing strong. Hon was a brat, but he was already old enough to do all the basics. Yeong-ha could have everything now, or he could have it all some time in the next 18 years.

That’s it, he decided. Hon was going to be his dragon.

“In my opinion--”

“I don’t really care about your opinion,” Hon shook himself out like a dog, and sticking his beak into his feathery wing to see if it was dry enough to fly, he must’ve decided it was. “so I’m gonna leave now before you or any of the other Ryûame get to me.”


One powerful beat of his wings and Yeong-ha was flat on his back from the blast of wind that whipped up all the leaves and flowers of the little mountain clearing, staring up into the clouds as only a golden glint remained of his dragon. Because Hon was going to be his dragon, there was no doubt about that.

Another day in the mountains, and he’d actually gone searching this time for Hon’s aura. When Hon wasn’t in dragon form, it was difficult to sense. Cloaking his aura like that, while he was still so young? The brat had serious dragon potential and that wasn’t just Yeong-ha’s inexperience talking.

Cloaking auras was an advanced technique used by wild dragons, and while bonded dragons never bothered to learn the skill, Yeong-ha had learnt what he could about it while he was doubling his studies in school to make up for how behind the rest of his classmates he was, just because his dragon was a late hatcher. The basic principle of cloaking auras was to use one’s innate magick to suppress itself. When the magick had curled up into a tight little ball, it was difficult for other magick users to latch onto the aura and locate the individual, because the magick had no matching magick to cling to. It was a stealth technique used by wild dragons to hide from Ryûame who went after them to tame them.

Other uses included magickal misdoers trying to hide from the people, or those who were banished but wanted to come back and stay hidden, things like that. If one was innocent, no one would track another’s aura for a nefarious purpose in Ikioi, and so most never bothered to learn, as it was far more difficult to complete than the concept would suggest. Suppressing magick unsuccessfully not only did nothing in way of actually cloaking an aura, but could lead to comas, severe internal bleeding, and even sudden death. The risks outweighed the benefits, and so the fact that Hon was successfully cloaking at such a young age was impressive.

The widowers had come across him shortly after he’d lost Hon, and he’d told them all very nicely to fuck off. They knew and were intimidated by him, and they had rights to be, but not enough to leave. Yeong-ha hadn’t really hoped for more, even though he was one of the best Samurai in the village and it didn’t take a genius to figure out that they weren’t so skilled.

They lost their dragons because they were weak, and their dragons strong enough to protect them. If they were truly strong, they would’ve protected their dragons in battle. A strong swordsman was also a strong dragon rider, and they knew enough about him to know that he’d kick their asses in a duel.

While they knew more about dragon hunting than him, it pretty much proved that they still sucked at it. Their years didn’t give them any more respect in Yeong-ha’s world.

When he’d told them of his encounter, they didn’t seem to mind very much when he told them all that Hon had left quickly, probably mostly because they were still hopeful in finding the dragon before Yeong-ha.

But Yeong-ha wasn’t about to let that happen. He’d used not only his ability to sense a dragon’s aura but also what he knew of Hon from their brief encounter to scout out the area. He came up with empty results yet another day.

All he hoped was that one of those widowers didn’t show up riding his dragon, to brag about how they’d gotten to him first.

For some reason, that really got underneath Yeong-ha’s skin. Yeong-ha did not lose. He hated losing.

It wasn’t like those bastards were good enough for Hon anyway. Yeong-ha had doubted his worthiness, wondering if he could handle him. It all came down to a ‘Whatever, I’ll get him first’, because he didn’t like thinking of anyone putting their grubby hands on Hon and treating him like an animal.

Ryûame who let their dragons die and lived on afterwards to look for yet another dragon weren’t likely to treat their next dragons very well, and Hon deserved much better than that. Yeong-ha wasn’t even quite sure why he was so convinced that Hon deserved a good partner, but he was certain that the dung stained widowers didn’t fit the bill.

It was while he was stewing over these thoughts one night that he was found by the young dragon he was searching for.

“You look so serious!” Hon laughed, in human form again as he saddled up to Yeong-ha.

Glaring at him, Yeong-ha managed a, “Duel me, please. With swords, no magick.”

“Huh?” Hon’s eyes narrowed with challenge, and he smirked. “My pleasure.”

Hon started the dance, snatching up a short wakizushi from Yeong-ha’s pack and grinning, black eyes twinkling in the star’s pale light.

It didn’t take long.

Yeong-ha had beaten him thoroughly, but as he was only a kid, he didn’t care. From what he could see, Hon was quick, smart, and against a weaker opponent he’d be out-right deadly with his ability to read his foe.

Tricking him wasn’t too difficult; Yeong-ha was a sword master, and he had straddled the dragon to the ground and put his sword at Hon’s throat and forced a surrender from the boy simply and easily.

Hon was staring at him through new eyes. Lighter ones, happier ones.

Yeong-ha felt oddly proud of himself. If he wanted to, he’d form a bond with the damned dragon and be done with it, but he stopped himself.

Was he worthy of it? What if he wasn’t?

“Those guys you’re hiding from, you want to get rid of them, right?” Yeong-ha demanded.

“Of course I do, why else would I hide from them?” Hon defended, sitting up right and glaring only a little in Yeong-ha’s direction.

He ignored it and continued, “Then you should come with me. I’ll keep them off of you, but you have to make a deal with me.”

“I won’t bond with you!” Hon panicked, wriggling and trying to escape from underneath Yeong-ha’s larger and stronger form.

“I don’t mean that, exactly.” Yeong-ha looked away. “I could bond with you right now, but I’d rather make this deal. I don’t want to win dishonorably.”

This calmed down the child dragon enough that he’d listen to Yeong-ha’s terms.

“My dragon egg’s not hatching, that’s why I’m out looking for you. All the other Ryûame that have their bonded partners aren’t that interested in you. You’re nothing but gossip to them, however…” Yeong-ha explained, “those other guys are widowers; they had bonded with dragons before but lost them in battle or to sickness. It’s all this huge race for who gets to you first and bonds with you.”

Hon looked pretty scared of this concept. “They let their dragons die?” He whispered, holding his hands to his chest. “Why are they allowed to try for me, then?! I don’t want to be with someone who’d want another dragon after their first dies! We’re not objects, we’re not pets! I can’t replace a life, I’m a whole new person! I have thoughts and feelings!!”

Yeong-ha stroked his hair a little, calming down the child, even though the reach was awkward, leaning over him as he was. He had to remember that in his human form, Hon looked to be about 9, a whole 3 years younger than Yeong-ha was. He was only just grown out of his hatchling period. While that period lasted far longer for wild dragons, since they didn’t have a bonded partner from birth and therefore didn’t have growth spurts, Hon was still a child.

The world of Ryûame didn’t let one stay a child for long.

“Compared to dragons that hatch from eggs, wild dragons are super strong. You’re even rarer, you have light dragon blood in you. I know I’m strong enough to handle you, but… am I really the best one?”

“Huh?” Hon blinked.

“I want to make a deal with you. It’s not one you’re going to like, I’m guessing,” Yeong-ha was determined for it, anyway, “If you beat all of those widowers in a duel, just like we had right now, on the same terms, then none of them can have you.”

“And if I lose?” Hon asked, his eyes demure because he knew he wouldn’t like the answer.

“Then I’ll fight them, and whoever wins will be the one who decides what happens with you.” Yeong-ha really hoped, vainly, that he’d be the only one to beat Hon. Then he’d be the only one who was able to handle the dragon, and as such, the rest of those dick faces would have to just go home.

“And if I beat them all, what happens then? You already beat me, therefore you should bond with me on those terms!” Hon growled.

“But better me than them, right?” Yeong-ha glared. “I’m not gonna let them get their grubby hands on you.”

Hon looked a mix between mortified and pleased.

“I wouldn’t want a weak Ryûame anyway.” Hon sniffed. “Not if I’m stuck with them for the rest of my life.”

Rest of his life. Yeong-ha remembered that egg, and what it was like to be stuck with something you didn’t want for the rest of your life. A thing that you were supposed to love and you couldn’t choose out of your own free will, that had been forced upon you and held you back.

“I wouldn’t bond with you.” He said softly. “Not if you really didn’t want it.”

“Huh?” Hon looked absolutely gleeful, and he threw his short tiny arms around Yeong-ha’s neck. “You mean it?”

“Whatever.” Yeong-ha pried the kid off of his neck. “But you have to stick with me.”

Having Hon follow him into the widower’s camp was refreshing. Especially since all the widowers stared at Hon like he was a mystical foreign beast and if they deigned to glance at Yeong-ha, it was with pure loathing. He reveled in it.

“Hon, these are the widowers I told you about.” He told the dragon, who was standing at his side in human form.

“They’re really fucking old. I’m going to take them all down.” Hon snorted, and a tiny smirk slipped onto his face.

“I hope so. If they beat you, you’re stuck with relying on me. I don’t know their strengths or weaknesses, and neither do you. You better hope I win if you lose.” Yeong-ha reminded him, the terms of their deal laid out.

The tallest widower stood up, only about a foot or more above Yeong-ha, who was tall for his age. He knew he’d grow and tower over this idiot later, too. He wasn’t so sure about Hon, who was really rather small and only up to his stomach, but he was sure that Hon would grow taller with him, too.

“Did you bond with the dragon? Did you steal this chance from us when you’re already gifted with a dragon of your own?” The widower accused, finger pointing straight at Yeong-ha’s face.

Yeong-ha smirked. “No. Now, listen to me because this is how things will go down. I defeated Hon in a one-on-one duel, using only swords, no magick, no death blows, no dirty tricks. If any of you can also beat Hon in a duel on the exact same terms, then you will duel me for the chance to bond with him. I think the rules should be pretty obvious. You can’t beat us both, then you can’t handle the responsibility of Hon’s life.”

“So you did something as stupid as forgoing the bond because you cared about the dragon’s feelings? You’re even calling the dragon by name!” Another widower catcalled, and Yeong-ha bristled.

There had been a time when he pitied the widowers. The war was rough. Dragons got hurt. Dragons died. That was one of the reasons Yeong-ha didn’t want the soul deep, heart wrenching, share everything type of bond with his partner that he knew many Ryûame had. A business partnership would allow him, when he got shipped out to serve his domestic duty or whatever they pretended to call it, to not give up on his sanity if his dragon died.

But right now, he felt the same feeling that he knew pulsed through Isumi and many other Ryûame. No one, not even another Ryûame, was allowed to treat a dragon as an unfeeling, unthinking dumb animal, and if they ever so much as dared again, he would end them.

It turns out, he didn’t have to.

“Okay, assholes.” Hon left Yeong-ha’s side and picked up a spare sword. “Come at me, if you want me so much.”

Brat, Yeong-ha smirked, and decided that Hon could fight his own battles on and off the field. There was no need to defend him or his pride against Ryûame like these. Still, it irked him in the back of his mind. Didn’t they know, from their previous dragon, that dragons were unique and beautiful and made for more than just being owned? It wasn’t a one-sided deal, while the dragon was your bonded partner, you were also theirs.

A bond with a dragon would prevent most Ryûame from ever having a relationship, ever falling in love with someone else other than their dragon. That being so close with your dragon made being close to someone else never enough; that you would need to know all their innermost thoughts just like you did with your dragon or you would blame them for not trusting you enough to share? Most Ryûame only mated because they felt the desire to have a child, and not because they were in love with who they mated with.

Dragons also left those who had them and lost them miserable and feeling completely alone, craving a bond another with them. Widowers always were crazy somehow from their endless loneliness.

Dragons left an imprint on the Ryûame, and these Widowers knew better than to treat Hon as just a replacement for the ones they had lost, and as something to fill the empty hole inside them rather than a new being with thoughts and feelings.

Yeong-ha supposed he hadn’t been much better, thinking of his future relationship with his dragon to be a business partnership rather than an intimate bond. But he knew that he would consider his dragon’s feelings and treat him as an equal. Dragons deserved that respect.

Hon deserved more, because he’d completely decimated the first Widower, despite being half the man’s size and looking only to be a child.

Yeong-ha nodded once in approval as Hon grinned, sword poised at the Widower’s throat. Another widower started clapping beside him. This Widower had been silent the whole time, and that caused Yeong-ha to have some more tolerance for him than the other two.

Knowing when to shut up was a good skill.

“The young dragon, you called him Hon?” The previously silent Widower asked him, in a soothing voice. He merely sounded strong, just from the steady and not swaggering confidence he held in his tone. Two katana glinted at his waist, and Yeong-ha worried that he might have some trouble with this one.

“His name is Hon Su-yon. He is a hybrid dragon, light and wind.” Yeong-ha remembered how mesmerizing Hon’s dragon form had been, and he added, “The hunter’s descriptions were not too outrageous. He is beautiful.”

“I see. Young Hon is strong, and quick on his feet.” The widower smiled. “My name is An Taeson, and I wish to become Hon’s bonded partner, especially now, seeing his strength.”

Yeong-ha scowled. Fat chance. If Hon was going to be anyone’s, Hon would be his. An Taeson would stay away from his dragon-- what was he even thinking? He could still loose this. He couldn’t get too cocky.

Seeing as Yeong-ha remained silent, An Taeson added, “How did you meet him? How did you get so close, and further more, knowing he was as precious as he is, why did you not bond with him?”

“I met him on accident, while he was in this form. He was sleeping, and I stumbled across him. I thought him little more than an annoying child, and he proved me wrong on that account, despite being annoying and a child. I… I was far too in awe to try to control him, especially when he wasn’t a threat.” Yeong-ha admitted, wondering why he decided to talk. It wasn’t like An Taeson needed to know.

“Control a dragon? I see. You are kind, Ko.” An Taeson smiled. “I believe, looking at Hon’s second victory, that it will be you and I that will fight one another.”

Yeong-ha really hoped not. Hon’s confidence would be dampened if he was defeated. He looked used to winning, after all. Yeong-ha had unnerved him by his victory, and yet also gained his respect.

Hon looked over at Yeong-ha, and said, “I’m gonna be free if I defeat that last one, yeah?”

Yeong-ha nodded, and An Taeson looked over at him in surprise.

“Free? You would not bond with this dragon?” An Taeson asked, eyes wide.

“Free. Only if he looses to one of you guys, and I beat you, do I figure out what exactly is gonna happen with him. If he defeats everyone, he gets out. Free. And I’m going to tell everyone who wants to go after him--”

The widower Hon had already beaten lunged for the dragon’s midsection, pinning him down. Yeong-ha jumped up, ready to attack, because if that asshole initiated a kiss and forced Hon into sharing his soul, to form the bond, then--!

Hon dealt with the problem simply; by kicking the widow between the legs with enough power to knock out a horse, and then biting down into the man’s neck hard enough to draw blood.

The Widower howled and moaned, releasing Hon from his grip as he simultaneously grabbed at his groin and his neck.

Hon ran straight over to Yeong-ha, small hands clutching at his shirt. “I feel all sorts of violated.”

Yeong-ha laughed, knowing full well that he sounded like a dick. He didn’t care. It seems that when Hon was feeling threatened or scared, he’d come to him. It was like Hon had already chosen him…

“Hon, my name is An Taeson.” The man next to him said, distracting Hon from his glaring.

“And, so what?” Hon hissed. “I’ll beat you too. And even if I can’t, then Yeong-ha will!”

An Taeson didn’t look put off by his attitude at all. It irritated Yeong-ha to no end. Even he had wanted to punch out the kid’s lights, why couldn’t An Taeson get angry at him and do something stupid?

If this kept up, Yeong-ha would talk himself into An Taeson winning, merely because what if An Taeson was going to actually love Hon and isn’t that what would be better for him anyway? And Yeong-ha didn’t want to consider anyone else’s feelings right now; he wanted Hon to pummel An Taeson into the ground.

“He’s a challenge.” One of the defeated Widowers chuckled. “It’s up to you, An Taeson!”

“I will do my best.” The last challenger smiled, and picked up his sword in a firm grip.

Hon sweated, curled up in Yeong-ha’s lap. He was panting hopelessly, his eyes bleary. The battle had lasted quite a long time, and Hon had fought desperately. Letting him rest, and stroking his hair mindlessly in a comforting way just seemed like common sense.

If any of the girls back at Ikioi saw him, they wouldn’t stop making fun of him for months. Yeong-ha groaned at the thought. The humiliation-- but wasn’t that what one did? Bond partners were intimate things, best friends and sometimes lovers, and if Yeong-ha was going to bond with him, then he better own up to his responsibility and dole out some comforting now.

“I’m surprised. He fought very well. And you defeated him?” An Taeson smiled, reaching out to touch Hon’s shoulder.

Yeong-ha didn’t even check himself when he let out a low snarl. “Don’t touch him.”

An Taeson was not allowed to touch Hon unless they bonded. That was what Yeong-ha told himself, and he decided that tomorrow he would talk to Hon, and let Hon decide the outcome of the battle. It was Hon’s life, he deserved to choose who he wanted.

And, Yeong-ha reasoned, it wasn’t An Taeson who Hon had staggered towards, with a mumbled, “I’m sorry,” and curled up in his lap and promptly fell asleep.

“You won’t be able to protect him so well tomorrow. I will treat him well.” An Taeson told him before settling down next to him. It was both a threat and a promise.

“You won’t treat him at all if I defeat you.” Yeong-ha growled.

“You think highly of yourself, then. Ko, I’m older and more experienced. I have known a sword for much longer than you have. I will win, you do not have Hon’s strength and determination.”

“I have already defeated Hon,” The ginger hissed. He wanted to punch the widower, but he refrained from doing so. It wasn’t fair to take out his anger in such a way. No, he’d just defeat him so thoroughly tomorrow-- what if Hon wanted An Taeson instead?

What if Hon would rather Yeong-ha lose the match? What if Yeong-ha couldn’t beat An Taeson?

No, he would. He was just psyching himself out. He had been much stronger than Hon. He would crush An Taeson. He would crush and decimate until there was nothing recognizable left, if this kept on going.

“I think that if I want to be in top condition for tomorrow, I will have to sleep thoroughly. Please, go away so I can get some rest.” Yeong-ha said, smirking a little as Hon mumbled something in his sleep. It really was quite adorable, especially when Hon’s hands grasped onto Yeong-ha’s shirt and pulled the fabric in to hug. What made it especially adorable, in Yeong-ha’s mind, was how it was the biggest ‘fuck you An Taeson’ that had ever been doled out, and the best part?

An Taeson was burning with jealousy.

Hon had smacked him when he’d asked.

Yeong-ha stared at him, “I was only suggesting it, it’s only the rest of your life you’re deciding.”

“He beat me, but that doesn’t mean I suddenly want to be his dragon instead! I could tell how much power he had, and he was already at his potential. That was as good as he was going to get. Maybe he could beat me now, but I know where I can get better. He can’t.”

“When I beat you, why did you gain respect for me, then?” Yeong-ha asked quietly, thoughts running around his head.

“I could see what you would be.” Hon’s eyes shined. “You… you have so much potential and you’re already so good; imagine how great you could be!”

“I see.” Yeong-ha smirked, and pulled Hon’s hand off his face tenderly. His cheek was prickling from where Hon hit him, a large red hand-print on his skin. “You have potential as well.”

“So don’t hold back. Beat him into a pulp for me!” Hon’s eyes were full of fire, his body tense and trembling with anticipation, and his mouth pulled tight into what might’ve been a smile if it didn’t also resemble a grimace.

Ko Yeong-ha’s battle with An Taeson was not quick or easy, but it was gratifying. He could barely hold his weapon in trembling arms as he pinned An Taeson to the ground with metal glinting at his throat, and it was all worth it for all the times Yeong-ha had slammed the older man into the ground in an attempt to beat him down as violently as possible.

An Taeson had something Yeong-ha lacked however; stamina. It was as if, no matter how many times Yeong-ha whooped his ass, he just got back up. He trembled with the knowledge that, if An Taeson wished, this battle would not be over even with his blade at his opponent’s neck. Even cornered as he was, An Taeson could strike back any second, could use his powerful legs to knock Yeong-ha away before he managed to cut, could force Yeong-ha into a corner as he weakened.

But the man knew that this was not a fight to the death, and as he had been pinned by the 12 year old boy, he had lost.

“Accept your defeat, An Taeson.” Yeong-ha struggled to speak without enough breath. This was a defeat. An Taeson’s weapon lay near the trees, too far to grasp from where he lay on the soil, boy above him with katana in hand, pressing him down.

It was a feeble win, and a difficult battle, but if An Taeson didn’t accept the outcome, nothing good would come to him for it.

Hon’s voice was the next to echo throughout the clearing. “It’s over, please let it be over…”

“Very… well.” An Taeson smirked, using his legs to kick out from underneath Yeong-ha and throw away his opponent to the edge of the field. Expecting to land brutally and bruise his back, Yeong-ha braced himself as he was flung through the air.

He didn’t land brutally. A golden vine, Hon’s tail, whipped out and snatched him, and he dangled upside down for a second before being placed gently next to Hon, fully in his dragon form. His wings flapped restlessly as An Taeson approached.

“He might have won the battle, but do you see how weak he is? If this had been a fight under different rules, then I would have won. Fighting does not follow rules, and in real life, I am the one you want. The one that would survive.”

Hon let An Taeson know exactly how he felt about that, by screeching and roaring, a blast of wind slamming the Widower back into a tree.

“In a REAL fight, you’d never have bested me!” Hon’s voice was shrill and cutting, and Yeong-ha was too tired to laugh at the shocked look on An Taeson’s face. “Neither would have this one! I could kill you now for saying a thing like that, and you wouldn’t even see it coming!”

An Taeson shook his head and held up his hands, looking awfully put down.

“I only meant to prove my worth. I can continue to fight, that one cannot. In a real fight, I would’ve won, and therefore in a real fight, he would die and I would survive.”

His appeasement didn’t seem to do much appeasing, as Hon snarled, “I would rather a partner who would die with me than a partner who would survive without me!”

This hit a sore spot. An Taeson tensed, and the only thing that flickered across his face was regret, until he glanced over at Yeong-ha, who was laughing shamelessly at him.

“I won the fight anyway!” Yeong-ha laughed, pointing at him. “I barely won, but I still won! So Hon is my dragon, and you can go suck it!”

“Immature brat! Why would you want someone who is so childish to take care of you, when you could have experience and trust?” An Taeson yelled, face getting redder and redder by the second.

Hon snorted. “I think you forget that I’m a kid too.”

An Taeson picked up his bags only to throw them to the ground and cursed. Yeong-ha almost felt sorry for him, grasping at straws to try and weasel out of their deal.

Hon transformed back into his human form, small and childish with big eyes and full lips, and he grabbed onto Yeong-ha’s arm. “I know who I want to be with. Now go away already.”

They’d talked about this for a whole day, but it really couldn’t be put off much longer, with one or two of the widowers looking like they would not honor their deal. Despite Yeong-ha’s dislike of An Taeson, he seemed to be the only widower who actually left.

With the danger of having Hon bonded when one of them was sleeping, a whole day was long enough to put it off.

“Ready?” Yeong-ha asked. Hon merely nodded, looking at the taller boy’s chest instead of at his eyes.

The ginger leaned in closer, and, by the time Hon’s face was cupped in Yeong-ha’s much larger hands, both of them knew it was too late to stop now.

Yeong-ha spared a thought to that boring blue egg he had dreaded his whole life. Its fate was no longer entwined with his.

He was free to make his own decisions.

Their lips smashing together was the best thing Yeong-ha’d ever felt in his life. Hon’s mouth was soft and his soul was naïve and unreserved and bright and somehow it felt like they fit together. The dark stains on both of them from their pasts were burned away. The magick was fierce and unbridled and perfect; was this what it felt like to bond normally?

Feeling the bond settle into his skin, feeling it like lava and molten rock flowing in his veins, Yeong-ha broke the kiss.

And then was pounded hard in the chest. Hon buried his face and his sobs into Yeong-ha’s breast, and he idly stroked his new dragon’s hair. It felt wrong not to comfort him.

“I thought this is what we both wanted.” Yeong-ha asked, only slightly concerned. It was too late to back out now.

“Sometimes I’m not sure what I want,” Hon muttered, fists digging into his shirt. “But now I have what I have. Out of everyone who wanted me, you wanted my respect too. That’s why we had that deal, that’s worth more in my opinion.”

Ah. Yeong-ha smirked. “You’re only decent at sword fighting. I can’t have that.”

“--wah?” Hon’s wide eyes stared up at him.

“You’re my bonded partner. You’re an extension of me. Therefore you’ve got to work hard to improve until we are equals.”

“You’ve got high standards! I beat all the widowers but An Taeson; isn’t that good enough?”

“I beat you.”

“Why does it even matter?”

“Because you’ll get hurt. You’re mine now and I’m going to make sure that you never have anything like that happen to you.”

This inspired a wide smile to stretch across the canvas of Hon’s face.

Taking Hon back to Ikioi felt like an extended victory dance, but it also reminded Yeong-ha that he’d signed up for a life of badgering questions, confusion, and dependence on another living being. Living being meant things like eating, sleeping, needing comfort, feeling emotions.

The emotions were the most confusing part. He hadn’t noticed at first, but, as Hon was a living, thinking, breathing, feeling creature, he had emotions that could vary far from Yeong-ha’s own. Yeong-ha hadn’t felt anything so strongly before in his life as when Hon felt something, whether it be happiness, curiosity, hunger… the bond transferred the emotions across and Yeong-ha could tell that Hon stumbled on his emotions as well.

When Yeong-ha woke up and Hon was not also awake, he knew it explicitly from the groggy feeling, the inability to be quite awake. Eventually, he thought, that feeling would soothe into a normal thing; they would rarely if ever awake at the exact same time.

And, times like now, when Hon got hurt, Yeong-ha could feel an echo of that pain but more importantly, the rush of frustration and anger that came with the pain.

No wonder, Yeong-ha thought, the widowers went crazy. If Yeong-ha could feel it when Hon tripped and scraped his knee open, then what would a dragon dying feel like? Yeong-ha was sure that the widowers experienced every nerve dying, and it would feel as if their soul got sucked out. Hon filled a void in Yeong-ha that he hadn’t know existed, so much so that he felt exhausted with him, but even after only one day together as bonded, Yeong-ha couldn’t imagine what it felt like to have that ripped out forcibly.

Yeong-ha had been wrong. He couldn’t ever have had a business partnership with a dragon when they were bonded. The bond itself forged a friendship, automatically made stronger than steel. He had a hard time already imagining being able to, without a bond, befriend anything strong enough to rival this.

It explained a lot of things, actually. Why his parents were not in love, why so many Ryûame spent their days with only their dragons, why Ryûame valued solitude as they did: no relationship could equal a dragon bond, as no Ryûame would ever be completely alone until they were either dead, or a widower.

It made him look at Ikioi with novel eyes, even as he helped Hon up from the street and looked over his knee. Mostly just torn skin, but some of it was deep enough that there was blood. Yeong-ha had seen dragon blood before, a golden liquid that shimmered in sunlight, and before he’d thought it was morbidly beautiful. He never wanted to see it coming out of Hon ever again in his entire life.

“Be careful. Cobblestone is harder than dirt so it sucks to fall. No one will care if you transform into your dragon form, I’m sure you can see.” Hon’s golden scales would be harder to penetrate and therefore the dragon could do all the falling he liked.

Hon gave him a look, somewhat a glare, and his annoyance transferred over the bond easy enough, “I’m not made of porcelain.”

“Of course not,” Yeong-ha asquiesed, before continueing to walk down the main street. The sunlight made everything a blinding white today, and the sky looked endless and blue and he could swear that the longing he had to fly had quadrupled since bonding.

“Where are we even going?” Hon asked, having to keep running to catch up every time something caught his eye and he looked to see what this new thing or that new thing was. At least Yeong-ha had conditioned him to stop asking so many darn questions-- Yeong-ha hated explaining everything.

Yeong-ha pointed ahead, to the main school building, “There. That’s where we are going to register our bond and figure out lodgings for you, et cetera.”

Being twelve as he was now, he still had one more year of school left to attend, so Hon would get stuck in the dragon daycare run by the elders, before they could do one-on-one training. Daycare was a harsh word for it, because there were older dragons there (ones that had hatched far too early for the system to know what to do with), but most of the dragons left there had just hatched in the last 2 years or so. They were in awkward infantile stages and growing much too fast for anyone’s liking.

“Lodgings?” Hon cocked an eyebrow. “Aren’t I going to live with you?”

“Not right away.” Yeong-ha rubbed his forehead. Right, this is one of the things he hadn’t equated into the situation. Hon had no idea how Ikioi worked at all. He’d been raised in the wild by his parents, and hadn’t learnt the sublties of the Ryûame world, unlike a hatched dragon, born right into the center of it all.

“Why not?”

He took a deep breath, “Because our bond is still settling in. That means it’s unstable and if we stay together to ride that out, we’ll end up inseparable later on and we’ll be unable to walk more than 50 meters or so away before we start feeling physical pain.”

“Ew.” Hon wrinkled his nose.

“My feelings exactly. Independence is really important and we’re pushing it already being together so much right now. That’s why we’re going to have sanctioned time together and a lot of time apart for the first week or so. That’s a rule; we need to learn how to be separate before we need to learn how to be together.”

The dragon did a partial nod, before his eyes caught the egg hatchery. The eggs were all clustered together outside on the ground and a poor unfortunate soul, this time it was Isumi, was scrubbing each and every egg down with a moist towel. After the scrubbing, the eggs would be dumped into a warm soapy bath and then soaked. It was something proven to help all of the dragons while they were waiting to hatch, as otherwise negative energies could gather around them, and the pure water would get rid of that.

Only fire dragons ever complained, and that was fine, as all the dragon eggs spent the next hour after their wash in a blazing holy fire. Unlike bird eggs, dragon eggs could withstand extremely high temperatures and the only account of a dragon getting cooked alive in the egg was when one was chucked into a volcano, and rumored to have ended up deep inside the earth for several thousand years of cook time.

Isumi looked up at them, pausing with a sapphire blue egg on his lap, and flashed them both an understanding smile. “I see you have bonded with a dragon, Ko. I wish you both luck.”

“How did you know that?” Hon exclaimed, looking down and around himself, trying to find some obvious mark of their bonding. Yeong-ha had checked. There was none, unless they wanted to cement their bond with a tattoo or something similar.

“You’re a new face.” Isumi resumed his work, placing the now scrubbed egg into the warm bath and picking up another gingerly. “I would recognize you if you were a villager, and Ko wouldn’t bring back a human child.”

“Oh, okay. So… what are you doing?” Hon didn’t seem likely to move, so Yeong-ha consented and walked back over to his dragon.

“Those are dragon eggs. Isumi is giving them a purifying bath. Gets rid of bad energy and dust.” He explained, and just his luck, spotted the ugly robin’s blue egg he had despised for most of his life.

Hon looked them over. “Sheesh, there’s so many! There’s a gazillion eggs in here-- what do you do with them all? Eat them?”

Isumi laughed. “No, young one, we wait for them. Dragon eggs can take years to hatch. It is likely that you took a long time to hatch yourself.”

“I did.” Hon asquised, “Just about two hundred years. My mom was frustrated with me, she said that she had great grandchildren in the time it took me to catch up with my siblings. That’s why she died when I was young, because she had only stayed alive to make sure I made it alive myself.”

Yeong-ha felt a strong ping of mixed emotions, and he stroked Hon’s hair absently, concentrating on feeling calm and steady, certain. It seemed to help, Hon’s flurry of emotions receding.

“She sounds wonderful,” Isumi said, “I’m sorry for your loss. What is your name?”

“Hon Su-yon.”

“A very good name. Ko, you should speak with your elders as soon as possible. Hon need to get registered, and suitable arrangements can be made for your egg. It needs some anti-magick so it forgets your magickal signature.”

Yeong-ha glared at the egg, “Duly noted.”

“Wait, wait-- which one is your egg, Ko?” Hon asked.

Isumi plucked the egg out of the bunch and held it up into the light.

“That one was,” Yeong-ha said. “but bonded Ryûame don’t need eggs any longer.”

Hon stared at the robin’s egg blue of his competition. Yeong-ha wanted to drag him away. Isumi offered him the chance, and tucked the egg back in with its fellows.

The older Ryûame went back to work, a slight smile on his lips as he said, “Time for you two to go get registered. I feel as if I’m keeping you two from getting properly situated, and I would hate if you two had troubles with your separation because you stayed too long talking to me.”

That got the both of them to leave quickly.

The ceremony was long and difficult and not something that Yeong-ha ever wanted to go through again. Hon was stuck in the dragon boarding house used for these situations and their bond vibrated with a need for them to be closer together. Yeong-ha had neve hated his house so much in his life.

The next day of school was also unbearable. The girls cooed over him, the teachers treated him with an awed mix of shock and respect, and the boys teased him excessively. Still, no one told him that he was behind in dragon hatching, which was a relief.

The requests to see Hon were the worst. The thought of someone else spending time with Hon while he had to stay at least 50 meters away for the next week allowed him a fair amount of jealousy.

Oddly enough, in this he found a friend.

Yashiro had sat down next to him and said quickly, before Yeong-ha had a chance to bolt away, “My dragon too. I mean--shit-- my dragon just hatched and the elders are taking care of it, but I’m not to stay close for another three days, and it sucks.”

“Ah.” Yeong-ha smirked, “So it isn’t just with impromtu bonds then?”

“It’s culture shock, man.” Yashiro shrugged.

“Culture shock indeed. Can it be over already? I’m feeling sick from the mere thought that he’s lost, confused all the time, and I can feel it, and no one is explaining anything to him!”

Yashiro’s eyes told him that he knew.

Yeong-ha walked out of there with his first awkward friendship other than his developing one with Hon.

When they were finally allowed near each other again, Hon requested to go back to the eggs. Yeong-ha wanted to clutch him as close as possible until he felt like his limb was no longer dislocated, but since his pride and his common sense didn’t allow for that, he went along with Hon’s plan.

Of course Hon would stand right in front of the robin’s blue egg, and whisper, “If this egg hatched tomorrow, you’d still want me, right?”

“I almost got died trying to protect you from those crazy widowers on the way back here, why would I suddenly decide that you’re not good enough?”

“Because all the other dragons my age are bigger, stronger, smarter…” Hon looked, and there was pain in his eyes.

“They aren’t stronger or smarter. We breed dragons to be bigger. You’re not uselessly big. I like it.” Yeong-ha tried to comfort him, wanted to pull him closer and punch him at the same time.

Hon was perfect for him, Yeong-ha already knew. He was strong, although he leaned towards the agile, fast type; he could use a variety of dragon breaths, from a focused cone of wind, to fire (a basic breath for all dragons no matter the type), to pure light like when a magnifying glass meets the sun, his heritage as a light dragon hybrid. Hon never needed orders in battle, he always knew the best or second best attack and how to exploit an enemies’ weakness; who cares if he needed help with academics?

And the one quality Hon had that Yeong-ha wasn’t fond of was one he begrudgingly admitted he needed.

“What if it hatches now? What happens then?” Hon motioned to the egg.

“Either one of the widowers gets it, or it is released into the wild. More likely the first one.” Yeong-ha wouldn’t wish a widower on the poor egg. He hoped, in a horrible place in his mind, that it wouldn’t hatch until they had all passed away.

“You don’t ever regret me, you hear me?” Hon hissed. “If you ever ever regret me as your dragon, I will kill you once they’ve broken our bond.”

Breaking bonds was near impossible, which gave Hon's threat a fair amount of weight. Yeong-ha blinked, flashes of unimaginable pain and a dull empty loneliness that he was sure he hadn't feared before, a panicky thought rising to his head, I would probably want to be dead-- but then the horror of it passed, and Yeong-ha realized, that fear was also Hon's fear, which allowed his confidence to return, and he smirked, “Don’t ever let me down then.”

Chapter Text

Hikaru was chained to Hon in much a similar manner as the dragon had been to the floor. The red and blue magick hadn’t only been heavy, like Hikaru expected, but also was burning hot to touch.

Hon was completely unresponsive, even as Hikaru stroked his muzzle, which, upon close inspection, had been bruised and the scales ruffled. Hikaru sighed, “Come on, Hon, wake up already!”

Staying here chained up was very well nice and good, except that Hikaru knew that their friends might die if they tried a rescue and they were likely to die if their friends didn’t try. Hon had to wake up, and together they had to use their magick (what was left of it, Hikaru thought with despair) to break the chains that kept them captured. Then they could find Isumi, and hopefully get as many dragon eggs out as possible before outright chaos engulfed the camp.

“Hon! Hon Su-yon! Remember what Ko promised you? Steak and rice dumplings? I’ll eat them all before you if you don’t wake up right away!”

Hon’s opal eye drifted open, glazed over and bleary. “Shin… dou?”

“Yes! Hon, Hon, wake up!” Hikaru cheered, shaking the dragon’s face.

Hon shook his snout back in forth in attempt to get out of Hikaru’s grasp. The motion was so weak that Hikaru wondered for a brief moment if Hon had been drugged or sedated somehow with magick. From what he knew, dragon scales were the most magickal resistant substance known to the world of Bakemono, and therefore if they had, it was a scarily powerful magick after all.

“Shindou… can I…” Hon said, his voice drifting off as his eyes blinked in hopes to keep open.

“Yes, Hon? Can you what?” Hikaru answered quickly, desperate for Hon to stay awake.

The dragon exhaled smoke from his nostrils before completeing his sentence, “… eat you?”

Well, shit.

“No, Hon, I don’t think eating me is gonna help.” Hon said cautiously, trying to back up as close to the chains and away from Hon as possible. Their magickal cage only allowed him to get an inch between them before he was squished against red and blue sharp bites of shocking pain.

“I’m so tired, Shindou… please? I’ll feel… better if I… eat.”

“Um, no. A gazillion times no.” Hikaru was starting to panick. Hon had better be joking, but a ugly feeling in his gut told him that the dragon was far, far from joking right now.

Voices came from outside the tent, in a rush. Hikaru didn’t expect to recognize any of the people who ran past, and he wasn’t disappointed. The whole opposing Ryûame army was gathering, and while Hikaru hadn’t seen a single dragon in dragon form, he knew that soon the sky would be full of Chinese dragons and their riders.

Hikaru was brought back to his situation by a tongue licking up his arm.

Jolting back and hitting the chains in his surprise, Hikaru collasped to his knees, just as tired as Hon was (minus the desire to eat people, he would leave that to Waya), and he barely got out a, “I said no eating me, Hon!” before he passed out.

He apparently didn’t stay unconcious long, because Hikaru was waking again and not eaten. Hon however was falling asleep again, and they both had to make sure they were awake and functional if they wanted out of this cage.

“Hon! Hon! Wake up!” Hikaru shook the dragon’s face again feebly.

“Shindou!” Hon whined petulantly. “You won’t let me sleep, you won’t let me eat you, and I’m tired!”

“Quit your bitching, we need to get out of here. I’m thinking that these chains can drain magick and that’s why we’re so exhausted. So we need to use some magick ass kicking and get out of here!”

“How do we pull a magick ass kicking with no magick?” Hon complained. “We’re stuck!”

Hikaru didn’t like logic. In fact, he really disliked logic. That’s why, in this case, he decided, screw logic. Dishonor on logic. And logic’s cow. He was going to fuck over logic and get out of these chains despite logic’s existence. Maybe logic was like problems. If you ignore them completely, they’ll stop existing.

Focusing his mind, he tried to find that deep well inside himself where he pulled his magick from. Hikaru expected only a weak something to bubble up, but he didn’t expect nothing to pop out. Nothing was coming out, and it was frustrating to think that the power he never had wanted was something that was exhaustable, something that could fail him when he needed it. If he was stuck with all the horrible consequences that came with it--no kissing anyone you don’t want dead, getting your mouth sewn shut, only being able to communicate telepathically--he better have some damn good magick along with.

Okay, Hikaru thought, what was the first thing I need to do to get my magick? How did I originally find it?

Touya, that’s how.

Remembering the kiss, the swell of energy that had welled up and rushed out of him, the burning feeling as it had crept up his esophagus, through his mouth, the feeling as it had tugged on Touya’s soul, the hopeless struggle as he didn’t know the moves but the sheer power he hadn’t pulled up again since…

Hikaru felt something move inside him in response to those thoughts. There we go! Hikaru grinned. All I have to do is think about Touya!

Their second meeting, with Sai fighting the battle, Hikaru’s desperate wish to fight himself, kissing Touya a third time and shoving his soul back down…

Hikaru shuddered as what he could only describe as some sort of block, some wall, was crushed with an overspilling of bright orange magick. It came from a place even deeper than Hikaru wanted to admit, from what felt like perhaps his soul itself, able to overcome whatever sort of block that had held it back with the thoughts of his rival.

He didn’t stop to think about why or how it managed to come about, other than pure stubbornness, because it was there, and that was enough for him.

“Shindou-- your eyes are glowing!” Hon said, now more fully alert.

“Whatever, just, give me a hand? I need to break these chains!” Hikaru let the magick coat his hands, and turning into the best position he could manage, braced against Hon’s flank, he grabbed the two closest red and blue restraints and focused.

The chain magick fought back with all its strength, and whenever Hikaru thought he was going to falter, he clenched his teeth tighter together and thought wildly, I will survive to face you, Touya!

The red and blue auras faded from around the chains and the metal they were made from chipped and cracked under the force of his will-driven magick. Hikaru didn’t even notice that Hon had wrapped his tail around one chain, had bitten another, and was pushing outwards with his wings until the chain got that much closer to snapping and freeing them.

Touya-Touya-Touya-Touya--- it had become his mantra, and the only reason the magick he’d pulled up wasn’t receding.

Hon sucked in a large breath, and let out a roar, a white-red blast of energy, like a beam of light, attacking several chains in a row. Inspired by his friend’s valiant last attempts at going out with a bang, Hikaru focused all of his remaining energy and channelled it through his hands.

The entirety of the magickal restraints shattered into tiny particles at last.

Hon collasped to the ground, freedom from the restraints allowing him to finally revert to his lower energy human form. Hikaru followed suit, falling to the ground next to him panting in hopes to catch his breath.

Touya, Hikaru thought, before pushing up onto his forearms.

If Sai had reported back true and Touya was coming to deliver the message to Ko (oh shit, when Ko figured out what had happened to Hon, Hikaru did not want to be around) and the rest of their friends, then maybe Hikaru would see him soon. And he wouldn’t see him soon if he lay around, exhausted. That’s not the type of presentation Hikaru wanted to have Touya remember him for. It was bad enough that he was that ‘one kid who kissed him and almost killed him’ but Hikaru wasn’t going to muddy that impression with ‘that one kid that passed out and died that one time.’

“Ha… ha… H-hon?” Hikaru gulped, trying to get air back into his lungs. “Hon, we’ve… got to go and… and find Isumi…”

Hon’s eyes fluttered once more before shutting fully. Hikaru shook the dragon’s small human shoulder. No response. It looked as though he would have to carry Hon if he wanted to go anywhere. Hikaru couldn’t just leave him here, after all.

Hauling himself to his feet, Hikaru grabbed Hon’s arms and lifted him on his back. Hon made a sleepy sort of noise and helped Hikaru by wrapping his arms around Hikaru’s neck and his legs locking around Hikaru’s midsection. Hikaru moved his arms to underneath Hon’s knees and started to walk forward, step by slow, deliberate step.

The back tent flap was his exit, and he looked around the dark outside, eyes searching for signs of the woods. There looked to be three tents until the edge of the woods, somewhere around 30 meters until true tree cover. Isumi was in there somewhere.

Hon jolted on Hikaru’s back, eyes flashing open. “Ko! Hikaru, I--”

“What’s happening?!”

“Ko is… extremely worried and angry, I can feel it! Something’s… happening… to our friends…” Hon’s eyes drooped to half mast, and Hikaru knew he didn’t have much longer to talk to his friend before he passed out again.

“Really?” Hikaru readjusted his hold on the dragon. “Then Touya delivered the message. They know where to find us now and hopefully they can get over to us. We’ll get help soon. Maybe he’ll even go a step furthur and call the army too-- since Isumi can’t get his dragon to hatch.”

“I’m getting… the feeling…” Hon yawned, stifling the sound with Hikaru’s yukata, “…I missed a lot…”

“Pretty much,” Hikaru admitted. “We’ll explain it all later, I promise.”

Hon nodded, burying his head back into a relaxed posture at the base of Hikaru’s neck. Hikaru double checked his hold on the dragon, making sure that his arms, which were shaking from the strain, wouldn’t give out as he made a run for the trees.

The path was clear and, taking a deep breath that shuddered in his chest, Hikaru sprinted with everything he had towards the trees.

“--Āi! Mǐn Chí, nǐ yǒu méiyǒu kàn dào--?” A closeby Ryûame yelped, and while Hikaru had no idea what she was saying, Hikaru knew purely from the tone of voice that he had been spotted.

No use in stopping, even if he had been discovered. He just had to keep going, or else he might not be lucky enough to end up back in magickal chains. They both could end up dead.

Hikaru burst into the forest with the sound of crinkling leaves and scattering wing beats of owls, his sandals crunching the foliage beneath him and his legs buckling like a fawn learning how to walk. His heart was pounding in his chest faster than he thought possible or safe for a human being, and he had no idea where in the forest he was heading.

That little problem was quickly solved, seeing as Hikaru was being chased.

“Tíngzhǐ yùnxíng, fúlǔ!” A woman’s voice shouted after them, and Hikaru heard two sets of feet chasing after him.

Then two sets became three and then only one, and a green dragon body, long and thin (almost like Hon’s but longer), with short arms and legs and no wings, flying like a snake winding through the sky, with billowing fur along its back, smashed into the ground in front of them.

Hikaru skidded to a stop. Dammit, he thought, looking for a escape route. The dragon’s snake-like body however had walled him inside a neat circle, and while the Ryûame climbed into the newly built cage made of green scales easily, Hikaru highly doubted he’d be able to do the same.

There was no way for Hikaru to escape. Hon and he were trapped, unless Hon pulled a miracle out of no where.

And a miracle did happen.

The entire night sky lit up brighter than day as a blinding pillar of copper colored light burst up into the sky, laced with white and red ribbons. A colossal rumbling sound shook the earth violently, a shock wave blasting out and bowling over trees and anything else in its way. Hikaru was knocked down easier than a feather, the dragon and Ryûame threatening him loosing interest and jumping onto each other, diving into the sky quick as a lightning bolt.

Hikaru gathered Hon back onto his back again, eyes still blotted out with red and black spots. That must’ve been Isumi’s egg hatching; and no wonder Isumi was so sure that it would be a proper sign-- it was catastrophic.

Blinking out the last of the afterimages, Hikaru headed towards where the pillar of light was. With any luck, he could get there and find Isumi and his new dragon, and hold down fort until they got rescued.

With that thought, he ambled off furthur into the woods.

Isumi was finally in Hikaru’s sight, after Hikaru wised up and realized that every other Ryûame headed out towards the woods were heading for him too.

He had already deposited Hon against a nearby tree and Hikaru blinked to get the grit out of his eyes. His everything felt sluggish, but he knew that Isumi had spotted him, because while he was holding up a shaky magickal shield to deflect spells, rain clouds were gathering overhead and soon he’d make a run for it.

Isumi’s dragon was a tiny copper thing with bright brown eyes, looking nothing like Hon or the other dragon that had cornered Hikaru earlier. Its scales were round and bumpy and it had small wings with a powerful set of fore and hind legs together with a large chest. It looked to be the same size as a hat right now, and it was snuggled into Isumi’s arms in disarray.

One more spell ricocheted off of Isumi’s spell shield before it shattered, and Isumi exploded, dragon and all, into a great puddle of water. Rain poured down on their heads, and Hikaru picked up Hon again, his arms screaming in their soreness, and he struggled to the edge of the rainclouds, figuring that Isumi couldn’t go outside of the rain.

A large puddle rose up and started to form the basic shape of Isumi’s body, contours and colors flushing out slowly. Hikaru smiled shakily as his friend molded himself and his tiny dragon back out of the water. It was good to be together again.

“So who’s the littlest one?” He asked the Ryûame, and Isumi looked at him as if he was crazy.

“You expect me to have named him already?”

“Yeah, sure!” Hikaru insisted. “I can’t just call him ‘dragon’ or ‘Isumi’s dragon’, that just feels wrong.”

Isumi shook his head, “I think… well, I don’t want to ruin him somehow by calling him something odd--”

The sound of dragons slithering through the sky and Ryûame taking advantage of the rain to materialize near them shook them both out of their discussion.

One of the dragons, the green one approached, “Nǐ tóuxiáng? Hépíng?”

“What?” Isumi asked slowly. “We don’t speak your tongue.”

The dragon paused, before opening its jaw and uttering in a broken tongue, “You be peaceful?”

“Mǐn Chí! Tāmen bù huì tóuxiáng, hěn róngyì! Nǐ bùnéng zhǐshì yāoqiú tāmen yǒu hépíng, tāmen shì táofàn!” A Ryûame, a women with chinese features and hair as darker than dusk and smooth as a stream of water, turquoise scales adorning her cheeks like tear drops, spoke up.

“Heping? Does that mean peace?” Isumi asked quietly.

“Peace,” the dragon repeated, slowly.

“We’re not going to stand down!” Hikaru protested. “We can’t lose to them!”

Isumi’s shoulders slumped, “What other choice do we have?”


They were tied to a tree with rope, and that was the only thing that Hikaru felt was even okay in this situation. Rope could be broken through much easier than magickal chains. One blast of fire from Hon’s nostril and they were free.

It was a lucky break; the Ryûame who had caught them wasn’t a shaman or able to cast such complicated magick, so she went with what they had on them. The one dragon, who had been able to roughly introduce herself as Min Chi, and her bonded partner, named Li Xia, were the only two standing guard.

“Named your dragon yet?” Hikaru said maybe a bit spitefully. Most of his anger was out of selfhatred. If they had moved quicker, if they had not stopped and talked about useless things, then they might not be trapped, tied to a tree.

“Le Ping.” Isumi answered. “I like it. I asked them what name meant peaceful in their language and they offered that Le Ping was a good name.”

“You named your dragon… peaceful.” Hikaru raised an eyebrow, before brushing his blonde bangs out of his face.

Isumi blushed just a tiny bit, “It’s a good name!”

“Okay, so get Le Ping there on getting us out! I’m sick and tired of being tied up to something,” Hikaru whined.

“He’s a baby! He’s exhausted from all the magick required to hatch and bond properly, and… I can’t make him do anything. He doesn’t think quite thinking straight yet.”

“Right…” Hikaru let loose a breath, looking around.

Isumi paused, biting his lower lip, before asking, “Are our friends coming to rescue us from this horrible mess?”

“Yeah…” he breathed out, looking up to the sky. The outlines of renewed fighting showed that their army was once again battling it out with the opposing one. Touya should have given their friends a hand, and they should be coming.

If not… Hikaru knew that if he did so much as kiss one of their guards, Min Chi or Li Xia would drop dead and he could escape that way-- his heart told him that he couldn’t no matter how much he wanted to, though. How did someone kill something so heartlessly when they were only foot soldiers in a war that they clearly did not understand, when they had names and personalities and had made the effort to speak and give them the ability to surrender instead of death? That kindness should not be repayed with murder, and Hikaru just couldn’t do it. He had morals.

A coughing wheeze came from Li Xia.

Hikaru’s vision burst into colors, and he saw the bright red of Li Xia’s soul fighting against a distant trail of harsh green. She struggled against it, but her soul rose to her throat from its true place at the center of her chest, over her heart. It didn’t float any higher, but she still coughed and choked as her life drained away slowly.

“Li Xia!” Min Chi screamed, transforming back into her human form and running towards her partner, “Nǐ hái hǎo ma?!”

A deeper voice answered her, the voice of a teenage male and similar enough to Hikaru’s ear that he knew who was speaking despite the unknown words, “Tā jiāng bèi fákuǎn, zhǐyào nǐ néng gěi wǒ nǐ de rénzhì.”

“Nǐ zhège húndàn! Nǐ zěnme gǎn shānghài tā! Tíngzhǐ cǐ zhīqián, wǒ shāle nǐ!” Min Chi answered the newcomer, her voice hissing on the syllables.

“To… Touya?” Hikaru asked, unable to look to verify his thoughts. Was it really Touya? The voice was familiar but who knew when all it was speaking was a foreign language. He finally wiggled around enough that he could glimpse his rival, although not as clearly as he would’ve liked.

“Yes, Shindou. Are all of you alright?” Touya answered in clear crisp Japanese, and Hikaru almost sighed with relief.

“Qǐng tíngzhǐ shānghài Li Xia huò wǒ huì shāle nǐ! Zhè shì nǐ zuìhòu yīcì jǐnggào!” Min Chi screeched, holding her partner gingerly, eyes flashing dangerously.

“Ràng wǒ shìfàng rénzhì, wǒ huì fàngguò tā de línghún. Wǒmen jiāng bǐcǐ màn man shuǎishǒu, nǐ dāngrán huì tóngyì wǒmen tuìchū ér bù de shānghài.” Touya snapped back at her, his aura more than a match for hers in its ferocity. Hikaru was dying to know what he was saying. After all, his rival knowing how to speak Chinese felt like a loss somehow to him, as if Hikaru was somehow inferior since he wasn’t bilingual.

“Háishì shénme?” Min Chi spit.

“Fǒuzé wǒ huì shāle tā hé nǐ zài yīqǐ. Nǐ de shēnghuó shì bǎng tā. Nǐ bùnéng zhù, rúguǒ tā sǐle,” the other kurosumomo heir hissed, magick crackling in the air around him. It was the same green that Hikaru now remembered so vividly from Sai’s fight with him. It was bright and powerful and suffocating and forward. There was sublety in it, but so much of it was fierce and immense and calamitous.

“You’re not actually going to kill Li Xia, are you Touya?” Isumi spoke softly, “Our freedom isn’t worth her life; she doesn’t deserve to die!”

“That’s up to Min Chi now,” Touya answered, still staring the dragon down. “I do not wish for their unnecessary deaths but I cannot leave you here. This Li Xia will not kill you, but many others are looking to do nothing but.”

“Wǒ... Zhàn zài xiàlái. Wǒ fàngqìle.” Min Chi finally bowed her head.

Touya bowed in return, and he must’ve pulled out a knife from his white robes, because the ropes around Hikaru sagged and he was able to pick himself and Hon out of the mess, and he saw Isumi do the same.

Hikaru tried to hoist Hon back onto his back and his arms sagged and his legs crumbled underneath him. Shit, not cool. He wasn’t supposed to look weak in front of Touya.

“I’ll take Hon if you hold Le Ping,” Isumi offered, and Hikaru gladly made the swap. The tiny newborn dragon only weighed about the same as a jug of water, and it was a relief to hold onto something so much lighter than Hon, coolness be damned.

Touya’s eyebrows furrowed in worry but he didn’t say anything, just hovered around the edges as they got themselves together. Min Chi watched also, just as quietly, Li Xia’s coughing and wheezing calming as she was held in her dragon’s arms. Touya had replaced her soul, but the magick was still holding onto it tightly, waiting to see if they made any sudden movements.

Once both Hikaru and Isumi were standing and carrying their respective persons, Touya motioned westward before starting to walk in that direction. “Your friends are here and I believe they are very worried for your safety. I’ll take you to them for now.”

The ‘for now’ was a little worrying, but Hikaru shrugged it off. They were free! He was just about as happy as logically possible. He hadn’t been near Touya in so long and it was as if now that he was here, the magick was buzzing happily under his skin, at the ready.

And it sounded like Touya would be staying with them until morning. The thought of seeing Touya in some sunlight was exciting.

Would Touya look like Sai, all pale skin and dark hair and a white kimono? Would he have more of the green that was the color of Touya’s magick, the color of green that Hikaru had decided was Touya’s just like how orange of his own magick was his color? Hikaru had never seen Touya in full sunlight-- maybe light would shed the mystery of him. Maybe he’d stop being so alluring in the sun, maybe for once he’d seem normal, somehow human too.

But neither of them were humans.

Hikaru looked up, trying to meet Touya’s eyes. His rival didn’t indulge him, and just turned away whenever he caught sight of his face. Hikaru huffed at him, resisting the childish urge to stick his tongue out and taunt him. Gosh, he wasn’t twelve anymore, he should have grown out of this!

Wasn’t Touya curious about him too? The thought that he might not be hurt in a way that Hikaru couldn’t explain.

The walk wasn’t long; somehow Touya didn’t get lost in what looked like endless similar trees to Hikaru. They reached the clearing with the camp, bursting out into the chaos surrounding them and feeling as if they were inside the eye of a hurricane. Magick was flying everywhere, in every color, shape and form that Hikaru could think of. The magick battles of the Ryûame had looked impressive back on the beach but now it was absolutely terrifying and stunning.

Hon’s eyes slid open and he blinked twice, struggling just enough to get Isumi to drop him. Isumi, shocked enough not to know what to do with himself, let alone his charge, just watched as Hon took off running.

Ko emerged from the chaos and grabbed Hon, slinging his dragon up into his arms like it was as easy as breathing, “Hon! Where’s-- ah. Good to see you alive; Shindou, Isumi. And you, Touya.”

Hikaru nodded, sticking close to Touya in the ruckus of the battle surrounding them.

“Where’s Waya?” Isumi asked while taking his own dragon back from Hikaru, eyes scanning the area all the while.

“He’s fighting with Ochi-- but as he is, he will respond to my commands in his state but he won’t recede from it. Ochi is far more sensible.” Ko shook his head. “I’ve decided to not to try and reign him in, he’s far too volatile for me to risk him turning on us and away from them.”

Isumi shook his head, “It’s not safe if he’s like that. He’s not thinking; I have to go--!”

“No, you don’t,” Touya said softly, “you have a newborn dragon and that’s far more important than your grown friend. Umeshichi are violent by nature but they are not senseless. He will be safer than your newborn dragon out there and you cannot risk yourself.”

Le Ping made a burping sound, and Isumi’s eyes melted into a look of torn terror.

Hikaru guessed he could understand. If Ko couldn’t do anything about Waya’s animalistic nature, there would be lots of bodies and a very, very guilty Waya at the end of this. Isumi had to at least try to do something, but he couldn’t risk leaving Le Ping alone.

“I can hold Le Ping--” Hikaru started.

“No. I’ll stay with him. Touya is right, unfortunately; if I go into a dangerous situation now, both of Le Ping and I could die. I can’t risk hurting Le Ping. Waya’ll have to come back from this without me…” Isumi squeezed his eyes shut. “That doesn’t mean I don’t hate this with every fiber of my being. I promised him I wouldn’t let him do this anymore and he trusted me, and I’m breaking that trust.”

Hikaru lowered his eyes, shoulders slumped. “I’m sorry, Isumi.”

Touya’s hand dangled tantalizingly near Hikaru’s, and Hikaru trembled with a desire just to grab it to have someone to hold onto. All the rest of them present had someone; Ko looked around, one hand stroking Hon’s back, and Isumi was cradling Le Ping safely in his arms, clutching onto his dragon in hopes of soothing his raging emotions.

“What now?” Ko asked shortly, eyeing the battle surrounding them with suspicion. All it would take was one magick bolt to land somewhere near them and their peace would be obliterated. There had to be action.

Hikaru stepped forward, confident, “How did you all get here, onto this island? Is there a boat or did you all come via dragon back?”

“I took your friends here by boat,” Touya answered.

“Then here’s the deal. We grab the eggs, pile them onto the boat, and Isumi, Hon, and Le Ping will guard the eggs while Ko and I and you, if you’re willing Touya, will go get Ochi and Waya and rescue their butts. Then as many people as possible pile onto the boat, the people who can’t can hold onto the edges and swim. Sound fair?”

“Best idea we’ve had so far. The fighting will keep them all distracted so hopefully it won’t be too dangerous,” Isumi looked towards the main tent. “Let’s get going then.”

Isumi and Touya went off to check the boat and Hikaru turned towards Ko, who looked torn between going with them and staying with Hikaru. Ko cleared his throat, determinedly not meeting Hikaru’s eyes, “Sometimes I wish Hon and I were not bonded.”

“So you could leave him behind?” Hikaru asked.

“No.” the ginger corrected him, “so my actions would not endanger his life. It has never made sense to me that if a Ryûame dies, the dragons dies also, but not vice versa. Then perhaps I would not feel the same guilt I do now for the fact I must leave him and endanger him, as Isumi opted not to.”

“Dragons can’t live without all their soul, right? And humans can-- because we’re not made of magick. Maybe that applies to Ryûame too,” Hikaru thought aloud, “Still, you won’t be any help if you don’t go leave him at the boat. I’d run and catch up to them if I were you.”

“Don’t tell me what to do, weakling,” Ko snorted, but he started after Isumi and Touya all the same.

Hikaru stuck his tongue out and made a wet noise with his mouth while pulling his bottom eyelids down to expose the red fleshy underneath to the world.


Heart going at a millions beats per second, Hikaru jumped about a foot into the air. Turning on his silent spy, he accused, “You! You almost gave me a heart attack!”

Touya smiled softly, and despite how bristled he was, Hikaru melted a little. While he knew that polite little smile was a lie and Hikaru wanted to do little more than rip the façade off of his face, Touya was here. His physical presence put Hikaru on edge, but it also cleared up his thoughts and made him more focused.

“My apologies, Shindou. Ko should be back soon.” The silence engulfed them still, even though there was a large distance between them and the noise of battle roaring around them.

This wasn’t supposed to be so awkward! Hikaru prided himself on his ability to talk to anyone-- and here he couldn’t even talk to his rival, the very person who could pull up his dormant magick and pushed him to learn more about his abilities just to catch up, just so they could compete… weren’t they supposed to have definite feelings one way or another about each other?

Hikaru couldn’t take it anymore, and so he turned away and determinedly did not look anywhere near the other kurosumomo heir.

Shit, he thought, where was Sai when I want to talk to him?

“So Ko’ll be here soon? Yeah, okay…” Hikaru rubbed his elbows. Sai? Sai! Where are you? I think you should come back now-- I don’t think Touya will go after you now.

Sai didn’t respond, which worried Hikaru, but there were other more important things right now. After all, Hikaru had told his ghost mentor to stay with Isumi away from Touya and his father, so maybe if he’d been with Isumi before, he left to somewhere safer when Touya popped up to save them. Who knew with Sai, really… Sai could be so unpredictable.

Ko caught up with them right then, breathing hard, “Let’s go then. I cannot stress the importance that I continue to live, so shield me at any cost.”

Hikaru snorted, “Yeah, I’d think you were a big dick for thinking your life was worth more than ours if that didn’t have context.”

“Even if Hon wasn’t attached to me… well, no matter how hard you try, I will always be far superior to you. Even if we have been dealt different cards by faith, no matter how you play them I will always be better than you, outshine you, and have all the winnings. The pains I have endured for my victory become much sweeter as I see you falter while I rise." Ko Yeong-ha flipped his ginger hair over his shoulder with drama to accenuate his words, none of which really registered in Hikaru's brain. "How do you expect to equal me when your attempts fail continuously? Why lie to yourself? Why go the extra mile when you know in your heart of hearts that I am far superior to you in all that you do? I am a god while you are just a rose, wilting and decaying into death from the common beauty you believe you hold.” 

“Most of that didn’t even make sense!” Hikaru’s eye twitched, “How do you manage to be the biggest jerk on this side of Japan, I honestly don’t know, but I have a personal theory that it may have something to do with your repressed--”

“Personal feelings aside,” Touya interjected, “The eggs?”

Both Ko and Hikaru blushed a little and snapped their heads away from each other as if they hadn’t been yelling loudly seconds before.

The three of them picked their way through the battle, Touya having used his magick to create a magick deflection shield, which didn’t save them from the random bursts of water, lightning, fire, and rock that were falling from the multicolored sky in chunks. Everything seemed to burning around them, and the main tent had taken a fair number of hits-- the fabric had holes blasted into it and one section was burning a dangerous blaze that threatened to taken down the foundation of the tent.

There was only one guard, and Touya had no qualms of using a quick burst of green magick to knock him out. Hikaru was grudgingly impressed. Ontop of the shield and the knock-out magick, Touya was still far ahead of him in magickal ability, and he didn’t like it.

He’d have to keep studying and dancing and fighting and then he’d catch up. He had to catch up, even if Touya was so untouchable somehow. Despite how everyone else was bruised and bleeding and bleary eyed, Touya seemed unshakeable, which only gave Hikaru the weird feeling that he wanted to be the one to shake him.

The eggs, while some were smashed from the debris, had escaped mostly intact. There seemed to be about 20 left, far from the total that had been housed at the incubating house in Ikioi. At least this many were still safe. It would have been far worse if they hadn’t come.

Hikaru grabbed two in his arms, and pulled up again the shaking dredges of his dwindling magick to grab the eggs and levitate three more.

Levitation spells were hard, but he couldn’t fit more than two in his arms at a time.

Ko managed about the same, piling three into his arms and using magick to levitate another three.

Touya gave them both looks, as if they were insane, and didn’t pick up a single one. He levitated the rest, doubled their shield, and led the sprint back to the boat.

Hikaru’s legs could barely move as fast as they had to; he couldn’t risk leaving Touya’s magickal shield. The magick that the soldiers were throwing around up there wasn’t a thing to trifle with, and so he had to run as fast as Touya did, at least.

He took a deep breath. He could do this.

Despite the protesting in his legs and the pain of his muscles and how his breath was scorching his throat, Hikaru pressed his stride to become longer, his thighs and calves to move faster, his breathing to become deeper. He caught up with Touya, who despite his levitating of the eggs, couldn’t run very fast at all.

Hikaru’s legs were the legs of a fighter, thickened with larger muscles. He had done morning runs every day as a warm up routine for both Morishita-sensei and Ko, because part of being a smart fighter is knowing when to run away.

Touya’s legs were the legs of a dancer, the muscle lithe and good for grace. Touya probably had never done the extensive running and fighting that Hikaru had, preferring to fight with magick and to dance, like Sai.

It went to show that Hikaru was having trouble keeping pace with Touya.

Ko kept in front, single-minded determination and lack of exhaustion allowing him to far outstrip the other two.

The boat, which Hikaru had not seen before, was a small chokkibune type boat, long and thin and dark in color, and would’ve looked elegant if not for the tired bodies slumping over each other inside of it.

Hon was almost entirely curled up into Isumi’s side, and Le Ping was snuggled in between them, wings bent at an awkward angle.

The eggs were desposited carefully around them. It didn’t look as if everyone would be able to fit in the boat as it was now, let alone if they went to get Ochi and Waya, but they had no choice in the matter.

Hikaru wanted to offer to swim along the edges, but he knew that the adrenaline would run out. Ochi and Waya were the best candidates to swim, and if not them, then Ko and Touya. Hikaru had a feeling that he had no choice here; he couldn’t offer himself. He would pass out and die.

He was pretty proud that he was still standing honestly, and that was only because fainting in front of one’s rival was not a good way to impress them.

Ko looked at the problem, before shaking his head, “I’ll wake Hon and he can sit on my lap.”

“We still need to get Waya and Ochi!” Hikaru pointed out.

“Shindou, I already risked Hon for those damn eggs. I’m not running back into the fray to save those two cannibals.” Ko snapped, flicking his hair over his shoulder and giving Hikaru a look so nasty it probably had killed a small animal out of fear before once or twice.

“We can’t leave them behind!” Hikaru snarled right back.

“You go get them, then!”

“I--” Hikaru looked over to Touya. Right, damn, can’t show weakness-- pride would never forgive him if he did-- “I will!”

Touya opened his mouth to interject, but Hikaru had already started off back towards the battle.

“Shindou!” Touya run after him.

Ochi was easy enough to deal with. He saw Hikaru and recognized him as an ally, dropped the Ryûame he’d been ripping apart with his teeth, and gave them both a blood stained grin.

“Mission accomplished?” He asked, hemoglobin coated fingers smudging red all over his spectacles as he pushed them up into their proper place.

Hikaru shuddered. It had been a while since he’d seen the horror of a umeshichi kill. He was so used to Waya, even when he lost his humanity, being placated and nice and eager to obey orders, much like a dog, and Ochi never lost himself quite like that in battle because he felt that it wasn‘t ‘neat’.

Seeing the screeching ghosts and the torn up bodies of both dragons and Ryûame on the ground, Hikaru wanted to throw up again. It brought back flashes of dead bodies and Waya’s feral insanity in Ekone.

“Yes. Where is the other umeshichi?” Touya asked when Hikaru fought back down his nausea and flashbacks.

Ochi shrugged, “Somewhere. Can’t be too far from where he was last. There’s a reason I stayed away from him back in the tribe. When he’s like this-- he’d kill me or you and eat our hearts and not even pause to think about it. Best to leave him surrounded by only enemies.”

Hikaru gulped, his legs shaking.

“It’s unfortunate that Ko declined to come with us to gather him.” Touya intoned, his voice a little wistful. “A Ryûame can beat down the beast in him and keep him from endangering us.”

True, true. But Ko had mentioned that his powers weren’t working on Waya, although why they didn’t know.

Maybe it was like dogs, Hikaru thought. Dogs, once they chose a master, obeyed their master best. Isumi had been using his animal control on Waya so long maybe Waya’s inner monster had chosen Isumi to be his master.

Maybe this time, Waya was so far gone that no one could pull him back.

Ochi led them further into the bloodbath, and the number of ghosts and bodies were terrible. Hikaru almost wanted to grab Touya’s hand and tell him that their magick’s purpose was to make those ghosts happy, to set them free, to save them from this. That they had to stop, to dance, because their purpose was being ignored.

Hikaru’s purpose was to release these souls, and he knew it. It was what he was meant for.

And what Touya was meant for too, maybe even more than Hikaru was. After all, Touya was the more proper heir. Hikaru didn’t have the hair or the skin tone or the robes or the father that he should.

Which reminded Hikaru that he had to ask why there were two heirs instead of one, because that mystery had never been solved. Why did Hikaru have the magick that he did? Sai and Hikaru were going to ask Touya and his father for answers once they finished with this. Maybe that plan wasn’t blown to hell just yet.

Winding through a few more bodies ripped to shreds, Hikaru saw the spray of blood from an arterial cut on a Ryûame’s leg-- it looked to be Li Xia, which almost made Hikaru call out for her to run, to save herself before she got Min Chi hurt too, when he absorbed the whole scene.

Min Chi’s body, in human form, lay with her eyes blasted open and unseeing, her mouth gaping open like a dead fish and her skin pale, a large hole right where her heart should be.

Li Xia, a crazy look in her eyes as she tore at Waya, his claws and quick movements keeping him well out of her reach. She was either going to die here by Waya’s hands, or kill herself for not being able to protect Min Chi, and Hikaru remembered how they had treated them in the forest.

They had been friendly.

Suddenly, war made him sick to his stomach. Kneeling over, Hikaru retched into the blood stained ground.

Ochi had already moved to grab at Waya, to tackle him down, so Hikaru knew that the hesitant and shaky hand pulling his bangs out of his face was Touya’s. Well shit. There went the plan of not showing any weakness. Realistically, Hikaru had known it was a little hopeless. He had been long spent even before heading out to find Waya and Ochi.

Li Xia made a high keening screach, and Hikaru looked up to see her neck snapped and torn, her long dark hair sticky with the spray of blood. Waya only had a second to lick at the blood before being forcibly tackled over, Ochi throwing him to the ground.

Hot tears spilled over Hikaru’s cheeks and he wanted to cover his ears as her body crashed to the ground.

No! No! He knew people died-- he dealt in death! But, it had never been so personal as this. Li Xia and Min Chi had been sympathetic and had even helped name Le Ping. Despite being their guards, they made it clear to Hikaru that they were quite the same as the other people that Hikaru knew, despite being on the other side.

He watched as Min Chi’s ghost grabbed for Li Xia’s ghostly hands or face or any part of her, and when they couldn’t touch each other, they made inhuman keens and only tried to get closer.

Ochi was holding Waya down and it seemed that keeping him in place was calming him down some, so Hikaru didn’t even think about it when he grabbed Touya’s hands sharply and pulled himself back up to his feet.

Touya looked at him oddly, “Shindou, what are you--”

Hikaru didn’t think he managed to say anything sensical at all, just looked at him desperately, trying to convey his intent, but somehow Touya understood him, because soon Hikaru’s hand was grasped again in a firmer manner and the black haired teenager pulled him closer, so that their chests were inches apart and their faces turned to look over each other’s shoulder.

Despite being far more exhausted, Hikaru led their dance, and for some reason their magick, instead of attacking each other, washed over the battlefield like a gentle wave, colored light with a soft golden hue, some ghosts protesting more than others but sooner or later dissolving into sparkles of light.

Even though most of his weight was being supported by Touya during their dance, towards the end, to send off Li Xia and Min Chi, who were still trying and failing to recconnect to each other, he pulled Touya into a spin and then dipped him enough that even the bonded pair’s determination to be together couldn’t handle the wave of golden magick.

After pulling them back to sorts, Hikaru collasped against Touya’s shoulder.

“Are you two done being insane? There is a war going on around us and you two stop to dance?!” Ochi protested, still holding down Waya with varying degrees of success, depending on how much Waya struggled.

Hikaru remembered that their magick couldn’t actually be seen by anyone other than those with the power of a kurosumomo and the ghosts themselves, but he was still tempted to make a snarky comment back about how Ochi seemed to enjoy straddling Waya’s back enough not to interrupt them.

“Yes, insanity done…” Touya said, his voice only a little shaky. “Let’s get Waya back to the boat. Would you and Waya mind swimming too greatly?”

“I can handle it and this blockhead will once he gets back to himself.” Ochi answered, letting Waya back up.

Touya’s magick, back to grass green after Hikaru’s had stopped mixing together with it, ensnarled Waya’s soul but didn’t touch it. Ochi just led him around by the arm, and only Touya’s yanking at his soul kept him from fighting them.

The walk back to the boat was silent, mostly because Hikaru is dying from how tired he is, Touya doesn’t seem one to talk incessently anyway, Ochi never found a good opening to speak, and Waya was still growling in a way that no one wanted to understand. Their steps occasionally faltered, Touya attempting to shield everyone from wayward magickal attacks. It must not have been easy for him, considering how Hikaru was leaning on him, had never stopped leaning on him since the dance, and his movements were hindered in an extreme way. Yet, being pressed up against Touya’s luke-warm side, his kimono wet and sticking to Hikaru’s skin, everything burning around them-- Hikaru wondered that if this wasn’t the end of the world, if this wasn’t the end of him.

His legs stumbled on the tiniest bit of uneven ground, and Touya caught him, arms going underneath Hikaru’s armpits to hold him up.

“Careful,” Touya admonished, but Hikaru could see the beginnings of fatigue in his eyes too, and Hikaru stood back up, legs trembled to carry his weight. Everything hurt.

When they got to the boat, Hikaru was just as well made of jelly. He found an open space on the boat, and despite how small it was, he curled up into a tight ball and closed his eyes. The wood was rough and hard on his back and no where near a comfortable place to lay his head, but he had little choice in the matter.

Once Waya had been tossed into the water, which Hikaru knew only from the splashes and then the noises of protest, he had gone back to normal, and he and Ochi were going to be holding onto the boat and swimming alongside it in just a few seconds.

Hikaru yawned, unable to keep awake much longer. His heart was still racing, but once the boat had been pushed off the beach and was floating, Touya climbed in and pressed himself nimbly into the only open space left, wrapped around Hikaru’s back and right up against Ko’s back. Hikaru sighed in comfort, reaching back for Touya’s hand-- the boy hadn’t known where to place them, so squished up against everyone else, and therefore stuck them awkwardly at an angle that prodded Hikaru’s side, the stupid idiot, it’s not as if touching Hikaru was forbidden-- and laid it across his stomach in an attempt to reach a better position. Touya accomodated him and moved his arms so that one supported both Hikaru and his own head, and positioned the other so that he was holding Hikaru in his arms.

Really, that was a much desired improvement.

“You look comfortable,” Sai whispered from the other side of Hikaru, the side not occupied with a warm and sleepy Touya, and Sai’s voice was filled with endless amusement. “What was that you said once about ‘They’re guys! It’s wrong,’ hmm?”

Not listening, sleeping instead--

“Goodnight, Hikaru…” Sai said softly, his tone almost seeming sad.

The rocking of the boat and the relief that Sai was okay and the sound of waves and the warmth of Touya at his back allowed him to fall unconscious faster than he thought he was capable of.

Chapter Text

“Parades in your honor aren’t as cool as was previously advertised…” Isumi muttered to himself, sitting next to Hikaru. Hikaru was enjoying himself and waving to all the crowds gathered around to cheer for the heros who saved the dragon eggs. He was tired, sure--boats didn’t make for good sleeping--but nothing would stop him from enjoying a party. Or in this case, parade.

They had arrived on the shore in the morning, and after securing the boat, Waya and Ochi had hidden the eggs in the trees and joined the rest of them to get some much needed sleep. The dragon army from Ikioi kept them from any more trouble (and apparently Touya had been so gracious as to cast a shielding spell around them to make sure of that, although Hikaru wasn’t ruling out the possibility that it was more to let the other kurosumomo heir get some beauty sleep rather than to save their behinds). The rest of the journey hadn’t been fast, as the eggs were carted along the ground while Ko and Hon flew ahead.

Now that they were back in Ikioi, they were being a little overcelebrated. For one, they were on parade, and Isumi, while separated from his dragon (Hikaru didn’t get why but apparently there was a waiting period between when bonding with the hatchling and when one could see their dragon again), was only getting more and more antsy. Which made Waya ansty. Which made Hikaru fidgety as well because they were antsy on either side of him, even though they were getting paraded around like prize cows.

Waya and Isumi were having relationship issues, it looked like.

Sai had already advised him earlier in the day to butt out, but they were his best friends. They had to work things out between them. Anyway, the whole thing was immature! At least to Hikaru, who admittedly could not speak about relationships (running away from his fiancée and then kissing another boy a couple times did not a healthy dating history make).

Friendship was something that even bonded Ryûame had; see Hon and Ko for example. Apparently Ko had even dated someone after the bond, with that one guy that Hikaru called a chicken head. What was his name again? Yashiro? So what were Isumi and Waya’s problems, anyway?

Lack of communication, Hikaru decided, must be the deciding factor.

“I think the point,” Waya groaned in response to Isumi’s earlier comment, “was to celebrate how we saved a lot of innocent lives. Try to enjoy that!”

“Enjoy being dragged through the heat on the back of a caravan circling through town, wearing stuffy outfits, in the middle of the morning? What’s not to like?” Ko joined in from in front of them. Hon was neatly seated next to his partner, steak and dumplings and even what looked like fried fish heaped on top of each other in a big bowl placed on his lap and chopsticks in his hand. Ochi was the silent suffering third wheel next to the two.

Truth be told, Isumi was not exaggerating. Parades? Much more fun when you’re not part of them. Or at least this parade. Hikaru thought maybe those ones with the performers dancing on horseback and spinning fire looked kind of cool to be part of. At this point, Hikaru just wanted to eat something.

Like ramen.

And the wonderful smell from Hon’s bowl didn’t help the matter. How was he supposed to be cordial after missing breakfast to sleep in, and not having a stop in the parade for lunch, with the person in the seat in front of him consuming enough food to feed a family of four? Sighing, because things always had to be difficult, Hikaru gave another cheerful wave to the Ryûame cheering him on.

It felt painfully apparent that their rescuer and the producer of the much needed boat was absent completely.

“Don’t be so glum!” Sai pouted, floating alongside the caravan. “You’ll see him again soon. He has duties and lessons and training, just like you. You couldn’t go with him, not quite yet.”

He narrowed his eyes at Sai. As usual, the ghost could pinpoint the elephant in the room that Hikaru had sealed his mouth shut about and then Sai decided to air his dirty laundry in some soft-hearted attempt to make him feel better.

I’m confused, Sai. It’s like I feel I should’ve gone with him! Hikaru dropped his head back and stared at the cloud formations. Amongst elephants and dragons and hedgehogs and mushrooms, his thoughts only seemed to get heavier.

After all, Touya Akira had not left them easily. He’d put up a strong argument for taking Hikaru back with him to Edo, monster city on the distant shores to the south. That’s where the Kurosumomo lived, lording over the rest (apparently not really as kings or emperors--although no one dared to question their authority or their command).

Hikaru remembered that first morning, right after waking up:

The boat was pushed gently and securely up against the sand of the beach, and the rest of his travelling companions inside of the boat were fast asleep.

Climbing out, which was a difficult task in itself, seeing as Touya’s clingy hands were not eager to let go of him, Hikaru noticed that Waya and Ochi were similarily passed out on the beach, curled up in the wet sand with the tiny waves washing over their blood-caked feet.

They were all a mess. A huge, huge mess. At least it looked like the two umeshichi had secured the dragon eggs in the trees under some kind of transparent shielding spell.

Hikaru groaned softly.


“I’m here, Hikaru. You’ve been asleep for some hours. Unfortunately, this peace looks to be shortlived.” Sai said, shimmering into his eyesight from the other plane that Hikaru had noticed him spending more and more time in.

I figured as much. We need to move these eggs back to Ikioi before they send out scouts or something to go looking for them. Hikaru blinked the sleep out of his eyes, and noticed the grimace on Sai’s face. You okay?

Sai sighed, “No, Hikaru. It looks as if the Kurosumomo himself is not pleased with his son’s actions, and judging by what you let Touya know about us, Touya is going to bring you in front of his father..”

Hikaru stopped. And why isn’t that a good thing? We can figure out why there are two heirs and maybe I can finally get caught up to Touya in levels of strength! And maybe you could even battle the current Kurosumomo! It’s like everything we want, all put together.

“Yes, if that is how things will go. However, the Kurosumomo may just simply decide to force you and Touya to duel to the death.”


Hikaru sat down, eyes travelling back towards the boat and to Touya’s face, features smoothed out and peaceful, pink lips slightly parted, a healthy red flush on his cheeks. How could any father do something like that to their son?

He and his own father had never had the best of relationships, seeing as Father left home so often. His mother often seemed irrationally angry at him every time he went on another journey, and even when he was home, things were stifled and awkward.

Mother always warned him to never be like his father, that he should treasure Akari and never glance at another woman. She told him many times to be careful of women who seemed too perfect or too beautiful, and to always always only desire a simple girl. “Like Akari,” she always tacked on.

But Hikaru didn’t think that his father would send him off to a duel to the death, awkwardness aside. To think that Touya’s would-- that home must have been extremely cold.

“It’s a chance you’re not prepared for. No matter what Touya says, don’t go with him yet.” Sai pleaded.

I know. His shoulders slumped. I’ll insist on going back to Ikioi to deliver the eggs, and there’s nothing that he can do to convince me otherwise.

“Thank you, Hikaru,” Sai smiled warmly.

Hikaru turned to the boat. Should I wake them up?

“Not yet. The sun hasn’t risen and they need their sleep as much as you. You might want to hide the boat somewhere, if you can.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Hikaru muttered.

That had been enough to convince Hikaru of the situation, and Sai’s steady approval was the only reason he didn’t cave right out to Touya’s subtle and effective persausion.

It wasn’t as if Hikaru didn’t want to be near Touya because he did, almost every second of the day, but… he hadn’t completed his training under Ko yet, and he wanted to wring out Sai for more magick tricks before actually going head-to-head, and Touya was leaving right then, no matter what. He said something akin to, “I’ve left my father and mother waiting long enough. It’s been almost 6 months since I have been home, and I don’t care to waste any more time getting back.”

Which was a total waste, in Hikaru’s opinion, because he had this growing desire to dance with him again.

Sai smiled softly, “Don’t feel too bad, Hikaru! Think of it this way; now you have more incentive to do well in your training!”

I always have incentive!

“Then why do you fall asleep and drool on the floor when I explain basic dancing rhythm to you?”

It’s most certainly your tone of voice? Little beads of sweat formed on Hikaru’s cheek as his scratched his head.

“I can tell you’re lying!” Sai chastised. “It’s always-- Look, Sai, it’s a life threatening situation so help me out, and then when I try to lecture, it’s always snoring! I won’t be around forever, you know!”

Nah, you’re dead! Where else are you going to go? Hikaru teased.

“Eh! Airhead!” Waya waved a hand in front of Hikaru’s eyes. “Stop getting so distracted; this is almost over.”

“Right,” Hikaru blinked, and returned to doing little waves. Waya hadn’t lied; they’d done almost a complete loop around town and soon they’d be back where they started; at the home of the head councilman of the town.

“Waya, you should try to be more reserved,” Isumi said softly, looking away. “There’s no need to berate Shindou for crimes that you’ve committed yourself.”

Waya puffed up in anger, “You don’t have the right to tell me what to do when you’ve clammed up and forgotten about your friends!”

“I have not!” Isumi protested.

Hikaru felt sandwiched between the two in the most horrible of ways.

“Have too! You keep acting as if you don’t want anything to do with me anymore and I can’t stand it!” Waya paused after his outburst, “It’s like I did something unforgivable!”

“It’s not about you, Waya!” The Ryûame hissed, low under his breath.

Hikaru whimpered a little. A cold shudder passed through him like touching a slimy fish in a tank of water, and he knew there was little he could do to curb the desire to forcibly shut them both up. The desire itself did keep him from acting on it. In his mind, he knew this wasn’t his fight.

It was in his best interest, Hikaru decided, to ignore them both completely. It wasn’t like they were going to do anything that required his attention, and he didn’t feel as if he was capable of helping either of them calm down at the moment… His best bet to try and solve their issues was to talk to Waya-- Isumi was a good person, but Hikaru always found it easier to talk to the more similar, outgoing Waya than it was to talk to Isumi, despite them all being friends.

Where was Sai? Hikaru looked around. His ghost was nowhere to be seen. The air around him was clear and it didn’t look as if Sai had done anything other than play his little vanishing act.

Typical, Hikaru thought, turning back to stare at the thinning crowd. The parade was almost over, he celebrated silently. He could escape from between Waya and Isumi, who were still at it, and probably find a nice place to pratice some moves or something until his magick didn’t feel like some sort of heavy tumor on his soul.

“Shindou!” Waya shouted in his ear, “We need you to settle the score!”

“Which one of us is right?” Isumi huffed, looking away from the two of them.

Hikaru had had enough. He stood up abruptly and jumped out of the caravan. Yes, he was done. He was completely done.


Once Hikaru had calmed down enough to return back to Isumi’s house, he came back to see Waya sitting on the doorstep, a bruise forming on his face.

Waya didn’t bruise easy; Umeshichi had thick skin. Hikaru was distinctly impressed, but… he couldn’t let his two friends fight like this, especially over something dumb.

He sat down next to Waya, nudging the stony silent teen with his shoulder, “Did you get kicked out of Isumi’s place?”

“Told me that I can’t come back and that you shouldn’t either… dammit, it’s like he’s a completely different person and he doesn’t even notice it,” Waya made a irritated noise in the back of his throat, “I hate it! God, Shindou, I am so dumb--”

“You’re not,” Hikaru shook his head, trying to be supportive somehow.

“I am!” Waya stood up, motioned for them to start walking. Hikaru joined him. “It’s like, I feel as if I was playing dice and I gambled away everything on what looked like a good roll, and then there’s this other guy, this newbie player who’s only had one roll to start with, and he just takes it all.”

Their steps were muffled by the sound of the town passing them by, people bowing their heads slightly in respect. Hikaru and Waya awkwardly bowed back, before making on their way.

“You told me that they don’t have romances at all, but… maybe there’s an exception,” Hikaru offered awkwardly, “I’m an exception so things that involve people…? They don’t always go the right way.”

Waya groaned, leading them both towards the beach, “I know! But I want him so much-- have you ever wanted a person like that?”

Had he? Not really, he didn’t think, because the only person he ever felt magnetically obsessed with, connected to, was Touya, Hikaru thought, just Touya. No girl, no one else, just Touya.

“It’s insane! It’s like my head is constantly full of something I don’t understand. I want to do all these things to him that I understand even less than my feelings,”

Hikaru paused, watching as they got to the pebble beach, the lake water lapping at the shore hungrily. He felt like there was a lot of life, all around him, and he felt a little loss and a little gain of that energy. Sai had told him that in places full of nature, it was easier to sense souls. Now, Hikaru felt he understood what Sai had meant better.

Waya’s soul was burning a soft red next to him, but it mellowed into orange or purple at times. It was dulled out by his own, Hikaru realized, which was a blinding orange-yellow, like a tangerine, shining like a star.

“Shindou?” Waya asked, waving a hand in front of his eyes.

Hikaru jumped back into his skin, “Sorry! You were saying?”

“It’s not like you’d understand,” Waya sighed, “It’s not like you’re in love or something. Because I swear that’s what it is… I want him bad,”

The waves crashed upon the beach, clouds floating idlely by.

“I don’t know what it’s like, no…” Hikaru sat down, letting the water brush his feet and escape back over the grains of mulicolored sand, “but I do have an idea. I lived with a couple in Ekone named Kaga and Tsutsui. They were really nice to let me stay with them, even though I left behind my fiancée, who was Kaga’s sister, so he totally had the rights to hate me,”

Waya smirked, “You were engaged?”

“Shut up, it was arranged back when I was three or something,” Hikaru glared at the umeshichi.

“Aww, Hikaru and his sweetheart--!”

“No! That’s completely irrelevant--” Hikaru roped himself back to the topic, “As I was saying, they were very nice and in love obviously and it’s even more obvious when I look back on it, and they were just as weird and different and I never would’ve thought they’d end up together at all. So don’t think it’s impossible for Isumi to like you back,”

“He’s a different species! A different species!” Waya buried his face in his hands, “You may not think much of it, but in monster world, liking a different species is taboo. You get all sorts of mutant things out of it. The only exceptions are humans. We’re all allowed to like humans, we’re built to like them,”

Hikaru stared at the water. Were monsters built to like humans? Was it something ingrained in them, somewhere, that humans were okay to like?

“We all want humans because they’re yummy to eat and they come in what we consider ‘beauty’, they all look good, okay?”

“Humans look good?” Hikaru asked, never having thought of it that way.

“You haven’t really had too much monster society initiation, because Ikioi works differently than Shinimikami, but…” Waya’s eyes darted to the side, “…you won’t like it. The humans don’t do a lot of slavery, right? Shinimikami has an open slave trade, and all they trade is humans, because we like them so much,”

Slavery? Hikaru side-eyed Waya, wondering if it was a joke or an exaggeration.

The silence confirmed it as the truth.

“It’s an old practice, and what happends to the slaves all depends on who buys them. Usually if it’s a Umeshichi, they get killed and then eaten as a delicacy on important tribal holidays. I know that we did that once… the leader of my tribe bought a human once, gutted them quickly, and we ate him for one of our yearly coming of age ceremonies. It was a treat back then… now having lived with them-- it makes it seem so awful. Because they’re all so beautiful.”

Humans were just humans in Hikaru’s mind. He knew that some people were beautiful, but certainly not all of them, and anyways, Waya passed easily as looking like one and Isumi did too if he kept his sleeves down. Hikaru didn’t quite understand the attraction.

But somehow, he did. They really were all beautiful. Every human had a lifeforce that was some color, some brilliance, something that made them all unique. Something in all of them was designed to do good, and only through cruelty and hardship did they forget about it.

“What do the other buyers do? Eat them?” Hikaru asked, unsure of where his morbid curiousity was coming from.

“Some of them,” Waya admitted, “Bad things happen to them. Usually they don’t live very long… but I do know that using them to reproduce is completely okay. After all, they’re like blank slates. Infinite possibility. Monsters with a human parent are exactly like monsters with monster parents. The blood of the monster overpowers the human blood completely because humans are so weak, and it’s like the child isn’t a crossbreed at all.”

“Is that why humans’re not taboo, and different types of monster are?” Hikaru asked, “Because of the children problem?”

“I think so… monsters who try to have kids with other species end up with really bizarre children. Crossbreeds are… um, we try not to think about them. They’re usually feral and don’t think at all, just try and kill. But… it’s not like Isumi and I could have children in the first place--so I don’t think that’s why he’s rejecting me.”

Right, Isumi.

Hikaru swallowed, “Maybe it’s because he’s scared to break taboo anyway?”

“That doesn’t seem like him, to me anyway, but…” Waya looked away, “What if he’s using his dragon to give me a hint that he doesn’t like me?”

Hikaru stared at the sky; faded blue and thick clouds drifting above, a flock of seagulls squacking at each other and ripping apart strands of seaweed, faded out green, everything like a nostalgic watercolor such as those he used to see in Morishita’s office; and leaned back, relaxing his shoulders. Twisting his head a bit to look at Waya, properly look at him, to see the breeze playing with his hair and the marks on his skin that seem more distinct against newly developed muscles, the loss of adolescence, he shuddered a bit, thinking aloud, “Maybe Isumi is confused. He’s suddenly this new person and he’s not sure how to be that person.”

“I’m the one getting over puberty!” Waya grunts, looking over at the seagulls with a hungry sort of look, “I’m the one who shouldn’t know who I am! Just a year ago or so I was a murderer, now I’m this town hero or something-- I’m not allowed to be both in my mind, and he’s the one running off, confused!”

“Give him time,” Hikaru groaned, falling back into the white sand, forgetting temporarily that it would invade his every hair follicule.

“How much longer?” he whined, leaning back and joining Hikaru in the sand.

“Maybe forever,”


It took one look at Isumi that morning, curled up on the floor, all of the pillows in his house bundled up into a pillow fort, for Hikaru to decide that he had just had absolutely enough of Waya and Isumi’s squabble. They were going to sort this out, or Hikaru would die trying to make it happen.

Hikaru spent most of training outlining various ideas while he and Ko fought hand to hand, because Ko insisted that Hikaru was going to “drop that damn sword someday and then die like a squealing newborn pig,” and Hikaru did admit that the style was different and fun. It was like learning a new method of moving, and he enjoyed it, even when they were both wrestling on the floor, screaming at each other, Hikaru’s hands grappling for Ko’s long ginger hair in order to bring the bastard down.

Hon had gotten a bit chubby, but Ko gave him annoyed looks, and sent him off running (literally running) errands to get rid of the excess fat that he had accumulated from Ko’s food-related debts.

“I’d have said you were whipped, but…” Hikaru teased, watching Ko send Hon on another errand, “you’re doing your damndest to prove that wrong.”

“Shut it, brat. Hon and I are bonded. I suffer from his laziness. Keeping him active is good,” Ko answered, landing a particularly nasty right hook smack-dab into Hikaru’s sternum. Not good. He let his guard down too much for that one.

Hikaru panted, trying to recover from the hit, hands going to his knees to support himself, “So! What should I do to get those idiots back together, if this stupid bond thing really is getting in the way?”

Ko grabbed his waterskin and took a large gulp, giving Hikaru some room, “Try not interfering. You may actually survive not getting smacked within an inch of your life.”

“They aren’t even talking! How is that sorting anything out?”

“Then pull a matchmaking stunt and get them together yourself if you’re so impatient,” Ko swore, rolling his eyes. “Now are we gonna fight, or what?”

Hikaru grinned, “Matchmaking, I hear?”

“I didn’t mean that,” Ko froze, eyes wide like a scared animal for a second, “Oh no, you don’t-- you will mess everything up! Sarcasm! Do you hear me? It was sarcasm!!”

“It’s too late, I know what to do now. I just have to matchmake them together! Perfect,” Hikaru laughed, really actually considering the idea. What if he just… pushed them in the right direction a bit? Not like locking them in a small closet or tying them together and leaving them, but just… making sure they ended up together at the right time and place for a bit of heart to heart?

Ko landed a good hit to Hikaru’s ribs in his consumed-in-thought-ness, “I can literally see you considering it. It’s a bad idea, don’t do it.”

“No, I have ideas now! It’s a great suggestion! No newly hatched dragon is preventing my friends from being friends!” Hikaru changed up his footing, leading into a faint, allowing Ko to fall for it and for him to land an elbow to the ginger’s chest.

Hm, not hard enough of a hit-- Hikaru went in for another punch, and was slapped, plain and simple. Reeling back, Hikaru rubbed his stinging cheek, “Not cool.”

Ko shrugged, smirking wider, “It worked. Don’t expect fighting to follow rules. It never does… but then again, you’re going up against Touya! You can expect the fight to be precisely, boringly, within the rules.”

Hikaru spit out the coppery tasting saliva clinging to his tongue, seeing it land in a pinkish blob on the white sand. Blood, huh… it’d been a while since he’d spit out blood. Funny how “a while” meant a period of two days.

“Shut up about Touya,” He rolled back up, stretching his sore shoulders. “He fights fine, if a bit too little.”

It was a thing he’d observed to a degree when he’d been in close quarters with Touya. They had started off all those years back with Touya all grace in his movements, and no fight--Touya was a dancer. His magick was fine-tuned and deadly. Hikaru was a fighter, with no grace, magick wild and unpredictable, and now the two of them were trying to learn each other’s language.

Touya had fought on that island, and Hikaru had danced.

Ko scoffed, shrugging his arms and shoulders in a condescendingly lazy, what-can-you-do gesture, “Right, I’m not supposed to talk bad about your boyfriend.”

“I’m not supposed to punch you in the dick either,” Hikaru narrowed his eyes.

“Are we finished for today?” His mentor asked, crossing his arms. They both knew well enough that if they continued to bicker, someone would get maimed or the both of them would be forcibly separated by Hon, usually by breathing fire at them.

Hikaru reviewed the meager list of body parts that didn’t hurt at the moment, and decided that yes, they were done for today. Any more and he thought he might look like a bruised peach. He already had purple and green spots everywhere.

He grabbed his yukata from the sand, shook it out, and slid himself into it, over his pants and layers of bandages. The belt tied securely, Hikaru looked around. No Sai again. The horrid mess of other problems were keeping Hikaru occupied, but he was really starting to think his ghost needed a leash. Sai had completely stopped teaching him magick, and Hikaru missed those lessons a little. Not that Sai didn’t force him into practicing his magick or his dancing every once in a while. Hikaru would need it if he wanted to match up with Touya.

“Before you go,” Ko called, “don’t do anything stupid with regards to Waya and Isumi. If they’re going to sort anything out, they don’t need any pressure.”

Hikaru nodded, but really he knew he wasn’t going to listen. He knew he had to do something. He was sick of their fighting. He was sick of them not getting their act together.


“It’s tonight, you know,” Hon had informed Hikaru at their little breakfast, onigiri and other misshapen rice cakes spread out on the table, “that Isumi gets to reunite with Le Ping. Waya refuses to go properly meet Le Ping with the rest of us.”

Hikaru had taken temporary residence with Ko and Hon, seeing as Isumi had kicked Waya, and by extension, Hikaru, out of his house. Of course, he could’ve gone to Ochi’s temporary guest house, but Ochi had made little secret of what he thought of Hikaru. They acknowledged each other as strong fighters, but… Hikaru wasn’t very good at getting along with the four-eyes.

Especially because four-eyes apparently had been tutored by the Touya family a while back, and once he knew about the Hikaru-Touya situation, he had not stopped bragging.

Hikaru had never been more jealous or angry in his life. Ochi still hadn’t found new glasses.

“I didn’t expect him to want to. He’s still upset. Here’s my idea! Before Isumi gets to see Le Ping tonight, let’s lock the two of them together in a closet--”

Ko slapped Hikaru’s head down into his rice-cake, “What did I say about matchmaking?!”

“Mmmmfft,” Hikaru protested, head stuck in his rice from the ginger’s hand, holding him down.

“Ko,” Hon whined, “They need shoving in the right direction!”

The dragon and Ryûame had a stare-down, and neither side was giving. Hon’s eyes slanted more and more, mouth getting sterner and his entire face just getting more and more ridiculous. Ko mirrored him, his usually attactive features turning bizarre and his upper lip oddly sticking out.

“Maanyuuueeettthmeeeufthhhh,” Hikaru tried to vocalize, clawing at Ko’s hand, still pressing him into his rice.

“Fine!” Ko leaned back, “Two against one. I lose.”




The hand was removed. Ko motioned, “Speak, incoherent one,”

“I said, now can I get up?!” Hikaru wiped off the rice sticking to his cheeks, licking into his mouth what he could salvage from his lips, “I don’t care what you think, I’m going to get them to at least make up today before Le Ping comes home to daddy!”

Hon wrinkled his nose, “Isumi isn’t his daddy, Hikaru. They are bonded partners. Imagine someone who could possibly grow up to be your romantic partner thinking of you as Daddy!”

“You called me big brother at one point,” Ko mentioned, almost as an afterthought.

“We’re not romantic partners!” Hon flicked a piece of seaweed at him. Ko dodged, easily. It splattered somewhere on the back wall.

“And they won’t be, if Waya and I have anything to say about it!” Hikaru grabbed an onigiri from Hon’s plate, unhindered by Hon, who was still technically on a “diet”, and dashed off for the door. He had romantic shenanigans to plot. Possibly involving a hammer and a beach full of angry turtles.

Slipping into his shoes, Hikaru started the race to Ochi’s house, where Waya had taken up residence. If he could just get Waya moving, the turtles might not even be necessary!

The weather had been fairly nice, but it seemed that summer was going to be ending soon, and the breeze held more chill than Hikaru remembered. Fall meant leaves changing color, and in its poetic brilliance, also meant a very happy Sai. Sai loved Autumn like Hikaru loved ramen.

The cobblestones clinked familiarly under his feet and no one stopped him as he shoved the onigiri into his mouth with no pretense of grace while sprinting (and stumbling awkwardly around corners) towards his friend’s house. It was only a little unusual, seeing as the number of friendly waves and gift baskets full of thank you dragon-scales (Isumi had explained that dragon scales had special properties, each dragon’s different, so were common gifts to show utmost gratitude) he received from nearly everyone on a regular basis, but he didn’t question his good luck.

The sliding door provided no resistance as he made his way into Ochi’s place. He did stop, however, to remove his shoes, seeing as he could just see Sai bitching about how unsanitary he was.

“Waya!” Hikaru called, looking for a hammer. Nails too, nails were good.

“He’s not here, Hikaru… also, the right cupboard,” Sai chimed right in his ear.

Give a guy some warning! Hikaru beamed, once he was done jumping out of his skin. Where have you been?

“Around, I think is the term… are you really going to interfere with your friends’s delicate situation?” Sai fretted, long kimono sleeves trembling.

Of course. Hikaru checked the cupboard and there, in shining and gleaming glory, lay a small hammer. Perfect.

Sai made an upset noise, looking around the house, “Waya went to the beach this morning… Isumi’s in his house still. Is this truly necessary?”

Sai, you out of everyone should know how stunted those two are!


So to Isumi’s place, we go!

Filled a hyperactive energy he didn’t know where came from, he charged off again, hammer in hand. This time he got looks, but he ignored them in favor of enjoying the fact that the day was bright if not a twinge chilly and he was definitely going to fix the relationship between his friends.

Isumi’s house, the closest place he had in Ikioi to home he had, seemed drab somehow. Maybe it was from the lack of life, of people in it. Hikaru ignored the feeling. He was going to fix that today anyway.

Intruding once again, Hikaru slid open the door after discarding his sandals.

“You didn’t even bother to announce yourself,” Sai groaned, rubbing his temples.

“This house was my house two days ago, I don’t need to tell anyone I’m home!” Hikaru said loudly, in place of actually just saying, “I’m home,” since, of course, that was what Sai wanted him to say, and he hadn’t had this much fun playing around with Sai since forever ago.

“You’re so rude,” Sai made a show of being disappointed, but it was fond in tone and he beamed up at his specter, cocky in his excessive energy.

Isumi came out of the woodwork much like a slug, draped in a long blue kimono and a blanket, slowly trudging towards Hikaru. Rubbing his eyes, he asked, “Is there something you need, Shindou?”

“Yeah! I just realized I lost my mask for my old disguise! I think I left it at the beach--can you go there and help me look? It’s very distinctive and I can’t let that get misplaced!”

Isumi’s expression softened a bit, “Of course. But won’t you be joining me?”

“I need to,” Hikaru thought fast (and was quite glad for all his experience lying now), “find a shovel. My mask might be buried in sand maybe, so I’ll be right after you, promise!”

Isumi nodded, and headed back to his private rooms to find a more decent outfit, or so Hikaru presumed. Going to the cupboards, despite knowing exactly where Isumi kept his gardening tools, Hikaru shuffled around as if looking for something. And he was. Just… not a shovel.

In the proverbial haystack of Isumi’s kitchen, Hikaru was looking for nails.

“You’re sending him to go meet up with Waya! You know all they’ll do is fight,” Sai tutted.

They won’t notice I’m not there if they’re fighting. I still need to set this up correctly! Hikaru opened a door, and voíla, there lay a set of only slightly rusted iron nails.

“Oh no, you found them…” Sai sounded even more dismayed.

Everything is slotting together so well.

“The shovels are in the back, Shindou,” Isumi said, sounding slightly confused as he emerged from his private rooms, and Hikaru waved him off, not even bothering to look to see if he really did change into different clothing or not.

“I’ll be after you in a second. I thought I saw something we could use,” Hikaru lied casually, too easily, and only after did he hear the sliding door shut.

Wipping around, he snatched up the nails, and crept into Isumi’s room. The closet in that room was the biggest. It was the best choice. He didn’t want to have to force the door closed and hold it there, even if he did have the help of magick.

Hammering in nails in precise locations, he knew that as soon as he got both of them locked in there, he could merely pull some of them up a bit and keep the two lovebirds in close quarters until they worked everything out. This plan was really good, Hikaru thought, and he ignored Sai’s noises of protest. Sai would always protest to a perfectly nice floor getting defiled, even if it was in the name of love.


“You could be practicing your magick or learning how to fight better but instead, you’re hammering Isumi’s floor! It’s not nice!” Sai simpered in the backdrop.

“I am completely okay with that,” Hikaru intoned, finishing his work. “Do you think they’re done fighting and I can trick them into going back here?”

Sai threw his hands up in defeat.

“Let’s pretend that means yes!” Hikaru left the hammer where it was, and leisurely strolled out of Isumi’s house, walking towards the closest beach.

Sai trailed after, and soon the alabaster sands and licking blue waves were in view, the backdrop of a very, very angry looking fight between his two friends. He could hear the echoes of their yelling, and Hikaru was having none of that.

A more concrete and less plausible idea than his original one sparking in his head, he took off at a full sprint, charging at the two of them.

“Waya, Isumi--I need help!” Hikaru screeched to a halt in front of the two of them, watching their mouths just stop in the middle of the hurtful words they were about to form.

“Excuse me?” Isumi said.

“I was looking for the shovel and there was this guy, he jumped me from behind--I have no idea who he was, just that I couldn’t catch him, he was so fast! He was wearing all black and he just-- I think he was trying to kill me. He’s not very strong and he didn’t seem too dangerous, but I don’t want him running around, and I can’t catch him alone.”

“There’s-- what?” Waya completely dropped his old anger and replaced it with a new anger, “Are you serious, Shindou?! Let’s go get him!”

Perfectly according to plan.

“Come on, Isumi!” Hikaru said, grabbing onto the Ryûame’s sleeve (he had changed clothes, like Hikaru had thought) and dragging him back towards the village. The three of them set off, quickly and quietly, discussing plans and the like for catching the “murderer” in Isumi’s house.

“He’s fast, so one person needs to be bait while the other person charges them in a surprise attack!”

“What if this person is more dangerous than I thought?” Hikaru felt like he needed an award for not giving himself away. Both of them were hooked.

Sliding open the door, Hikaru led them cautiously to the “spot where he was attacked,” right near the shovels. They were on severe alert, looking around everywhere, hyperaware. It made Hikaru a little scared--what if he messed up and gave himself away?

Still, it only meant that they really did believe him. He almost felt bad for betraying that trust.

He sent them on a search around the house for the man, and sly to the extreme, he hoped, he led them to Isumi’s closet. Opening the door, he blocked the view of the other two and made a shrill noise, like one of surprise, and then exclaimed, “I saw someone move in there!”

Hook, line, and sinker.

Waya didn’t wait, he dove straight into the closet, a mess of limbs and speed, and Isumi followed, trying to pull him back and out of danger.

Hikaru slammed the door on the two of them, held it with all of his mustered magick strength, and pulled up what nails he could with the back of the hammer that he had left laying next to the door, innocent and unseen by his two victims. Perfect.

“--Shindou?!” Came muffled through the door, “What is the meaning of this?”

“This is the least cool thing you’ve done, in the history of ever!” Waya informed him, pounding on the door. Hikaru sat down, back securely against the door and ready to push if necessary.

“Not letting anyone out until I hear some making out-- wait, making up in there!” Hikaru said, stumbling over his words as he got ready for a few hours of boredom.

“This is unnecessary. Waya and I are on good, speaking terms! I can’t get stuck in here, I have to get the house ready for Le Ping!”

“Oh shut up, it’s only like nine in the morning, you have all day for that!”

“You can’t tell me what to do--”

“You can’t tell me what’s best for the both of us without my opinion!”

“I can make my own decisions--”

“You don’t get to make my decisions!”

Yep. A long, long few hours. Hikaru crossed his arms, laid his head back, and wished Sai would show up again. He’d disappeared some time between when Hikaru had went to go pick of Isumi and Waya from the beach and now, and he didn’t know why.


“It’s almost lunch time, Shindou… Can’t you let me out? He might eat me,” Isumi said, dryly and with a touch of attempted innocence.

“Fuck you, you are just lying to make him listen to you! You can’t be honest with anyone!” Waya protested, and there were sounds of a scuffle.

“I’m not the one acting like a child who doesn’t know what rejection is!”

“You’re the one who is making a mess out of everything!”

“Why can’t you just accept that I’m not going to turn around and change my mind?!”

“Why can’t you just accept that my feelings are worth something?!”

Hikaru slurped on his bowl of ramen. His butt was going numb.


“I hate you! It’s got to be late afternoon already and because you just can’t get over yourself, I’m going to miss seeing my other half!”

“The dragon isn’t your other half! You are a whole person!”

“Shut up! You don’t understand anything!”

“I understand this--I’m in love with you, and that scares you! It scares me too, so just-- I don’t know, just admit to yourself that it’s not a bad thing!”


“Say something then.”

“I… Waya, I don’t think that your feelings for me are bad.”

“Then why don’t you even want to be friends anymore?”

“Because--! I feel the same, but I… I’ll just let you down. I’m one half of a whole now, and you don’t even understand that! My head will forever have someone else’s thoughts in it, someone I’ll never stop thinking about! I’m just going to let you down! I’m not whole anymore! I can’t be yours!”

“You are not half a person. You existed for years without a dragon, and now that you have Le Ping doesn’t mean that you are suddenly less than you were before.”

“It’s how we’re built, Waya. Even if what you’re saying is true, that I’m not part of this thing, circumstances have still changed and so have I, and you don’t want a life where you are always second in my mind!”

“Bullshit. I know that how I feel must be a bit confusing, but I love you doesn’t mean that any new addition to yourself will make me stop loving you! You can change, and part of loving you is accepting that change! I don’t need all of you, all the time! I love you means I just want you in my life!”


“You’re my closest friend, I can’t just lose you. If you really do feel the same, then… you should know that I don’t care about Le Ping. He is a separate being from you, despite the fact it’s hard for you to tell that! You can still be selfish, crazy as that sounds. I can too, and I still want you with me.”


“Come on, let me try. If it doesn’t work, then you can break it off.”

“Are you sure?”

“Absolutely. Are you?”


“As much as I’ll ever be.”

“I want you in my life, but I want you happy more than that. So don’t feel obligated--”

“Can I kiss you?”

“Maybe-- do I get to kiss you again?”


“Knock yourself out,”



“Damn closet is dark, I can‘t even see your expession,”

“It’s cramped and I think your knee is going to possibly prevent me from child rearing if you don't move it and--! …It's dusty. Shouldn’t Shindou let us out now? We made up, as he said.”

“Technically we made out, too.”

“Yes, but he meant make up.”


“I think Shindou is asleep.”

“Me too. He hasn’t said anything in hours.”

“Oh no, Le Ping! I have to pick him up and take him home.”

“Much of a problem as I think he was, you’re right. You can’t just abandon him tonight. He’s like, a week and a half old.”

“Thanks for understanding, Waya.”

“Of course-- hey! Shindou! Let us out!”

“Shindou? We really aren’t fighting anymore.”



“I think he’s dead.”

Chapter Text

“Hikaru!  What happened to you?” Sai wailed, darting back and forth as if dancing for an invisible enemy.

The teen bemoaned, A very angry couple.

“Oh, well--you sort of deserved it.” There went all of Sai’s concern for him.

I deserved it, Hikaru thought, holding his bruised cheek.  Waya and Isumi had not been happy when he had let them out late, having fallen asleep on guard duty; even more so because Le Ping had been left with the caretaker for another day.  Isumi had spent a long time apologizing to his now broody, now talking-in-full-sentences, now very bratty dragon.  Personally the infantile not-talking stage hadn’t lasted long enough in Hikaru’s opinion.

It had been pretty funny though when Waya had looked at the dragon with a green but sort of accepting look, and had commented, “Is it my child or my rival…?”

Hikaru didn’t want to think about it in much detail. What was the point of defining their relationship so early anyway?  Things were bound to change, and early expectations would probably screw everything up. When he expressed that opinion, Waya had looked ready to sock him again, so he promptly attempted to run away.

“I hope your meddling was worth it,” Sai intoned, crossing his arms and scrunching up his big billowy sleeves in a weird way.  Speaking of things bound to change, Hikaru thought with a touch of anger, one would think an ancient ghost wouldn’t be one.  It wasn’t just his imagination; Sai had been changing, acting weird, desperate?  He didn’t know why or how someone who had been dead for so long could change their ways, but Sai was managing it.

It doesn’t sound like there’s been any trouble in paradise, Hikaru shrugged, getting back to the topic on hand.  Despite his foreboding teasing, Isumi and Waya had fixed things with each other and smoothed over that rough patch.

Even though Le Ping had not been back (back being a loose sort of word seeing as Le Ping hadn’t really been there in the first place) for very long, Isumi and Waya were as close as they used to be.  And, Hikaru was still not allowed back in Isumi’s house.  Hikaru had resigned himself to more evening with Ko and Hon without complaint.  He had sort of locked his friends in a cabinet.  In their minds, it might be a bit of an unforgivable crime.

Hey Sai?  Want to dance together for a while?

“Huh?  Hikaru!  Hikaru, would I ever--!” Sai’s entire face lit up like a child’s at a festival, and Hikaru smiled back.  Sometimes it was nice to give in and do things together, especially since Hikaru had to admit, he was really starting to like dancing.  It made his fighting smoother, and he knew he could combine his style as Shindou Hikaru with Sai’s beautiful dance to create something even better than anything he’d done before.

He’d felt it with Touya.  There was something in him, and Hikaru knew, if he followed the right road, he would eventually discover what it was.

It was time for Hikaru to be tested.  The day had been decided on for a week beforehand, and he’d never been so impatient, except for perhaps what would come after he passed—he would get to meet Touya again.

The beat in his chest said it all.  Hikaru narrowed his eyes, hand going straight to his sheath.  He’d been waiting for this day for what felt like eternity, and he was more than ready.

Ko cocked his head, “Not going to bother floating?”

“It’s a waste of magick,” Hikaru grinned, knowing he couldn’t fully complete the trick as well as Ko could.  Ryûame had this nasty trick where they siphoned magick from their dragons and sustained major moves with far less strain than he could, and Hikaru hated it.  It was easy to gain more even ground by underhanded sneaky fighting though, and that was Hikaru’s specialty.  Ko hated it when he slipped in dance moves to duck or to augment his power.

“I’m not going easy this time, this isn’t a practice fight—until first blood, we agreed upon, but first blood may be my taking your head off.  Don’t get cocky,” the ginger took a step back, and Hikaru followed suit, circling each other.

Hon was watching from a safe distance, ready to get involved if it looked like it would become even remotely life-threatening.  Well, for Ko, at least.

Hikaru felt Ko move before he saw him, and only by a trigger-jerk reaction did he twist out of a potentially devastating hit: a cut straight through his sword arm.

The bastard had noticed his distraction, if only for a few seconds, he thought, bringing his leg down in hopes to smash Ko down by the backs of his knees.  The ryûame was not obliging enough to move slow enough, Hikaru grumbled, landing hard in the sand and springing back, withdrawing his sword.

After all the practice he’d had with his blade, it was now like an extension of his arm, a part of him.  It gleamed bronze in the sunlight and Hikaru twisted the flat edge so that the sun would glint directly into his opponent’s eyes.

The sun slowed Ko down enough for the Kurosumomo heir to power up his legs and match the speed Ko had set as the fighting standard.  He launched himself forward, his calves aching with magick, and a loud clang echoed across the waves of beach and sand.  Gold kissed silver as it came down to a temporary match of arm strength, and Hikaru already knew the outcome.

If he just could flick his wrist—

Ko brought up his leg for a lightning fast and magick-powered kick that hit Hikaru too hard in the gut.  He hadn’t blocked properly, he groaned in remembrance and in pain, pulling out of his stumble with a weird sort of roll that was infinitely harder to accomplish with a sword in hand.

“My gut, you jerk,” Hikaru gritted his teeth, mopping his magick together, orange and humming in his body and oh so very eager, to create a much stronger shield around himself.  His physical shields were stronger than his spiritual ones, but Sai had given him a clean bill of health on both.

Hikaru knew he had to turn the tails of this fight.  It was only until first blood, which meant one unlucky scrape and it was all over.

The sand felt inviting as some of it slipped into his sandal, even though it always through him off balance in his fights.

Ah yes, inspiration, he cheered, tossing up a handful of the gypsum towards Ko’s eyes.  The dust didn’t slow down Ko’s next swing, but it did allow Hikaru to dive into the hit, swiping his foot through the sand and tripping Ko into midair, but victory didn’t last long.  Ko’s magick caught him before he smacked down and ugh, Hikaru wanted to start a support group called, ‘Floating is cheating’ or something.  A perfectly good trick to land his mentor on his back and the floating thing just got in the way.

No matter, Hikaru thought, concentrating power in his arm and lunging towards Ko, who was righting himself back into a proper standing position.  Before Ko could raise his sword, Hikaru was there, swiping his sword so fast he wasn’t sure if he had even hit.  He hadn’t even seen his arm move, but he knew he had done so, one second in one place and the next another.  The teen didn’t want to hope, but he looked closely anyway.  Had he hit Ko?

From the pained grunt, he had.  A short, about an inch, cut right at Ko’s mouth, had beaded up red pearls and was threatening to drip its cargo.

“First blood,” Hikaru gloated, a little.

“There, an even fight.  For once,” Ko panted, jumping back, wiping the blood now dribbling down his chin and smearing the color red over the back of his hand.

Hikaru jumped back and landed with less grace.  An even fight, he thought, meant that his training under Ko was finished.  It meant he’d passed.

“I’m impressed you improved that quickly,” Hon said, amazement in his voice.  It wouldn’t be such a compliment if Hikaru wasn’t well aware of the power hidden in the dragon’s childish form.

He gulped a breath of air, letting the wobblies in his knees and his pounding heart get the best of him, if only for a second.  Fixing his posture, Hikaru breathed, “Touya… this means it’s time for me to catch up to Touya.”

Ko looked like he had conflicting emotions about that, but instead of saying whatever was on his mind, he snorted, “One track mind.  It’s only been, what, a month since you last saw him?”

“Yeah, but that’s like, forever!” Hikaru bounced on his feet a little. Sai!  SAI!  Did you hear that?  I’m ready for Touya!

“You are ready.  You’ve been improving so quick, it’s impressive.  Even your dance is stronger than before, if not horribly unconventional,” Sai materialized next to him, kimono billowing in the wind of the other world, the wind that Hikaru had always sort of wondered about but never could comprehend.  “Still, I wish that you were not to fight Touya so soon.  I desperately want to test my strengths as well, please understand, Hikaru.”

Against the current Kurosumomo?  Yeah, I get it.  No big deal, you’ll get to tango soon enough.  That’s the cherry on top for this journey! Hikaru grabbed his scabbard and resheathed his sword.  He wanted to get some decent rest before setting out.  He’d never win the battle if he was already sore.  Maybe we can leave in a week?

“Hikaru, please, sooner!  Even if I have been paitent more than a hundred years, I feel as if I could not wait a second more—“

Okay, okay!  We’ll leave as soon as possible.   I have to pack and stuff too, I can’t just put on my shoes and start running into a place literally known as the plains of death!  The Shinimikami is apparently real bad news.  They do slavery!

Hikaru shook his head.  Sai, sometimes…

Sai didn’t meet his gaze, but he did stay with Hikaru, which he appreciated more than he could communicate.  Sometimes, he missed the times when it was just him and Sai, running around on adventures, and sometimes he didn’t.  The return to Ko’s place somehow felt stifled, like his victory was short lived.

Somehow, as Hikaru stepped up onto the porch, he noticed it.  A brat lay in wake.  There would be pranks.

Hikaru rolled his eyes and avoided the first one with a twirling step he’d learned from Sai, the second with a duck and roll, and the third by stepping on the dragon laying the traps in the first place.  Le Ping whimpered under his foot, but the duel-haired teenager had no intentions of letting him up.

“I am positive Isumi has no clue that you’re here,” Hikaru accused, “Aren’t you two supposed to be inseparable?”

“Supposed to, yeah,” Le Ping sulked in his baby voice, which sounded awfully weird coming out of a small dog sized beast that could breathe fire.  And apparently, could control trees and plants already with frightening ease.

Isumi was very proud and everyone else thought Le Ping was an insufferable brat, even the rescued air dragon hatchling, the one that Le Ping had bonded with during his time away from Isumi.  Hikaru couldn’t remember his name; it must’ve been something like Zhao chi or Chao ji or whatever.

Hikaru watched the dragon wiggle out under his foot, a move only made possible by the fact he was covered in gleaming, slippery, bronze scales from snout to tail.  He put on a face he hoped was scolding and adult-like, and tried in his best scholarly voice, “Stop being a brat, Le Ping.  If Hon had come home to your dumb water bucket, somewhat accurate guillotine, and the attempt at covering his floor with cooking oil, he’d do a lot more than just step on you.  He can shoot laser beams out of his mouth, you know.”

He’d never actually seen the so-called laser beams but Hon had bragged about them (without Ko trying to curb his ego), so Hikaru assumed it was true.

“What’s a laser beam?” Le Ping looked up at him with slanted, large, curious eyes.  Dammit, Hikaru thought, snotty bratty dragons were not allowed to be cute.  No wonder the little guy was spoiled rotten, Isumi wouldn’t last a second against those eyes.

“I don’t actually know.  Like, a giant beam of light?  Like when you have a magnifying glass and the sun, and the glass makes the sun really intense, so you can kill ants with it,” He tried to parrot what he remembered, which, unfortunately, was not actually that much.  Hon talked a lot.  Hikaru would’ve died trying to remember all of it.  He barely remembered some of the boring dance lessons Sai put him through and those were actually important.

Le Ping snorted fire out his nose, a thing he’d picked up recently and just adored, “Hon’s not that great.  He thinks he’s all that because he’s a hybrid but I’m way cooler.  Even Chao Shi thinks so!”

Ah, Hikaru thought, the air dragon was Chao Shi.

“Chao Shi agrees with most of what you say to get you to shut up,” Hikaru told the dragon bluntly, hopping over the puddles of oil that Le Ping had managed to spill before he’d stepped on the darn brat, and skidded his way into the kitchen.

Like always after training, his stomach was making noises.  Loud, embarrassingly, obnoxious noises, noises like he’d killed someone and was trying to keep them quiet in his stomach.   Waya had always made fun of it back in Ekone, but the more magick he used in training, the more his stomach sounded like a set of people drowning.  Making he’d accidentally absorbed a dead person somehow and the growling was how they were trying to let him know they needed out.

Hikaru picked up a wok and thought, I guess that means being squashed in with rice makes them shut up.

“Dead people aren’t fond of being stuck in small places , rice notwithstanding,” Sai popped up, out of the blue.

Hikaru dropped a wok on his foot, “AGH!  Dammit, Sai!”  Le Ping was laughing at him, and Hikaru whipped around, “Do you want this wok on your foot too?  I swear I’ll squish you!”

That put a proper amount of fear into the dog-sized nuisance.

“Ghosts that get stuck in small objects for a long time become very angry and very powerful, and play horrible pranks on however next lets them out,” Sai smiled, “In the west, past china, they call them Djinn or Genies.  I once encountered one that had come from a very far off desert, who tried to offer me three wishes in exchange for letting her out of her lamp.  I didn’t accept the offer, of course, but we did have fun dancing together.”

I want three wishes, Hikaru huffed.  What would you have wished for, Sai?  If you had accepted her offer?

Sai’s face softened into a melancholy look, a serene smile on his purple lips and his eyes lowered to the ground, suddenly looking the very picture of a storybook Kurosumomo, long purple-black hair and porcelain skin and long, flowing white robes.

“More time doing what I do best, helping souls and dancing and weaving magick,” Sai confessed, “and companionship, as the life of a Kurosumomo is a long and lonely road without the beauty of love or friendship, both things that I have been blessed with now, as a ghost, and more importantly, as your friend and mentor.”

Hikaru sniffled a little, picking up the wok from the ground to hide the fact he was so moved.  Sai really, really thought that?  That he was lucky and blessed to be here? Curious, he asked, “What’s your third wish?”

Sai laughed wistfully, “An eternity to improve?  No, I suppose what I want most is to prove myself.  And you have promised me that too, Hikaru.  I will dance with Touya senior, and finally have my last wish granted.”

Le Ping tapped Hikaru on the leg with his tail, the boulder-like tip hitting just a bit too hard to be painless, “Stop standing around talking to yourself!”

Hikaru dropped the wok on him.

“Oww!” the dragon whined, “No fair, you’re all tall and you have opposable thumbs.”

“You’ll learn how to get opposable thumbs later,” He crossed his arms, “Now I’m making lunch.  Without interruptions, or I’ll find out how tasty dragon is.”

Sai smiled, his eyes sad, as he faded back into the background.  All three wishes, Sai thought, even though he had been selfish all his life and in his death.

Hikaru had packed all the essentials.  He could carry a lot more than before, so he wasn’t hesitant to gather up things he’d passed over as useless before.  Things like socks, flint, rope, a kettle, a pan, salt, a hunting knife, and extra clothing all made for a heavier pack, but it hadn’t been detrimental to carry around yet.

Isumi and Waya were having more trouble, it seemed.

Hikaru narrowly avoided a thrown ladle, and he entered the house cautiously.

“…No way, we don’t even own any—Shindou!” Waya caught sight of him first, or maybe smelled him first.  The umeshichi was washing his spare yukata, and the water was a brown that reminded Hikaru too much of blood.  For some reason, he remembered puppy-dog Waya and Isumi letting all the bloody water drain into the tub vividly.

Isumi looked up from his much neater packing, “Hello, Shindou.  We’re almost ready, I promise.”

“Yeah, we’d already be done if I wasn’t ‘being a bad influence’ on Le Ping by not having all my stuff clean!  He doesn’t even wear clothes yet!” The brunet grouched, his upper lip curling up off his fangs.

“I don’t want him to inherit any piggish habits.  It’s bad enough we have to take him along to Shinimikami…  I would prefer to wait,” Isumi shook his head, tying up his bag.

Right, Isumi’s bond required a month old dragon had to come along on the journey too.  A month.  Le Ping was a baby.  A walking, talking, fire-breathing baby with scales tougher than chainmail, but a baby all the same.

Hikaru ignored the pang of guilt, “You guys don’t have to come along.  I mean, I finished my training under Ko, I should be okay.”

Waya looked at him with an expression that said ‘No way’ a lot louder than Isumi’s solemn, “We’d never consider it.”  Both of them had succeeded in making him feel really, really stupid.  At the same time, too.

“It’s not that you’re weak or something,” Waya tried to explain.

Isumi nodded, “Shinimikami is called the plains of death because of how many people never return.  For someone essentially human, you could be eaten alive by any number of monsters, you could be beaten to death by a genten no bakemono, you could be captured and sold into slavery, you could offend a demon lord and end up with an assassination order over your head, the list goes on and on.  No one travels alone in the Shinimikami, not even the Kurosumomo himself, and he’s immortal.  And even once you get to Edo…”

“…It’s not safe, I get it,” Hikaru sighed, “Going alone is bad juju.”

Waya grumbled, having finished scrubbing the last of his clothes, “You think we can swindle Hon into flash-drying these?”

“No,” Isumi’s shoulders sagged, “Shindou, we’ll meet you out by the boats.”

He waved, and headed back out the front door, his feet making little tapping sounds on the steps and crunches on the dirt pathway.  Those two were acting as married as ever, he thought, so really locking them in a closet was forgivable.

As far as Hikaru knew, all departures from Ikioi were by dragon back or by boat.  Hikaru had done both ways, but he definitely preferred the boats. 

They were small, light brownish grey things that were tied to the sole dock, and all of them were community property of the village itself.  According to an old legend, the boats were apparently enchanted somehow, and always arrived whenever a villager either needed one or needed one to go back.

The enchantment was maintained by the Dockmaster Kawai, a fairly energetic rough man who lived in a hut next to the dock, and he spent a lot of his time either yelling at Hikaru for being a ruffian or congratulating him on being a ‘really great swell kid’.

The boats themselves were almost a comforting sight, Hikaru thought, gleefully stowing away his packs and humming.  The sky was a hazy blue, with wispy clouds, and the temperature was just a touch warm with no breeze, and it was putting him in a great mood.   The dock even smelled great.

Waya scrunched his nose, “It smells like salted fish.”

“Shun the nonbeliever,” Hikaru mumbled under his breath.

“Whatever, you’re jealous of my nose.  Pack up my junk?” The umeshichi tossed the large satchel from his shoulder to Hikaru, who caught it with an ‘ompfth.’  It was heavier than it looked, he thought spitefully.

The bag stashed under the seats, Hikaru looked up, “We ready to head out?”

“Yeah, Isumi’s just going to find Le Ping and drag him away from Chao Shi.  Apparently Le Ping is crying,” Waya snorted, stepping gingerly off the dock and into the boat, careful not to rock it.  Hikaru’s weight helped steady the boat, so Waya’s added bulk didn’t displace too much.

“Isn’t it good he has a friend?” Hikaru scooted to the side to let Waya wedge himself next to him on the creaky wooden seat, “I have a lot of good memories with my childhood friend, Akari.  It’s good, you know?  She taught me a bunch of stuff and sometimes I even got her to break the rules!  We used to play in the forest all the time and she’d always get really mad when I wandered in too far.”

That’s how I met Sai, he remembered, Wow, I really miss her.  Someday, I should go back for a bit.  I wonder if she ever did get together with Mitani?  And my parents… I do miss my mom, even if she was a bit overprotective.

The brunet perked up, “Isn’t Akari your ex-fiancée?”

“She was my friend first,” Hikaru argued, but his attention was caught by the sight of Isumi hauling Le Ping back in his arms, the dragon swishing his tail like an excitable puppy, “I think it’s almost time to set sail.”

“Yeah,” Waya grinned, leaning back against the side of the boat.

With the rest of its passengers onboard, the boat decided it was going to leave port.  With bubbles trailing behind the four of them, Hikaru caught his last sight of Ikioi.  The marble village with its blue roofs and the delicate cobblestones trailed behind them like a dream.  He could see the bright red of Ko’s hair and the shining gold of Hon’s scales as they waved from their spot on the beach.

Hikaru swallowed, “I feel kind of sick.  Not seasick, but...”

“Homesick,” Isumi supplied, placing a gentle hand on Hikaru’s forearm, “It’s only natural.  This isn’t a parting that will last forever; it just means ‘see you later’.  Ikioi recognizes you now, so you can come back.  That’s how the magick works.  If you find it once, you can always find it again.”

“The opposite works as well.  If it doesn’t like you, or doesn’t recognize you, you will never find it.  Ryûame were the only creatures to be accepted by the magick before they had set foot there.  It’s a very ancient spell,” Sai added, settling down into a sitting position next to Hikaru, “The Ryûame chose this place because it called to the magick within them.  Your magick answered in kind to this place.”

I get it, Hikaru put on a smile.

The rest of the afternoon was spent on the lake, bobbing along the waves using the power of magick alone. 

The sea legs affected Le Ping the worst.  By sunset, the beast demanded to be carried instead of bothering to fly or walk.  Isumi was weak enough to grant that, but his arms didn’t survive with the extra ton of weight.  Unlike other dragons, earth dragons were not made for flying.  Not to say they couldn’t fly, but really their flights were more like very long, very high jumps.  This was due to one main fact: earth dragons were very, very heavy.

Hikaru did not like Le Ping duty.  Especially since Waya and Isumi decided this meant they could sneak off for whatever they felt was necessary to hide from Hikaru.  The jerks didn’t even tell him what they were getting up to before a dragon was left in his lap and they were gone.

He groaned and put Le Ping on his feet, “I’m setting up camp.  We should be in the Shinimikami by tomorrow if we walk fast.  We need rest.  My feet need rest.  My arms need rest.”

“I need rest,” the dragon whined through his snout.

“You haven’t even walked all day, you don’t need rest,” Hikaru turned to sheer laziness and used magick to unpack the tent.  He wasn’t coordinated enough to do the setting up of it with magick alone, but opening up flaps and dumping things upside down was easy enough.

Le Ping sniffed, “Why does Isumi like Waya more than me?”

“What…?” Hikaru paused, tent only half unfolded.  The dragon didn’t repeat himself, so it was left up to him to translate it, “Waya is Isumi’s friend, of course Isumi likes him.  But I don’t think Isumi is playing favorites if that’s what you’re getting at.”

“No!  Isumi keeps feeling happy and it’s not because of me.  It’s the monkey that he likes and I’m the burden,” the dragon huffed, a puff of black smoke coming out of his snout.  If Le Ping had a human body, Hikaru imagined he’d be crossing his arms and stamping his foot and pouting.

Hikaru rubbed the back of his neck, noting he probably needed a haircut as he counted to ten.  Do not yell, do not yell, he reminded himself, on the verge of throwing his own temper tantrum, “Well, you’re a burden when you make us all carry you.  If you walk tomorrow, I think Isumi’ll be impressed.  Don’t just sulk about him not thinking about you as much as you want, you should do something about it.”

“He’s supposed to think of me all the time,” Le Ping curled up, his nail ending up next to his nostrils.

“Do you think of him all the time?” Hikaru reasoned, “I bet you don’t.”

This revelation seemed to absolutely terrify Le Ping, and the teenager panicked right beside the now sobbing dragon.  The first time he was left on dragon-sitting duty and he’d made Le Ping cry harder than Hikaru had ever seen someone cry before.

And then, Le Ping looked almost like he was grinning, “You thought I was really upset, didn’t you?”

Hikaru narrowed his eyes, oh, the brat had reinvented the meaning of crocodile tears, only they were dragon tears.

“Isumi has to remember me soon enough!  He’ll never understand Waya like he can understand me!  I’m better than that umeshichi anyway,” Le Ping sneered, dragging his claws through the dirt, “You’re right, I have to do something about it.  Our bond is all messed up because of him.”

To Hikaru, it sounded scarily like a threat.

Waya and Isumi returned soon after that, with sticks and firewood (Hikaru reluctantly forgave them for leaving him with babysitting duty) but he couldn’t entirely forget the words Le Ping pretended to have never said.  Isumi and Waya didn’t seem to understand why he didn’t want to take his eyes off the hatchling dragon for too long or why he couldn’t seem to find any peace.  Why had that sounded like a threat?  It wasn’t openly a threat.  What could a tiny dragon even do?  The thoughts spun around and around in his head, and he couldn’t sleep for how he kept mulling over it.

Hikaru turned over in his makeshift bed and thought about it as open-mindedly as he could manage.  He had worked to make sure Le Ping hadn’t destroyed his friends’ relationship, had even locked them in a closet, but he hadn’t thought of Le Ping at all.  What if he had encouraged something that messed up Isumi’s bond?  Isumi had wanted a dragon since ever, from what Hikaru knew of his past.  Dragon bonds could destroy a ryûame if they were broken.  They were serious news.  Soul-bonded, Hon had said once, like two parts of one whole except not quite.

He’d thought it was all stupid and that everyone was individual, but it was clear that Le Ping disagreed.  Hikaru and Le Ping were in the same boat, really, since neither of them knew what a bond should be like.  Le Ping was too young to understand, and Hikaru was an outsider.  Could he say with certainty that he was right and that he had picked the correct path?  The correct action?

Isumi and Waya’s actions weren’t entirely his fault.  They made their own decisions, he reminded himself.  He couldn’t blame himself for everything.  It was a bad habit.

The rest of the night consisted of dreamless sleep.

The Shinimikami had golden hills speckled with the occasional landmark and deadly trap (Hikaru had almost lost his foot to what Waya had called a “Konchukuma trap, because those buggers are damn annoying”). The air tasted stale with death, and ghosts lingered in almost every outcropping of crag or trees.  The wheat tickled Hikaru’s calves and the sun baked his skin dark.

Isumi had no such luck.  His skin was burning a painful looking red, and even Le Ping spreading out his wings as a ‘hat’ for him didn’t entirely protect him from the sun.  Waya in contrast was freckling.  Everyone was sweating.  Dragons don’t exactly sweat, but Le Ping had already shed his first ‘skin’ of scales which was essentially the same thing.

Hikaru put his hand over his eyes and peered at the first sign on civilization he’d seen since entering the plains of death.

The outpost looked mostly abandoned, which apparently meant it was a bustling city center in monster terms.  Isumi and Waya had yet to explain how that made sense, since they both shook their heads and mouthed ‘human’ at him behind his back when they thought he wasn’t looking.

“So far, I’m not exactly shaking in my sandals at the sight.  What’s so scary about this place?” Hikaru grumbled.

“It’s your first taste of true monster society,” Isumi adjusted Le Ping’s wing so it covered his face more, “I promise you will not find it acceptable.”

“Human morals aren’t monster morals.”

His shoulders slumped, “So I’ve repeatedly been informed.”

“You can never be too prepared.  Le Ping, before we can stop there for the night, you must decide on an appropriate human form, please.  Dragons are not so protected outside of Ikioi.  I don’t want you to get hurt,” Isumi took Le Ping and set him down on the ground.

“Human body choosing, fun,” Le Ping seemed about as excited about this as Hikaru did getting yet another warning that he was just a confused human in a world full of monsters.

Waya clapped, “Chop chop!  The sooner you pick, the faster Isumi can stop turning into a human lobster.  I don’t have nearly enough butter to deal with that.”

“I don’t appreciate those assumptions,” The ryûame crossed his arms, giving the brunet his best glare.

“You don’t appreciate any of my jokes,” Waya laughed, slinging his arm around Isumi’s shoulder, “Your lack of humor amuses me though.”

“You implied you were going to eat me.”

“I’m an Umeshichi.  It’s what I do, eat people.”

“Not with butter, though,” Hikaru crinkled his nose at the thought of that much dairy all in one place, let alone Waya attempting to consume the quantity required.  And then the flashbacks of Waya actually eating a person… those things were better left off forgotten.

Isumi shook his head, “Why do I put up with your ridiculousness?”

“Because we’re friends?” Waya slung his arm around Isumi’s shoulder and grinned.

“I don’t have to tolerate such things from Shindou,” the ryuame pointed out.

Le Ping had been forgotten at some point in this discussion, so when Isumi gasped and pointed a shaky finger at where he’d last been, everyone was a bit confused.  He looked between Waya and Isumi, and noticing their shell-shocked expressions, Hikaru turned his eyes to follow Isumi’s finger.  He choked on his spit when he saw it.

A miniature Waya stood in his place.

“What?” The mini-Waya demanded, “You said to pick a human form!”

The dragon was gone and replaced with the young, childish body of a brunet, with familiar slanted sepia colored eyes and the exact replica of a familiar curve of mouth, even the tribal tattoo Waya wore underneath his usual attire on his right upper arm.  The body was lanky but muscled and very much a clear, obvious copy of Waya himself that even the umeshichi’s children wouldn’t look as similar.

“Le Ping?!” They all chorused in unison, disbelief displayed on all their faces.

Hikaru recovered first, “Why would you want to look like Waya?”

Le Ping stuck out his tongue.  It was getting creepy how perfectly alike to Waya he looked, despite his body clearly being only six or seven years old.  Isumi looked like he found it hilarious, hiding his helpless laughter behind his sleeve.  Waya was still staring.

“You’re trying to become my rival,” Waya accused, eyes flashing with anger.

Isumi pivoted, suddenly not amused at all, “He’s trying to be what?”

Hikaru looked between the look-alikes and the now furious ryûame.  Well, shit.

“He can’t stand that we’re friends—more than friends!  If he can’t have you all to himself, it’s not good enough for him.  Le Ping’s trying to be me because he doesn’t know how to share!” The umeshichi shook his head as if he couldn’t believe what he was saying.

“I’m not supposed to share!” Le Ping growled, balling up his little hands.

“You’re going to have to!  Isumi’s a person, not your property!  I knew you were jealous but I thought you’d grow out of it!  Our friendship is just as valid as your bond and you have no choice but to get used to it!” Waya hissed back, the exactly same expression on both of their identical faces.

“You’re invading!”

“No…” Isumi interrupted quietly, twisted his hands together, “Le Ping, you shouldn’t entertain those thoughts.  I won’t interfere with your friendships, please don’t interfere with mine.  Be mature about this please.”

Le Ping actually started crying, and Hikaru had this drilled in instinct to comfort, because Waya didn’t cry easy, but this wasn’t Waya.  It was just his face, Waya’s face that Le Ping had copied down to perfect detail.

Isumi reached out with his hand to bring Le Ping into a hug, or something, but the dragon screamed at the top of his lungs and bolted.

The tall wheat fields swallowed him whole, and rustling all around gave no indication of where he was running.  The ryuame made a keening wail in the back of his throat, and Hikaru remembered Ko’s words about shared emotions, and a weight settled in his stomach.

Waya grabbed Isumi before he ran after, blinded by his own emotions and Le Ping’s, and Hikaru paused only to say, “I’ll bring him back,” before taking off into the golden hills to find their missing dragon.

No one was supposed to go the plains alone, not even an immortal.  One baby dragon stood no chance by himself.

“I’ll search as well, Hikaru.  We will find him,” Sai materialized for a brief moment, and Hikaru nodded gratefully, running too fast to really bother to reply.

It’s getting late, it’s almost sunset.  I don’t want to be out here alone after dark.  That sounds like a death sentence.

Hikaru swore he heard a rustling in the direction straight ahead of him, meaning Le Ping was headed to ‘civilization’.  Not good, not good, not good, he chanted in his mind.  His legs protested the use and he could do no more than pour magick into them to ease the strain.

He spotted a child’s footprint in the mud beneath his feet and he knew he was following the right trail, that he was almost caught up.

“Le Ping!  Le Ping!” Hikaru called, skidding to a stop so he could listen for rustling.

Oh, lots of rustling, really loud rustling, not good.

Hikaru tentatively approached the rustling, and brushed aside a tall curtain of wheat to see Le Ping caught in a twisted metal trap that looked like it would be for bears or something equally large.  The clamp was tight around his right leg, which had transformed back into his dragon form to avoid being sliced off altogether.  The scales were all that kept him from losing a leg, and Hikaru was suddenly very grateful for not having been caught in one himself.

Le Ping sobbed into his arm, thrashing his leg to try and get it free.

“Did you find—oh, no, poor baby,” Sai wiped at his eye, “You can get him out of it, can’t you?”

I have to try, Hikaru kneeled, looking closer at the metal contraption.

“G-go away, I hate you,” Le Ping whined, wiggling away from him.

Hikaru punched him.  His patience had worn out, right then, right there.  Standing back up, he yelled, “How stupid are you?!  I’m trying to help!  You’re not just hurting yourself; you’re hurting my friend too!  Now either you stop moving and let me take that thing off your leg and you can go back with me to Isumi or you can stay here until whoever set this trap comes to find their dinner!”

“NO!  You HATE me, just like him!  You think I never should’ve hatched just like Isumi and his monkey do!” Le Ping screeched, hissing fire out of his mouth and thrashing wildly, making it impossible for Hikaru to get close.  Mud splattered everywhere, and Hikaru could hear a nearby river or stream.  It hadn’t been this muddy back where he’d left Isumi and Waya.

Le Ping’s words hurt, but not as much as the sudden blow to Hikaru’s back.

His attacker had gone straight for his spine, he thought, spinning around and pulling his sword out.  The gold colored metal shone in the waning sunlight and illuminated his enemy.  He’d never even seen something like him—it—perhaps even she?  Taller than him by two heads and with twice the bulk, the towering beast had tusks and a long, beak-like nose and mouth.  Beady black eyes stared out from underneath heavy brown eyebrows, and the thing roared at him.

“What the fuck is that,” Hikaru said without thinking, then thought aloud, “Don’t get freaked out because it looks freaky, I can do this.”

It roared again, this time with its mouth spewing flying spittle right into Hikaru’s face,

“Okay, so I’m a little freaked out it looks creepy,” Hikaru admitted, taking a step back.

Grunting through its thick lips, it said something like, “Ge’ ‘ay fro’ me sups or I skeen ye’!”

“Um, no,” He squeaked, almost taking another step back and stepping on Le Ping, who was completely dead stiff with terror, “I can’t let you eat my—my friend, I really can’t, it’s just too bad but you’ll have to catch some other dinner!”

“NAAAAAYYYYY!!” It boomed, spraying saliva.  “I keel ye’!”

And, it charged.  Here we go, Hikaru thought, bracing himself for impact and concentrating his magick into keeping him rooted on his feet.  He couldn’t dodge or Le Ping would get trampled, and he couldn’t meet the charge without getting flung back, no matter how much magick juice he poured into the hit.

The collision was worse than being hit head-on by a speeding wagon or angry ghost magick, and was up there with being accidentally walloped by Hon’s wayward tail.  It took everything he had to keep standing in place, and he saw spots in his eyes.  Only his magick shielding and his attachment to the muddy soil kept him from flying back, and even with both he had slid back until his Achilles’s heels touched Le Ping’s shivering body.

Remind me that was a stupid idea, Hikaru thought.

“No time, it’s looking to charge again!” Sai would’ve been tugging on the sleeves of Hikaru’s yukata if he’d had the ability to do so.  He didn’t have time to watch ghost hands pass through his shoulder, not when Sai was very much right, and the beast was backing up for another go.

Hikaru groaned, stiff and sore muscles aching as he withdrew his sword and figured, if he was gonna take another hit, he might as well attempt to use the charge against the monster with the side of his blade.  Impaling itself wouldn’t be too great.

Slobber dribbled down its tusks as it burst forward with more speed.  He didn’t waste his movements; once it was close enough he could stab it with his blade through the heart (as long as it heart was about where a human heart would be), Hikaru smoothly twisted his arms and his body forward in the elegant fashion Sai liked so much and reinforced his stance for impact.

The beast didn’t stand a chance, not with the blade sticking out of its back.

“Yuh go’ me…?” It croaked, blood joining the saliva on its tusks, “…urrggh ‘less ye.”

What? Hikaru pulled his blade out and watched the monster fall to its knees, visibly dying.  Had it just said ‘bless you’?  But, he had just killed it, on purpose.  Why…?

Sai gasped, taking a step back and covering his mouth with his billowing sleeve, “How horrible… She was cursed.”

The brown fur and the tusks melted off its—her flesh, and the beefy muscles shrunk.  Her energy, which Hikaru hadn’t been really looking at before, the battle had been too sudden for him to really think, turned from an ugly dark yellow to a light pink.  A doll-like face was revealed as soon as everything had leaked off around her in a puddle of sick.  A girl, Hikaru realized.

A young, cute girl.  Just like Akari.  Her soul, a twinkling pink orb, rose from her body and spiraled off into the sky, trailing sparkles of her energy behind her.  She lit up the entire sky so bright that he couldn’t see a single star.

He dropped his sword, not caring that it landed inches deep in mud.  Hikaru had just killed a young girl, a young girl who’d told him “bless you” for killing her.  He hadn’t even tried to save her—!

“Hikaru!  Hikaru, please, get ahold of yourself.  It was a curse and you saved her!  You did save her!  A curse like that is unbreakable except by the demon that placed it.  She must have displeased one of her masters and they stripped her of her humanity permanently.”

“That’s so wrong,” Hikaru shook his head, holding his arm to eyes to hide how his eyes burned, “What, I can watch Waya eat people but I can’t kill a girl who charged me like a freaking behemoth and threatened to eat Le Ping?!”

Sai murmured, “It’s okay to be upset.  You were protecting your friends and yourself, that was what matters.  She may have been cursed, but it was her decision to turn her back on herself as well.  She had free will, and she chose to charge just like you chose to defend yourself.”

“Fuck, I know!  But I can’t understand it at all!” Hikaru sagged, hearing Le Ping begin to struggle again behind him.

“…you protected me,” Le Ping stated, pulling at his leg more, back in his complete dragon form.

“Huh?” Hikaru blinked away the fuzzy eyes and reminded himself where he was and with who.  He couldn’t break down in front of Le Ping.  He needed to get back to Waya and Isumi, where he could hopefully curl up and cry in uninterrupted peace about the girl, who looked like she had been his age, 16 at most.  Le Ping wouldn’t understand, not at all.

“You protected me,” Le Ping repeated, twisting his body into a contortionist pose that had to hurt and blowing flames so hot they were blue at the trap his leg was still in.  Once the metal was glowing a white-red, he struggled more and tried to yank his leg free.  It wasn’t budging just yet.  Irritated, Le Ping snapped his copper-colored eyes up at Hikaru’s, “Why?  You treat me like an unnecessary extra too, you think I’m completely wrong!  Why’d you protect me?  I don’t want to be a burden anymore, so let me protect myself!  You’re upset because you killed the girl, right?!  So don’t get in the way anymore!  I can save myself!  I’m not weak!  I don’t want your help!”

Hikaru shook his head and sat down, emotion exhaustion about to overtake him, “I’m upset that I had to kill a girl that was under a curse, and I’m upset that I even have to be here right now.”

Le Ping blew another steady stream of flames at his foot and wriggled more, finally escaping the trap.  The heat at cauterized the wounds on his leg and really, Hikaru thought, he’d have come out better if he’d just accepted help.  But Hikaru sort of understood.

“Then leave!” Le Ping hissed, noticing Hikaru’s watchful eyes.

“Nope, not gonna.”

“I ruined everything!  Just go!”

“No.  I’m holding to what I told that girl.  You’re my friend, and I’m not leaving you,” Hikaru shook his head, stubborn streak kicking in, “I admit I don’t always like you, but we are friends.  It’s too complicated for you to understand but that means I can’t leave you out in the middle of the plains of death with an injured leg to die.”

Le Ping blew smoke out his nose, “I’m tougher than you, you pansy!  Kill one girl and you break down in tears.”

“Do you want me to punch you?” Hikaru raised his fist in a mock-threatening manner.

“Maybe!  That’s less confusing than all your stupid friendship bullshit!” the earth dragon slapped his tail on the ground in helpless frustration.

“Well too bad, now I’m definitely not gonna,” the kurosumomo heir snubbed his nose a little, grinned as it made smoke puff out of Le Ping’s ear-holes.

“What’s the point?  Isumi’ll never want anything to do with me now!”

“Because,” Hikaru started, “You’re a greedy self-conscious mess and I can’t have it on my conscious if someone doesn’t straighten you out a bit.”

“Leave it,” Le Ping hissed.

“This whole mess started because you were too scared to be yourself if it meant possibly losing Isumi.  You aren’t Waya, and he’s not gonna replace you!  You aren’t gonna replace him either.  Isumi likes Waya for what he’s got in here,” He pointed at his chest, grinning shakily, “It’s your soul that really matters, and Isumi already promised to share his with yours forever.”

That shut the dragon up.

The sun finished setting, disappearing past a gold-hilled horizon, and Hikaru was scared of never finding his way back, until he realized he literally had a north-star that could point him right to Isumi with no problems.  A dragon and ryûame pair always knew where the other was located.

Tentatively, Le Ping asked, “I have to apologize, don’t I?”

“Yeah,” Hikaru shrugged, “That’s a human thing.”

“I’m a dragon.”

The two-tone haired teen raised a lone eyebrow, “I dunno, I think oversized mutt maybe fits better—”

“Call me a mutt again, I dare you!” Le Ping transformed back into his mini-Waya form and crossed his arms.  The expression was just so Waya that Hikaru couldn’t help but laugh.

“Let’s head back?” Hikaru mentioned, picking himself out of the mud.  He wiped off his hakama as best as he could manage and pulled his sword out and shook it.  He flung out wet splatters in all directions, grimacing when he realized he’d have to clean it and then sharpen it to undo the damage from the stabbing and the muck.

Le Ping reluctantly grabbed Hikaru’s hand in his tiny one, “Isumi’s worried sick.  Why are you so slow?”

“I’m not the slow one!”

“You’re awful, making us talk about emotions and letting Isumi suffer.”

“You little—!”

Chapter Text

The air was stagnant in the morning, not even a breeze to blow away the heavy feelings that had settled down overnight.  Sweat stuck clothes only accentuated the heat of the day, and it was only the beginning of summer.  The town, which had seemed close by yesterday, lingered out of reach.  Even Sai, who should’ve been completely unaffected by the weather, carried a parasol decorated with a simple maple leaf and bamboo pattern.

Where did you get that? Hikaru grouched, pulling his yukata away from his skin in hopes to cool off.  Walking today just seemed impossible, but Isumi was demanding that they get out of the open as soon as physically possible in case another attack caught them off guard, and that meant getting into town.  And that required trekking through the sludge and fields of wheat in the blistering, sweltering, stinking heat.  It had not been nearly this hot yesterday.

“I’m a ghost, I don’t follow your rules.  Technically, I’m only a soul.  I could be entirely naked if I was so shameless!” Sai frowned, “That might actually be cooler than a parasol, but I wouldn’t dare.”

If the rules don’t apply, then why do you need the parasol in the first place?!

The ghost twirled the umbrella around his head whimsically, almost singing, “Couldn’t you tell?  This is weather magick.  Someone is sending out heat into the air on purpose.  It’s a common trick that we used to heat baths in my time, because even servants without any proper magickal training could do it with a little teaching.  Although, on this scale, I haven’t seen the likes of this spell before.  It requires a lot of magick to change the weather.”

You never taught me to do this easy trick, Hikaru huffed, Can’t it go backwards and you can cool things down?

“You certainly could try, Hikaru,” Sai frowned.

Huh, what is it? Hikaru noticed.  Irritation didn’t look good on the phantom.  For someone so easily stunning, it really pinched up his face.

Sai glanced over, read the worry on his student’s face, and faked a smile, “I’m fine.  I was just thinking, if someone is casting such a powerful spell, there must be a reason.  How much further is it to the town?”

Oh, I dunno, he thought, before turning to Isumi, who was the most likely one to have been keeping track of that sort of thing and asked, “Hey, how long is it until we get there?”

Isumi wiped the sweat from his mouth, “Not much further.  Another 10 to 15 minutes, I’d say.  Not longer than that.”

“Cool, thanks,” Hikaru grinned.  He could manage 10-15 more minutes just fine, weird magick heat spell or not.  It just felt like a heat wave, nothing extreme enough to actually cause him to be worried about fainting.  And all his other friends were okay.  Isumi had put on a frankly ridiculous looking hat and Waya and Le Ping had started a weird game of hide and seek where finding a mirror also counted as finding the other person.  Seeing as how Isumi had the only mirror on his person, they spent a lot of time finding reflective objects, which Le Ping was really good at, or trying to steal the mirror out of Isumi’s backpack.  So far, Le Ping was winning.

Sai was twirling his parasol again, and Hikaru felt a surge of jealousy.  The ghost didn’t even need it, if the heat wasn’t even coming from the sun!  He’d been tricked!

“I can see the trail that enters the main gates of the town!  We’re really close by!” Waya called from ahead.  Le Ping couldn’t even be seen above the tops of the wheat, especially in his dragon form, which took the heat much better and was his preferred form at the present.  No sunburns.

“Finally,” Hikaru sighed.

Isumi stretched out his arms, “They make me feel old, and I’m barely an adult.”

“Imagine how I feel,” the blonde and raven haired teenager whined, trudging along the path.  It seemed like the closer they got, the more his feet dragged and the heavier each step was.

Isumi grunted, taking a large step, “Do you feel that?”

It didn’t take long before Hikaru knew exactly what Isumi meant.  His feet were literally stuck to the ground, as if he’d stepped in a bunch of melted caramel and he couldn’t move even after it recrystallized.  The brown mud at his feet was mocking him, each granule of sand laughing at how tired he was.  Yawning, Hikaru fought to keep his eyes open.

“Sleep magick,” Sai yawned, rubbing his eyes, “Magickal protection around the town.”

How come Waya and Le Ping aren’t tired…? Hikaru stumbled, breathing heavy.

“It’s… magick designed for humans… I was originally a human soul, and you are still currently human, Hikaru…  As for Isumi, it’s likely that the human side of the Ryuame is… large enough for him to be affected by the spell…?” Just as he finished speaking, the magick got the better of him.  With a large yawn, Sai stopped walking beside him and curled up in the mud instead, using his large sleeves as a pillow.

Hikaru wanted to do the same, but instead he thought, Sai!  Wake up, Sai!  To his consternation, Hikaru discovered that he couldn’t change the volume of his thoughts, and that even attempting to scream was at the same volume, so he gave up trying to wake up his ghostly mentor.

“Come on, Shindou, you can’t fall asleep just yet,” Isumi shook his shoulder, not quite as sluggish as Hikaru was.  They both yawned in unison, and then Hikaru’s eyes started to drift closed.

“You guys, what’s wrong?” Waya voice sounded like it was coming closer.  Maybe he’d doubled back…?

Who cared, all he wanted was to sleep—

Hikaru’s head reeled from the sudden pain, his eyes flinging open just before he fell over into the mud.  Adrenaline woke up his system as he looked around for his assailant.  Waya’s worried face greeted him, saying something that the ringing in his ears didn’t let him catch.

The umeshichi repeated, “Shindou!  Wake up!  The spell will wear off when we reach town, so stay awake!”

“It’s very close, and the spell will get stronger the closer we get.  It’s a good trick,” Isumi covered his yawn with his sleeve, “All the humans or partial humans will get tired, and if they fall asleep, there’s enough human in them that they’ll sell for a good price.”

Hikaru held his head in his hands, “What…?  What do you, they’ll sell…?”

“The slave market, Shindou,” Waya reminded him with a grim look, “I know you’re tired but you can’t be that tired.”

“You have no idea,” he grimaced, wiping his mouth.  He was sweating, he felt awful, and he couldn’t stay awake long enough to move his feet, and Sai was sleeping a few meters back!  He had no idea how to wake up his ghost or to keep himself awake.  Maybe there was a counter spell?  Magick caffeine, or something?

Le Ping yawned, a spark of flame escaping his mouth, “I feel sleepy too.  Stay awake, Isumi!”

“I’m doing my best,” Isumi smiled, moving to lean heavily on Waya, who was the only person truly awake out of all of them.

Umeshichi and not a drop of human blood, Hikaru thought.  Le Ping was all dragon, but it must be his soul bond with Isumi that made him feel drowsy?  And then himself.  Despite being an heir to the kurosumomo, he was just technically a human with a lot of weird magick until he got the title.  And even then, it wasn’t that he wasn’t human, judging by Sai’s current state.

The four of them trudged along, and Hikaru felt his eyelid droop more and more, until at one point he was walking with his eyes closed.  He could just try to sleepwalk into town, then!  Ahhh, sleep… his eyes felt like they were glued shut.  Why open them?  Why remain invested in consciousness when all it took was just a second and then he would be entirely, utterly, asleep…?

He kept walking, trudging, until he didn’t even notice the traction underneath his feet.  The sleepiness was getting a lot less difficult to fight, actually.  He felt himself regaining some energy, some vitality.

I think we’re almost there, I can feel the spell… Hikaru looked around, unable to see anything clearly.  Everything was dark, like it was nighttime!  And glowing lights were everywhere around him, like auras.  Was this a dream?  He looked behind him and he could see the lights moving.  A ways back, in the distance, there was a glowing purple aura, very bright, almost blinding to look at.  Closer to him, there was a glowing deep green aura that looked like moss, with brown undertones, and a faint red aura, with shades of orange flickering underneath.  Along side it was a vibrant deep blue aura, like an ocean.  Between all three was a very faint orange aura, that had a rope connecting it… to Hikaru?  He looked down at his hands, glowing a fierce, bright orange.

Well shit, he thought, glancing around.  There was a roaring sound in his ears and he knew, simply, that he was not in his body.  His body was the orange aura that he was connected to.  And he was… a soul outside of his body?  Sai had better explain this to him later!  How could he get back?  He sort of needed to be in his body!  Very important, Hikaru thought.

He started by grabbing the rope connecting him to his body.  He figured… oh shit, now his body was moving!  Someone was probably carrying him.  Judging from the auras, it was… Le Ping?  They must’ve put him on Le Ping’s back somehow.  The tiny dragon could handle the weight, Hikaru knew, despite being tiny, but he’d rather get back into himself and walk the rest of the way to spare everyone the hassle.  How had he even managed to disconnect himself in the first place?

It didn’t matter as long as he figured out how to get back.

He tried to use the rope to guide himself back, but it elongated and contracted randomly, without regards to where he was trying to go.  It seemed if he got closer, it got longer, and if he tried to go farther away, it got shorter, but even that pattern wasn’t perfect.  It got shorter while he got closer too.

The rope jerked on him, pulling him closer to his original body, and Hikaru obediently followed the group of auras that belonged to his friends in hopes of catching up.

The further he walked, sometimes the rope would abruptly shorten, and he’d get jerked back towards his body again.  It never seemed to get longer randomly, so Hikaru knew there had to be a pattern.  He just couldn’t figure it out for the life of him.  Maybe it had to do with time?  Yeah, that’s it!  Time!  The rope’s length could be a representation of how long he had left outside of his body?  If he was close to his body, he had lots of time, and the further away he got, the less time he had?  And the rope would shorten the longer he was outside his body, regardless of where he was.

Hikaru got the feeling that if the rope were to get cut, he would die.

The second they got close enough to town for auras to really appear in his vision, Hikaru felt the rope shorten quickly, and he was literally flung back towards himself.

Waking up felt like getting punched in the gut.  Hikaru blinked his actual eyes, now feeling horribly tangled up inside.  He felt like he’d been stretched out and then shoved into something one size too small.  The feeling was fading, though, and he flexed his fingers to speed up the process.

“You awake, princess?” Waya grumbled, looking down at him.

“That was the weirdest thing… why does my face hurt?” Hikaru felt his cheek, which was swelling up.  A sharp prickly pain responded to his touch.  There didn’t seem to be any blood around his nose or mouth, so he assumed he’d been slapped.  Hard.  Again.

Isumi tried his best to look innocent, “You passed out and suddenly nothing could wake you up anymore.  We decided to bring you to the town in hopes of getting some consciousness back into you.  And it worked, because now we’re all awake.”

“I didn’t mean to, really,” Hikaru tried to explain, “I just walked right out of my body.  Quite literally, too, because I was definitely not in my body anymore, I was somewhere where all I could see was your auras.”

Le Ping shrugged him off his back, and shook himself out.  He was in human form again, and he was looking a bit red in the cheeks.  Hikaru grinned at him, “Thanks.”

“Don’t be stupid, stupid!”

“Don’t call me stupid, twerp!”

“I’m not a twerp!”

“Both of you, stop making a scene!” Isumi scolded, folding his arms and looking down at them with his sternest face.  It was a good stern face.  It reminded Hikaru of before they were friends, when he still doubted Isumi’s methods.  Puppy-dog Waya had not been one of his favorite experiences.

So, Hikaru thought, looking around.  This was a monster town.  There was no one on the streets but them, and all the doors were shut firmly.  The buildings looked like typical Japanese huts, but they looked like they were built ages ago, and most were rotting in more places than one.  In fact, the building style looked antique.  Right about now is where Hikaru wanted Sai’s helpful commentary, but there was nothing but silence.  Hikaru bet that Sai was still snoring in the fields outside.

“So, monster trivia for those who don’t know,” Waya snorted, crossing his arms, “No one actually lives in these houses.  This isn’t a big city, and it’s pretty close inland to human territory.  In the Shinimikami, monsters are a bit more sheltered the further inland you go, but on the outer lands they get a bit rugged.  The people who live in this town probably go underground during the day and come out at night to hunt, and they keep protection spells rigged to keep out unwanted visitors.”

The umeshichi looked around, and continued, “The buildings probably belonged to humans 10 years ago or so, which is why they’re even here in the first place.  This was likely once one of those vanishing towns.”

A vanishing town.  Hikaru’s home village, Ojikeshi, had called them ghost towns.  He had heard nightmares about them.  All sorts of things happened, but the end result was always the same.  Overnight, everyone and everything was gone and ravaged, and the families of the lost people were highly discouraged to ever try and find them.  No one ever came back if they went looking.  Ojikeshi had been a nice, big village surrounded by poppy fields and lush forest, and they’d been far away from the border of the Shinimikami, so there had never been any issue of monsters.  Everyone knew monsters lived in the mountains still and were spotted here and there in the forest, but they weren’t very powerful and often got caught and killed by the warriors of the village.  There had been no fear of becoming a ghost town.  But occasionally stragglers came in telling tales and horror stories that everyone was dead and the buildings were all that was left of a once bustling city center or trading port.

No one ever came back when they went looking.  Now he could completely understand why.

“How do we get underground?” Hikaru asked, voice gone quiet.  It was like he was staring at the face of his childhood fears.  All he needed to see next was a Genten no Bakemono, and he’d be stuck in one of his mother’s bedtime stories meant to keep him from doing stupid or dangerous things.

Waya led the rest of them forward, his nose sniffing and his eyes darting back and forth, “I’m searching for a passage now, but it’s probably magickally guarded.  My guess is that there’s a riddle or password known only by the villagers, and that’s how they guard it.”

“I’m kind of good at riddles,” he offered, following close behind.  He wanted to get out of the heat and the sun if he could.  He tanned more than he burned, but he felt like his skin was reddening as they spoke.  Even being inside one of the rotting houses sounded more appealing than staying outside.

Waya eventually found the house he wanted, and the four of them shuffled inside.  Hikaru let out a sigh of relief as the shade lessened the sweltering heat, although not by enough to be totally comfortable.  The inside of the house was worse than the outside of it, in terms of rotting.  It smelled of decayed things and something dead, dust and grime coating the walls.  The smell, accentuated by the heat, left all of them covering their noses, especially Le Ping, who hadn’t ever smelt anything so bad before.

“What died in here?” the young dragon whined, his voice nasally since his nose was plugged.

Isumi gave him a look, “The owners of this house, evidently.”

“Ew,” Le Ping repeated, every time the passage way became too narrow for him to walk next to Isumi without touching the walls, which had many creepy crawlies skittering across them, “Ew!  Ew!  EW!  EEEWWW!”

“Oh shut up,” Hikaru grouched.  Cockroaches were the least of his worries.

Waya came to a stop, and everyone else stopped behind him.  There was a trap door, inlaid into the floor, with a message written in blood.  The blood was flaking and brown, old, but the message seemed something that didn’t expire.

The umeshichi read aloud, “To come underneath / bring a fruit with skin of red / all the gems below… a haiku?”

Hikaru considered it.  Skin of red… what did that mean?  All the gems below… Was the fruit metaphorical?  Was it something that wasn’t really a fruit but was still something they had to find?

He’d never figure it out thinking in circles like that.  A fruit with skin of red.  Below the skin is gems.  Red fruits, red fruits… apples, mangos, pomegranates, cherries, some plums, raspberries, strawberries, nightshade berries… ugh, he didn’t even know that many.  What type of fruit had gems below?  If it was a metaphor, every type of fruit had seeds!  Strawberries were out because the seeds were on the outside, not below the skin.  Cherries were out because they only had one seed, in the very middle.  All the other choices seemed legitimate… maybe gems didn’t mean the seeds, though… and if he thought of it that way, it was definitely a pomegranate.

“Any thoughts, guys?” Waya prompted, looking confused as he did when he said the riddle at first.  Le Ping joined him in looking very confused.

“A—” Isumi and Hikaru both said at the same time.  Hikaru stopped and waved Isumi on.

“A feldspar, it’s a red gem, but it’s found near ore deposits.  The real thing of value is found below the feldspar,” The Ryuame answered, “I don’t know how to work in the fruit bit, but…”

Hikaru scratched the back of his head, “I was just gonna say a pomegranate.  I thought the gems were the seeds, because pomegranate seeds look like gems.”

“We’ll try both, I guess,” Waya bent down and said next to the trap door, “Feldspar!”

Nothing happened, which was really kind of a bummer, because Hikaru had been expecting something.  The brunette tried to open the door, but it didn’t budge.  There was no evidence of any magick, either.  The umeshichi tried pushing, pulling, kicking, but there was nothing.  Forcing it open did nothing, and the anti-climatic first attempt ended with Waya slumping against it, sighing.

"I could breathe fire on it," Le Ping suggested unhelpfully.

“No thanks, it'll just burn the house down around our ears!" Isumi was very quick to tell him, eyebrows furrowed in such a way to make it look as if he wasn't as worried as he was.

"So, pomegranate next or are we going to wait for something…?” Hikaru prompted.

Waya cracked his eyes open, mouth in a grim line, “We’ll try that next, I guess.  Give me a moment.”

The door stood out from the other planks of wood, and looked like it was made of nothing but wood itself, wood that had started rotting out years ago.  It shouldn’t have been draining to shove at, especially for Waya, who had lots of energy when he felt like expending it.

“It drains magick from whoever says the wrong password,” Isumi speculated, tracing his fingers on the wood gently, “And it doesn’t seem to be affected by physical force at all.  This is a good spell.  This town may be bigger than it looks from above.”

“Really?” Hikaru crouched down and knocked on the wood.  It looked and seemed completely normal, and even though he could tell it was hollow behind the wood, he didn’t feel that much magick from the wood.  Usually he could see spells or energy.  He could even see his own right now, a bright and cheery orange, waiting to be used.

Waya took a deep breath and looked up, “Okay, let’s try again!”

All three of them nodded, Le Ping especially vigorously.  He was probably just as eager as Hikaru to see his first monster town.  Hikaru just hoped that the both of them weren't disappointed.

“Pomegranate!” Waya said, his mouth almost touching the door.

This time, Hikaru could feel it.  A massive burst of something blinded them all, and Hikaru could feel chains snaking around his ankles, dragging him towards the source of the white.  As he tried to resist, the chains tightened around his ankles and his grip on the wood slipped.  His fingers scrabbled for purchase on the wood as he was pulled across the floor.  Isumi and Waya were gone, he couldn’t see them anywhere, even as his eyes adjusted to the blinding white of the place where the trap door had been.

Losing his grip on the floor, he was flung into the light.  Hikaru cried out, free falling through what looked like he was staring directly into the sun.  Eyes squished shut as tight as they would go, he fell.  And fell.  And fell even further, for what seemed like an eternity.

He felt the chains around his ankles loosen and release, as his feet were plopped unceremoniously on the ground.  A moment’s pause, and Hikaru blinked, looking around.

The place he had come to was like nothing he had ever seen before.  The walls of a giant cavern surrounded him, glowing in millions of different colors.  The light was dim, but it pulsed with magick.  Torches lined the walls, flames in strange hues of chartreuse and fuchsia and aquamarine.  The cave was made of a rock that looked like obsidian, like sharp glistening jewels.  Weird spiraling stalagmites with crystals on each face and points as sharp as a needle grew from the ground like watch towers.  Holes had been hollowed out in the cave walls and bright torches lined the twisting staircases up into the walls.  The cavern was narrow and long, and the ceiling had dangling lights that looked like stars. 

Stalls made of fabrics dyed every which color decorated the hallways, and the strangest creatures were buying and selling all sorts of things.  Incense filled the air with the scent of sandalwood, but underneath it smelt like freshly dug up soil and a lightning storm.  A girl with fingernails like thorns and hair that burned with a green fire exchanged a big bag with a strange round object in it for a bottle of something.  A man made entirely of rock, stocky and heavy, covered in studded emeralds, wore nothing but a tan loin cloth.  A dragon curled around a spire and leapt down, its tail painting a streak of fire through the air.  The shape of it vanished into the crowd of colorful, fantastical beings, each as mesmerizing as the next.  A human looking thing with pale skin and black clothes kept the rest of the crowd at a distance, and as it approached Hikaru, he could see that it’s flesh was not pale but the grey of death and it smelled heavily of decay.

It stopped just before him, a smile on its rotting lips, and it whispered with a voice like rustling paper, “Thank you, my lord,” right in his ear.

“My lord…?” Hikaru repeated, attempting to hold his nose without looking rude.

“As always, I am in your debt, Touya-kun,” it wasted no more time, and strolled right away.

“Touya-kun?!” He mumbled numbly.  It had thought he was Touya…?  What…?

“A lich,” Sai said, and the sudden reappearance of his ghost had Hikaru jumping out of his skin.

There you are!  You were asleep for like, forever! Hikaru accused.  I didn’t know how to wake you up, I was worried.

“I apologize.  I woke up when you said the correct password for the trap door.  It lifted the sleep spell… but it took me much longer than I expected to find you.  Imagine my surprise when you weren’t on the other side of the door!”

I’m not? Hikaru looked up, and couldn’t see anything resembling a trap door, Where are Isumi, Waya and the brat?

“A distance away from you, in a small monster outpost towards the edge of the Shinimikami.”

Better question, where am I?

“You are in the Worukansenkyo, as they called it in Edo.  It has not changed much since I came here the first time.  This is a trading center for the living and the dead.  It is said even the gods and goddesses do business here,” Sai frowned, “I do not know why you came here from that door.  It was no portal, and that is the only way to arrive here as you did.”

Hikaru looked around more, awestruck by the size and the number of people.  No offense, he thought, but who was that just now?  You said a leech?

“A lich.  A lord of the dead.  You won’t see them anywhere but here.  You’d have to find the cities of the dead first, and even the kurosumomo cannot travel to such a cursed place without bargaining with death,” Sai looked troubled, his fan covered his face, “They cannot see anything, nor hear, nor smell, unless it is also nonliving.  All kurosomomo can communicate with them, but never a heir… not since myself.”

I feel as if there’s a lot you don’t tell me, Hikaru looked down at his sandals, the leather of their straps worn and frayed at the edges, his mouth twisting into a self-deprecating smile.

“I could tell you everything I have ever learned, but I don’t wish to live your life for you,” Sai laid a hand on his shoulder, his touch incorporeal and almost cold.

Hikaru flicked his eyes up to meet Sai’s, I know.  What should we do now?  How do we get outta here?

Sai smiled, “It’s simple.  There are stairs, and they will lead you up to the Rukansenkyo, the great bazaar of Edo.  Or what was the great bazaar of Edo, when it was still Edo.  There were two levels, you see, the first being the Rukansenkyo, and it was where the people of Edo sold everything you could imagine.  Geishas and ryokans were not amiss between cafes and street vendors.  And if one took the stairs downwards, one would find the Worukansenkyo, where the people traded things that should not be seen in the light of day.  The original cave system was a little less disturbing, but when they tunneled too deep, they found this place under the ocean.  It’s a long set of stairs up to Edo.”

Edo… I thought it was entirely destroyed when the monsters took it over…? Hikaru made his way through the stalls, the glisten of gems and stink of poultices and the feathers floating through the air of the place distracting him too often.

“You know of that more than I, Hikaru,” Sai said, his eyes equally as drawn to the life of the place.

Hikaru snorted, Since when have I ever paid attention when my mom tried to teach me history?

“It would be good of you to know.”

I only think of that sort of thing now that it’s actually useful, Hikaru waved it off, looking about for something that looked like stairs leading up and out.  Shit, I may have to ask directions.

“You may have to, yes.” Sai looked amused.  Of course he was.

You don’t know yourself?

“It’s been more than a 100 years since I was here last.”

Oh but you remember exactly what this place is called! Hikaru grouched, his shoulders slumping.  Brushing past a man with a pig snout instead of a nose and purple marble skin, he made his way to a stall that was selling crystal combs laid out on a table.  The woman behind the stall had no eyes, dark brown skin, and stringy black hair, and her mouth, which took up most of her face and never truly closed, was painted a bright blood red.

“Is there something I can help you with?” As her mouth opened, all Hikaru could see were rows upon rows of alabaster teeth, like the mouth of a many toothed shark.

“D-directions, please.  Where is the way out of here?” He tried not to stare at the teeth as the woman flexed her mouth cavity, and her teeth spread apart and back together in a weird disturbing dance of flesh and bone.

She chuckled, “Lost, little lamb?”

“Sure,” Hikaru tried to smile, feeling very fake and very nervous.  Her mouth, he thought.  What did she eat?  Before she could say something else, he laughed, “I have no idea how I got here.”

“A portal, lamb.  The stairs you are looking for are close,” she pointed towards the direction Hikaru had come from, gnarled finger directing his sight to the most treacherous, dangerous looking stairs he had ever seen.  Precariously jutting out of the cavern, they took the walker up and out of sight in such a direct, steep climb that it pained his calves just looking at it.

Groaning, he rolled his eyes, “I wish I could fly.”

“Don’t we all?” The lady cackled, her teeth writhing and clinking together with each bark of noise.

“Yeah, thanks,” Hikaru waved, before realizing she might not be able to see him at all, “Um, I’ll get going now.”

“Come back soon, little lamb.  I’ll sell you something nice for your lover.”

He smiled, and headed off to the stairs.  The crowd was scary to push through, with not a single human in sight.  Even the humanoid shape of a umeshichi or a Ryuame would be amiss in this crowd.  As Hikaru stepped aside to let a beautiful pair of identical, copper-haired twins with snake tails instead of legs through, he realized how weird he must look.  His hair, pleated with sweat and dirt, was the weirdest thing about him, and here hair color like his was nothing special.  Everything else about him, from his hakama to his sword in his sheath, was bizarre in the land of elaborate kimonos, nudity, and bright fabrics worn in ways he had never seen nor knew how to describe.

“Don’t worry about not fitting in.  No one will call you out here.  This is the Worukansenkyo, and it is blind to your appearance if you have coins to spend,” Sai fanned himself and casually let the crowd pass right through his transparent form.  It looked weird to Hikaru, who was used to Sai pretending to be alive enough to avoid people.  Even in the hustle and bustle of Ekone, the ghost had avoided walking through people or objects when it wasn’t necessary, and there it was usual for there to be a crowd. 

In fact, it was similar to this place in a way.  Dark, lit not by the sun, and crowded.  Instead of torches, they had lanterns and no one looked quite this strange, but the feeling of it was recalled to him.  Monsters and humans weren’t so different, really, even though Isumi and Waya had warned him a million times that it was.

At the foot of the stairs, there was a twin set of sparking lavender torches and a sign.  Hikaru couldn’t read it, it was in some language that eluded him, and none of the characters looked anything like what he had been taught.

“It’s a warning,” Sai said softly, his voice like a breeze in the dark air, “The rules of the Worukansenkyo do not extend beyond here.”

The rules? Hikaru thought.

“The rules.  There is to be peace and business in the Worukansenkyo, no fighting.  That is the main rule.  The rest are about business, and even I can’t recall them all.  This sign means that once you leave, you don’t have to be peaceful, you may do as you like.”

So anyone could attack me beyond this point?

“Yes.  And it is unfortunate that you will be affronted,” the ghost’s eyes flicked to the right, watching as an old woman, her back hunched and her eyes pale as mushrooms, started the climb, her cane shaking in her hand.

“Hey!  Lady!  I’ll help you!” Hikaru dashed after her, up to the steps.

The woman turned to him and spat, her voice croaking, “One more step!  And I will slaughter you!  I will rip your guts out your mouth then make you swallow them again!  One more step!  The rules of the Worukansenkyo are all that protect you!  As it is, I can barely hold myself back now, you disgusting scum of humanity---!”

He took a step back, “Sorry!  I’m sorry!  See, I'm on this side of the stairs!”

Now that she had turned towards him, he could see the horrible, ugly wrinkles on her face and how her stomach sagged forward, uneven lumps sticking out in ways that seemed almost painful.  And his mother’s plain, worried face filled his memory… a Genten no Bakemono.  Always chose a plain girl, his mother had said.  This woman wanted to destroy men because all of them had betrayed her and every one of her mothers before her.

Hikaru didn’t want to let her go on and do as she did.  He wanted to help her up the stairs, because they looked dangerous and she looked frail.

Sai… don’t you think that’s the worst thing you’ve ever seen? The duel-haired teen’s shoulders slumped, She never deserved it.  Her life is doomed to misery because of an angry, hateful, vain goddess.  All I want to do is help her and I can’t.

Sai stood next to him, stiff, expression uncertain, “There’s nothing you can do.  The curse of a goddess is impossible to break.”

He knew that.  It didn’t comfort him to know it, and he hated that he knew it.  Let’s get going.  Edo’s waiting for us up there, and I want to see some sunlight again.  Also I have barely any money, and I don’t want to stick around here long enough for them to figure that out.

Chapter Text

The steps upwards to Edo were like a metaphor for the once-capital, Hikaru thought.  Sprawling, terrifying, with a rush of adrenaline… steep and unsteady under his feet.  He knew enough history about the fall of Edo to know.  And he figured, since he actually knew something, it was about time he taught Sai something.

“Edo was huge, right?  And all of the yakuza ran the place, really, instead of the emperor, so it pissed him off to no end.  Money ruled, just like you said it did for the Worukansenkyo,” he grinned, taking two steps at a time, “The boss was this super rich guy, Touzoku, and he thought he was invincible.  He said he could pay off even death to stay off his doorstep.”

Sai made a frustrated sigh, “They always think they can pay us off, Hikaru.  Never accept the bargain, it always fails.”

“I wasn’t aware we could keep people alive in the first place.  People die even without us there!  We just kill off the stubborn ones, right?”

“You have much to learn still,” the ghost smiled, “Remember, there is a reason why a kurosumomo must have his mouth sewn shut.  The secrets of life you have yet to learn.  And those I cannot teach you.”

Hikaru scrunched up his nose, “Anyway!  Touzoku thought he was invincible.  The emperor, who wanted to regain the right to rule, he made a deal with the goddess Amaterasu, and she said if he could build a brilliant palace where only the deserving would bask in her light, then he could rule once again.  However the caviat was this: the city of Edo had to be swallowed by darkness.”

The steps grew more trecherous and precarious as they climbed higher, but also the bizarre glow of the Worukansenkyo was fading into torch light, the type of torches that Hikaru was more familiar with.  The climb didn’t seem so bad when Hikaru could almost see the exit.

“That’s how Ekone came to be,” Hikaru explained, “Because there Amaterasu has a shrine placed right under the zenith of the sun.  And all the undeserving were trapped beneath the walls in darkness, and all the deserving would live on the higher floors...  So Edo, right?  It had to fall into darkness, but the emperor had no idea how.  He decided to go meet with the Kitsune, the wise and clever foxes.  And they had a feast there for three days until the Kitsune told the emperor how to submerge Edo in darkness.  He had to find a crystal called the Kurokiruwa, which had the power to cast a cloak of night.  This crystal belonged to a snake king called Yuomo from the south.”

The exit was approaching, but not quite soon enough for Hikaru’s liking. Still, if he could explain the rest of the story of Edo before he got there, then he needed to speed up the pace, his aching thighs be damned.

Sai folded his hands together, and they disappeared into the large billows of his sleeves, “This sounds like a fairy tale rather than real events.”

“It is a fairytale.  It’s been one hundred years since Edo fell, and all anyone knew was the dying emperor’s last words.  It probably got some drama added in there somewhere,” the two-tone haired teenager shrugged, turning the corner to continue up the stairs, “So the crystal and the snake king.  Yuomo refused to hand over the Kurokiruwa, because he was in exile from the Orochi and he’s using it to hide himself.  He’s not a king anymore; he just used to be a king.  And the emperor had no patience for Yuomo, so he ordered the crystal to be taken at any cost.  The best warriors of the emperor try to take the crystal, but Yuomo escaped with it.  At this point the emperor was distressed, so he called upon the only person he thought had enough manpower to find the crystal; Mr. Richpants Touzoku who ruled Edo.”

“I find this story to be very, um, confusing?” Sai shook his head, “If it is a fairytale, where is the lesson?”

Hikaru crossed his arms, “I’m not done yet!”

“My apologies, continue,” Sai had the decency to look embarrassed.  His cheeks were a bit pink, which got Hikaru thinking about blood, and how if Sai was just a soul, he shouldn’t blush in the first place…

“Where even was I?” He frowned, his eyes catching on the exit.  It glowed a nice, bright color.  It was like the sky was calling to him, the outdoors.  He hadn’t thought the staircase would be so long.

“The emperor and Touzoku.”

“Right, okay.  Touzoku said yes to the emperor because he knew that if even the emperor was in debt to him, he’d be the most powerful man alive.  He didn’t know about the deal the emperor made with Amaterasu, obviously or else he’d have known that getting the jewel meant throwing himself out of power.  Touzoku’s yakuza searched everywhere for Yuomo.  They killed everyone who they suspected could be him and looted their bodies, but the snake king was’t be found.  It turned into a nationwide manhunt.  Anyone suspected of harboring Yuomo was killed and their houses searched.  Everyone, even the monsters, in the entire country, was terrified, and the emperor was doing nothing to stop it.  Then, one night, the entire city turned black.”

He turned, pushing aside the door and taking his last step.  His eyes slammed shut at the sudden brightness, an urge to sneeze building in his system.  It was warm and welcoming and as he peeked out from his eyelids, Hikaru felt the rays of sunshine on his cheeks.  Even though it had been a moment, his eyes remained squinted to adjust to the sudden new light.  They were there, in Edo. 

And it was definitely not black, it was vivid umbers with a robin’s egg sky and the rooftops were painted red and gold and blue and brown and green, rich color that filled every part of the vision.  The streets shone with reflected light and the buildings were in perfect condition, unlike the rotting ones he had last seen in the Shinimikami.  Little bridges were built over little canals, paved at the bottom with cobblestone and swimming with fish of every shape and size.  Staircases and slopes lead up and down hills, and houses and shops filled every bit of his vision, and clothes hung from fishing line stretched from window to window across each passage way.  There was a heavy smell of sweets and stirfry in the air, and Hikaru’s mouth watered at the thought of dango and mochi and little cakes with red bean paste.

“What comes next, Hikaru?” Sai asked, seeing as Hikaru had paused, staring up into the rows upon rows of buildings and alleyways and canals with little boats, the streamers with blue and white koi kites flying.

“…Yuomo used the Kurokiruwa to turn the city into a place of darkness.  Not even the flames of the burning city lit up the sky… and everyone died,” Hikaru said, his voice filled with wonder and amazement and awe. 

This did not look like a place of monsters.  This looked like what everyone thought the upper floors of Ekone would look like.  Obviously, everyone did not die, seeing as the world was still spinning and the city of Edo was still a bustling metropolis.  The assortment of people in the streets was not quite what it would’ve been, considering there were few humans in sight, but it didn’t look like a place of evil.  The most evil thing Hikaru saw was the sight of those humans, who were all wearing rags and would not look up, not for anything.  The slaves Waya and Isumi kept talking about.

The monsters came and took over everything.  The emperor was the only one who escaped, because he had Amaterasu’s blessing, but his wounds were bad enough that even her grace didn’t save him.  He told the story on his deathbed.

“I find that ending to be anti-climactic,” Sai paused, “Edo has changed much since I was here last, but I know where you will want to go, if we can find a main road.”

Where do we want to go?

“The Great Shrine of Zougeiro.  It is a large complex and it looks over Edo on a hill, and in the winter it gets snow in the oaks.  Cherry blossom viewing was popular there in the spring, during my time.  I suspect that is where Touya is waiting for you, because that will be where he calls home, if things have not changed,” Sai smiled fondly, his pale purple eyes distant, his fan lying closed in his hands gently as he walked, “It is where I called home, many years ago.”

Ah, so Sai meant the Kurosumomo lair where all the properly looking, properly born and bred heirs to the kurosumomo title grew up, properly.  Hikaru felt old feelings of confusion fill his head, thoughts of Touya and questions he kept asking that he never got answers for.  Why were there two heirs?  Touya had grown up properly, had the proper lineage, had the proper looks, had everything.  So why was Hikaru the way he was?  Those questions were going to be answered very soon, as soon as he got to this Great Shrine.  Lemme guess, Hikaru thought, his eyes downcast, that’s where all the Kurosumomo have lived since forever, except me.

“Hikaru, don’t think of it that way.  Zougeiro would not suit you.  You grew up with kind words, warmth, and love, not the echo of your stern and silent father inside your head and a strict isolation created by the fear that every other creature would have of you,” Sai looked far-away, lost in memories, even as he addressed Hikaru to his face, “Touya must have been very confused when you found him and were not hesitant.  He would not have felt that sort of openness from anyone here.  He would have been called young master, and treated as something fragile and precious and inherently, constantly dangerous.”

You’re not talking about Touya anymore, he thought, you’re thinking of yourself and your own childhood here.

Sai laughed lightly, “Yes, I admit, my childhood was much the same.”

And then, suddenly, Sai was gone. 

Hikaru had looked away from him for a second, and then he was gone completely.  Like he was just a figment of Hikaru’s imagination, he had vanished without a trace, leaving blinding blue sky and thick sunlight behind, the air foggy with breath and the warmth of the crowd and the smell of things baking.  The street held a few ghosts, all of which seemed to be peaceful and content, but Sai’s form was not in sight.  Hikaru almost panicked, until he remembered, it was usual for his specter to vanish like this.  Even though Sai had not left his side since he had arrived in the Worukansenkyo– that was the odd behavoir, not the other way around.

The Great Shrine of Zougeiro… at least Hikaru had some idea of where to go, or at least where to ask directions towards.  He left the entrance to the cavern behind him and started walking, remembering Sai’s description of the place as up on a hill.  He kind of liked the sound of the place, even though the ghost had told him it had been miserable there.  Hikaru had never been called “young master” in his life.  Most of the time it had been “brat,” or “there’s no dinner if you don’t get back on time.”  He supposed he had grown up happy.  He’d been discontent with his arranged marriage and how Akari never left him alone, but he missed it a little.

Sai, when you get back, you should tell me when I have my powers enough under control for me to go home again… knowing what I know, I’d never be able to stay, but…

Hikaru realized with a slow, creeping dread that each step he took on the cobblestone road, going up towards this shrine, was a step closer to Touya, and Touya meant a battle for who would be able to go home.  Hikaru had lost his only chance to go home, perhaps, as soon as he ended up here.  He didn’t want to kill Touya.  He’d never wanted to kill Touya.  He wanted to fight him, but he didn’t want anyone to die.

Touya was… kind, somehow, good in a way that Hikaru had never been.  And the thought of a person who fought with an inner fire; who Hikaru had always been curious about; who Hikaru had kissed so as to save his life; a person who came to their aid when they called even without truly knowing them, who understood Hikaru enough to let him turn their auras into gold, and held his weight even as he wanted to collapse; who had curled up into his side, tired and forced into a boat much too small for them; who had asked for Hikaru to follow him, and had hidden his disappointment when he had been denied; that person should not be killed.  Not for something like this, so horrible and unimportant.  Even though Hikaru had taken a life before, it always made him feel sick, even if it had been in self-defense or to protect his friends.  Knowing a person like he knew Touya, Hikaru didn’t think he could live with himself if Touya died at his hand.  He didn’t often think so little of his own life, but sometimes he thought that if they both were going to fight, and one of them had to die, then he should die instead of Touya.

His feet almost trudged to a stop, his legs suffering, and sweat sticking his blonde bangs to his cheeks and his dark hair at the nape of his neck to the collar of his yukata.  His sword and sheath felt impossibly heavy at his side, and Edo, originally beautiful with color, had turned overcast and dull, faded.  Hikaru could turn around, right now, if he wanted to.  He could avoid it all.

Sai wanted to duel the kurosumomo with magick.  Hikaru couldn’t take this chance away from him now.

What if I die? Hikaru felt his heart pound against his ribs, his breath coming in short bursts, What if I kill Touya?  Do I even want to be the kurosumomo or do I want to go home?

The streets were deserted, and he had ended up on a narrow staircase up, with the back of a set of shops on one side and more rundown sort of houses on the other.  It was the poor district, evidently.  A set of chimes clanked together in the breeze, but the rest of the area was silent, without even the sound of birds or a distant clamor of the bustling district he had just left behind.

Hikaru felt a sharp pain and his knees buckled, his whole body pitching forward, careening towards the pavement.  He tried to catch himself on his hands, but his arms caught on something behind him and he lurched to a stop, unable to move.  A click, and cold metal slid on his hands.

“Sleep,” a voice whispered in his ear, and with a prick to the back of his neck and his head still spinning, Hikaru’s world went black.

He woke up with his eyes unfocused and his ear bleeding hot onto the collar of his yukata.   His arms were tied back behind him, and from there chained to the wall.  His ankles burned with even the slightest movement, and he could feel the wet of blood when he struggled to sit up properly.  In this sort of circumstance, Hikaru normally would’ve mouthed off a set of curses and busted out with his magick, but he felt drained, like he was a stranger in his own body.  Like when he’d walked right out of himself, he felt stuffed in a sack too small, and the feeling wouldn’t go away.  It was like an itch he couldn’t scratch, and he wanted to make it all stop.

When his vision cleared, it was easy to see that he had been moved somewhere away from where he’d been taken hostage.  First, it was in a cave, as if Hikaru wasn’t completely done with caves by now.  Second, there were rows of dark figures standing around a throne, the throne being the only thing illuminated in the room.  It stood, made entirely of carved bone that glistened a polished cream color in direct conflict with the blood-red fur decorating it, the tallest thing in the room.   A girl stood next to its bulk, slim and wearing a kimono with an obi tied to look like a butterfly in the back.

With a sudden hush, a voice dominated the room, like a mix between a roar and a whisper, rough and promising violence, “You weren’t who I was expecting.”

The voice seemed to be moving, and none of the figures or the girl even flinched at it.  Hikaru’s eyes darted left and right, unable to find the source.  The darkness could be obscuring the form of the speaker, he thought, and he scoured every corner of the room, every inlet and dark space, for any trace of moment. The lack of motion terrified him.

How could he find the enemy if he couldn’t even see them?  How was he going to get out of here?

“Still,” the voice continued, sounding almost amused, “My traps would only catch those with death magick… and therefore, you are a worthy catch.”

Death magick, Hikaru gritted his teeth, so were they fishing for the kurosumomo or what?

“Let me tell a story you might know… A fine prince of darkness, he had a wife with a great and grand beauty.  They were very much in love.  But his wife, she died suddenly.  No one knew why or how, it was as if her soul had been stolen right out of her body.  The prince was devastated.  He went to the Kurosumomo and begged him to return her soul, for he could not live without her.  He did not care the price.  But he was denied.  The Kurosumomo said only this, that he trusted his son’s judgment on who deserved to live and who deserved to die.”

The voice went sour, “He killed my wife!”

A claw sliced a thin cut across Hikaru’s throat.  Blood trickled down and he felt dizzy, sick to his stomach.  A dribble of red dropped from the claw, which revealed a tall man, his huge bulk explaining the huge throne.  His claws were long, at least as long as an entire another hand’s length and his tongue flicked out to taste the blood drying on them.

“You taste of humans and death,” he observed dryly, wiping the rest of the liquid off on his kimono, “I am sure you will be useful to me, young man.  Tell me your name.”

Hikaru didn’t exactly feel like talking when he was sure he was slowly bleeding out the throat and ear, but he still croaked, “Shindou Hikaru.”

“I thought maybe you were some distant relative to the Touya family.  You have their feel about you, like you could steal life with those malicious lips of yours, but I see I was wrong,” The man walked slowly over to his throne, sitting down in a way that might’ve been elegant or composed if his face didn’t betray his insanity, “What sort of death magick do you possess?”

He had a million reasons why he wasn’t answering this one, first and foremost because it might get him killed.

“I see… Hayako, punish him,” The man said, with an almost bored tone.

The girl with the butterfly bow was suddenly at his side, and he didn’t even see her hand move before his head snapped hard to the right with the stinging pain of a slap.  She had long nails that scraped ribbons on his cheeks, but she smelled like flowers and her face betrayed a sense of disunity with the rest of them, as if she disliked what she was doing.

He laughed, and stroked a hand down the girl’s, Hayako's long black hair, and sneered, “I don’t appreciate insubordination.  What do you know of the Touya family?”

Even if he had known anything, he wouldn’t have told this guy.  Hikaru’s head was ringing and his vision was white from pain, and his cheek felt swollen.  Pain ruled, and sense faltered.

The girl raised her hand, her eyes dulling, looking as if she was going to slap him again, but the man stopped her with his claws clinking on her shoulder.

“I see… You have a stubborn streak.  I have an idea to get you to talk… those three friends of yours that I let through my trap, the forbidden lovers and their little child; it would be so easy to reset my traps, you see, to catch them and bring them here when they tried to go looking for you.”

Isumi, Waya, Le Ping…

Hikaru spat out the blood in his mouth, eyes narrowed into slits, “Don’t touch them.”

“I won’t, if you answer some easy questions for me, dear Hikaru.  I ask again, what do you know of the Touya family?”

“They’re the kurosumomo.  The father is the actual Kurosumomo and the son is the heir.  They travel around and deal with ghosts that don’t pass on correctly,” Hikaru took a deep breath, trying to calm his thudding heartbeat, “I don’t know anything else about them.”

The man, tall and towering over him, and the shadow of Hayako behind him, made his entire vision feel like it was filled with darkness.  Hikaru watched as the man stepped uncomfortably close, leaning down and tracing a line across his cheek with his razor sharp claw, “I don’t think I believe you… you see, there is a rumor in town, which says the son is a halfbreed.  Touya Akira is not of pure blood.  What do you know of that?”

“Nothing,” Hikaru sneered back, because he had known nothing of it.  For how much he thought of Touya, he knew next to nothing about him.  His personality, soft and sharp edges, his smile, his mouth, the brilliant green of his aura, those were the things of Touya’s that Hikaru knew well.  His birth and his childhood, that type of thing Hikaru was clueless about.

“Shame… where do the kurosumomo live?  Where do they dwell?”

Hikaru paused, wondering if this was common knowledge or if it was something hidden he was about to reveal.  Should he say?  Was it a test?  But if he didn’t answer, Isumi, Waya, and Le Ping could get hurt.  If he did, Touya might get hurt.  Could he pretend not to know?  He hadn’t known before Sai told him.

The man sauntered back to his throne, his hands raising as if to issue a command.

“The Great Shrine of Zougeiro,” Hikaru whispered, sure that just the name of the place would satisfy.  If he wasn’t supposed to say, then the place’s odd name would keep the place’s actual location secret, and if the place was common knowledge, he proved that he was willing to answer questions.

Sitting down and crossing his legs, the man drummed his claws on the armrest of his throne, “I see… so they are only up top the hill, hiding in plain sight…”

Shit, Hikaru thought, I’m so sorry, Touya.

“If you are to be believed, that is.  Now, tell me, do you know Touya Akira?”

Hikaru swallowed the blood in his mouth, sick to his stomach, “Yes.”


“I ran into him by accident, that’s all.”

He had, really, there had been no other answer to how they had met, because it was pure coincidence that Touya had been in that bar and even more luck that Hikaru had gone there the same day.  They wouldn’t even have spoken if not for Sai.

“I’m not very satisfied by that answer,” The man raised an eyebrow, shoulders slumping back, “I can think of three little friends of yours—“

Hikaru felt tears run down his cheeks as he screamed, “It’s the truth!”

“I think you are a little, stubborn, tenacious liar.  If you only met him by accident, then you won’t mind if I kill him, do you?” The question was dripping with oily tricks and deviousness and Hikaru had no idea how to respond to get out of them.  He wasn’t good at this, not at all.  Politics confused him.

“…K-kill him?”  Hikaru stammered, feeling sweat bead up on his neck.

“Certainly.  It was him who I was trying to catch in my traps.  His damned father is immortal, and no man can kill him save himself, but little Akira is very much mortal.  I can kill my wife’s murderer just by slitting his pale pretty throat.  I suppose as he chokes on his own blood, I will kiss him and join my darling in the afterlife.  Finally, we both will rest in peace.”

“You’re insane!  You can’t just kill him!”  Hikaru wasn’t sure why he felt so much panic at the thought, at the threat, of Touya’s death, when he was going to fight him to the death later, if he got out of this mess alive, but…

“Of course I can kill him… are you going to try and stop me?”  The man laughed, no, cackled with superiority and insanity, the sound of a person that had lost everything, even his own mind.

Hikaru suddenly knew without a doubt what he was going to do to escape here.  He was done with being interrogated.  All that training with Ko wasn’t so that he could lay down here and admit defeat.  All his battles had been won with less than he had now.  He’d faced down worse things and won.  This guy was small fry.

He looked down at his feet, and then back up at the throne, “I could stop you.  Because you see, there’s something you don’t know about.”

“What is that, you little worm?!” The man rose to his feet, his anger tangible in the air.

“Come here,” Hikaru smirked, “And I’ll tell you.”

The claws of the man scraped across the throne and left shriveled bits of wood behind.  Watching him approach was agonizing for Hikaru.  What he was about to do was crazy dangerous, as soon as the man got close enough.

Close enough was not a foot away.

“Real close,” He corrected, “Like when you slit my throat to scare me.”

“Why would I be so reckless?  You might have a weapon or some other trick,” The man raised a thick eyebrow, a smirk playing on his lips, like he had the world figured out.

“I have nothing in my hands, see?  I’m chained up securely,” Hikaru demonstrated, “Nothing anywhere else either. Come a bit closer, it’s hard to whisper from this distance.”

The man took a step forward, cocksure and impatient, right until he was exactly where Hikaru wanted him.  Right next to his face, as if there was nothing there that could harm him.  As much as he’d feel unpleasant later, at the moment Hikaru took the sickest pleasure in saying, “That thing you don’t know?”

Hikaru lurched forward and kissed him, hard enough that it hurt, and quick, like a sting.  He didn’t need to wait any longer; the man’s soul had floated up and out of his mouth.  Like all souls that didn’t accept their fate, that had sickened themselves with evil and hatred, it shattered into glass-like shards of magick.

“If you go fishing with the right bait, you have to be ready when you catch the real, bonafide thing,” Hikaru let out a burst of magick and shattered the chains.  Hands free, he wiped his mouth, looking up at the rest of them, a challenge in his eyes.  Butterfly bow girl Hayako nodded at him gladly, bowed a short bow, and fled, quick as lightning, but the rest of the shadowy figures didn’t move away; they started closing in on him.  Clearly, they couldn’t see a threat when it was right in front of them.

Grabbing the dead man’s sword from its sheath, Hikaru grinned.  There was no way he was losing this.

The figures were good at causing fear but not so hot at actually fighting.  They probably had counted on their opponents being too weak to fight back, so a light step and a twirl smashed a wave of magick into them strong enough to send them flying.  Those who had dodged the magick were slashed to ribbons if they tried to get within the reach of Hikaru’s borrowed weapon.

He didn’t like the feel of this sword in his hands.  He wanted his own weapon back, gaudy and weighted just right for his arm.  And he was sure that if he searched around, he’d find it.  They had taken all of his bags and items from him, but those probably hadn’t wandered too far away from where he was now.

Once he’d had the courage to stand up, he’d found they were all weak to him.  It was all caused by Touya, really, Hikaru thought as he danced in between lunges and parries, that he’d survived.  It seemed the universe knew that Touya was the thing Hikaru wanted most, and it threw that fact in his face whenever he needed inspiration.

Knocking the last of the shadow people on the ground, Hikaru stood over them all, their crushed and beaten forms and their shadows wispy as they trembled.  He spared one last glance for the man who hadn’t been able to accept that his wife wasn’t ever coming back, even if he killed her so-called murderer, and then cast away any sympathetic feelings he might’ve entertained.

“Tell me where my stuff is.  I have a shrine to go find,” Hikaru demanded of one that still seemed conscious.

The shadow did not speak.  It pointed in a direction where it looked like smaller caves joined with the main cave, and then dissipated into thin air.

Hikaru watched the rest of them vanish, and he realized belatedly that they were all just conjured magick made to take a physical form.  Remaining bits of magick whose spell hadn’t worn off even after their conjurer had died.  No wonder they had been weak.

It was time he got moving, he thought, shaking his head.  He had to find both Touya and a way to save them both from dying in their duel.  He knew for certain now.  There was no way he was going to let Touya die, and he wasn’t going to die himself.  There was another way, and he’d find it.

The top of the hill loomed in the distance, and the cherry trees looked like dark purple cotton balls at the top of it, leaves rustling in a breeze that wasn’t strong enough, that allowed for the sound of it but not enough to cool down his face.  The air was sluggish, and a lone dragonfly passed by through the air, wings buzzing.  The smell of cooking had calmed down the further up he’d walked, but Hikaru could still catch a whiff of it even as the scent of the forest and the cherries flooded his senses.

The slope of the hill led to a wide staircase, with tall arches leading the way to the top, and the large traditional shrine that stood there.  The building had a porch that wrapped around it, and stone steps leading up to the front door.  The walls of the shrine were an unnatural white, ivory paint making the building have its own sort of aura.  Surrounding the area was a garden of pale stone, with bamboo growing around a koi pond.  Off to the side, there was a well, made of weathered wood and placed under a tree, square and without a bucket to draw up water.  No life disturbed the peace.

Except that life did.  The front door slid open, and a shrine maiden wearing white and red carefully made her way down the steps.  She didn’t look at Hikaru, even though he couldn’t tear his eyes off her.  She was not human, the deer antlers growing from her head made that clear, but otherwise she looked it, shaped in the right sort of way.  She had shoulder length brown hair, a broom in her hand, and a look of concentration on her face.  She swept the steps efficiently but slowly, as if she was moving slowly so not to disturb the image of peacefulness.

She noticed him at last, as he was standing there awkwardly at the entrance with his mouth open, looking horribly lost and confused and stupid.  She waved, a bright smile on her face, “We thought you’d come!”

“You thought I’d come?” Hikaru repeated dumbly, head stuck in some sort of trance.

“Of course, the young master said you would.  Said we couldn’t miss you!  ‘His hair is both blonde and black, he has no regard for tradition, he usually wears a stupid grin, and he looks perpetually confused,’ he said,” the girl looked endlessly amused by the quote, and even as he balked at her, she brushed her hair over her shoulder and offered him her hand.  Her fingers were a dark brown and her palm looked human, but her wrist had an odd bone structure and her nails were thick and brown, like each finger had its own bit of hoof.

Hikaru took it numbly, smiling at her with his ‘stupid grin.’  She led him inside, abandoning her broom and becoming his own sort of personal guide.

“My name’s Nase Asumi, and I’m just one of the shrine maidens here.  I do a variety of stuff, I guess, like clean and cook, but I’m training to be an exorcist,” she said, as she slipped off her sandals at the door.  Hikaru followed her lead and toed off his own, feeling dirty with sweat, blood, and crusted grime on his skin, unworthy to be walking in such a clean place.

“I’m Shindou Hikaru,” Her words caught his interest, “Like magick training?  There were these guys on the way and they said they were after death magick.”

Nase laughed, “No, I’m not like the young master.  Or you, if his crazy story is true!”

“Crazy story?”

“The young master says you’re even stronger than him and you have death magick to rival his father,” Nase motioned to the hallways, “This is where the shrine keepers stay… Ijima!  …Ijima!  It’s no good, that louse isn’t around…”

“Who’s he?” Hikaru asked, taking in the small rooms on each side of the hallway.  There was a cot in each, with a well-made bed, and a closet, but no other belongings.  Every room was empty, and some looked as if they needed a good dusting because no one lived there at all.

“Oh, there’s a couple others besides me; Ijima Ryo, Fukui Yuuta, Honda Toshinori, Kaneko Masako.  Then there’s the adults who run things; Kurata Atsushi, Ogata Seiji, and old man Kuwabara who just showed up one day and he never left!” Nase led him into a large main room, “We’ll probably run into them at some point.  Fuku, Honda and Kaneko are out on assignment and really it’s just been Ijima and I lately.”

“The young master you keep mentioning, that’s Touya, right?”

“Touya Akira, yeah,” She gave him a stern look, “What’s your story?  How did you meet him?”

Hikaru laughed, “I kissed him out of nowhere in a tavern outside of my home town.  We were both kind of surprised when neither of us died, I guess.”

“You kissed him?” She almost shrieked, her hands grabbing his wrists in her excitement, big brown doe eyes staring him in the face.


“Don’t tell that to anyone here, at all, okay?!  Touya didn’t say anything about that, even though the Kurosumomo questioned him for hours about you!  I’ll keep it a secret because the young master did me a favor once, but…” She looked around for possible eavesdroppers, then whispered, “He’s not allowed to ever kiss anyone, ever.”

“Yeah, I figured the whole killing with a kiss thing made that a necessity,” Hikaru cleared the back of his throat, “But it’s okay with me.  I won’t die, because our magick sort of cancels out, so it’s okay.  No one dies.”

“That’s not why!  If that was it, then there’d not be a problem.  He can’t kiss anyone because of—“

Nase abruptly clicked her mouth shut, a hand cupping her jaw and a looming figure behind her, wearing spectacles and a navy blue traditional hakama.   He whispered in her ear, omniously dark, “About to say something forbidden to a stranger, miss Nase Asumi?”

She gulped and croaked quietly, “Of course not, sir.”

“See that you do not say more,” the man straightened himself out, and his sharp snake-like eyes went to Hikaru, and Hikaru had never felt more like a slovenly heathen than at that very moment.  “Welcome to the Great Shrine of Zougeiro.”

“Um, thanks,” he squeaked, feeling very betrayed by puberty and by the fact he hadn’t bathed in the days they’d been travelling.  He probably smelled, looked awful, and had rude manners.  Yes, Sai’s words that Zougeiro wouldn’t suit him came right back to the front of his mind.

“Nase, draw the guest a bath and a room.  And clean the foyer again, it’s filthy,” The man left the two of them alone again, disappearing into thin air much like he had appeared.  It reminded Hikaru of Sai, and how his ghost had done much the same thing.

Hikaru shivered, “Who even was that?”

“Ogata,” Nase crossed her arms, color returning to her face, “He’s a jerk and he’s the Kurosumomo’s right hand man.  He’ll try and kick you out soon enough, probably before dinner.  His only hobbies are terrorizing the shrine keepers and making people miserable… But don’t worry!  The Touya family will offer you a room here without a second thought, and then he can’t do anything about it.”

Family, Hikaru thought.  He’d never even considered who Touya’s mother was, or if he had any siblings.  Curiosity winning out, he asked, “What’s the Touya family like?”

“There’s our lord and master, Touya-meijin, and his wife Touya Akiko.  Then there’s the young master, Touya Akira.  They only have one child; although I heard that Lady Touya had several miscarriages both before and after the young master’s birth.  He’s extra precious to them, because he’s the only child they’ll ever have,” Nase explained, “I attend to Lady Touya more than the other servants.  Men are not allowed to see to her.  She is a very kind lady and I wouldn’t want to serve anyone else.”

“So he’s an only child too…” Hikaru pursed his lips.

“It’s not terribly unexpected,” Nase smiled, “The kurosumomo is only supposed to have one heir.  Even if he has multiple children, only one has the power, and the records rarely record more than one sibling.”

“So the duel thing, between multiple heirs, that’s just made up for some weird reason?” He felt anger rising at the thought of it.  If there wasn’t a precedent—

“The duel between heirs was originally there to determine whether the heir with the powers was indeed the strongest sibling.  Death magick is funny like that, sometimes it would hop from sibling to sibling,” Nase smiled, and led him to a room with a round bathtub.

A bath was probably the best idea anyone had ever had.  Hikaru wanted to take a bath more than anything else he could think of at the moment.

Nase explained, “These are the servant’s cleaning areas.  There’s an actual bathhouse down the way that everyone uses, but this one is for emergency cleaning, so we don’t track dirt everywhere after doing something particularly unpleasant.  There’s about four more bathtubs in the Shrine itself, but those are mostly private ones for the Touya family.”

“Can I?” He almost begged, wanting very much to scrub off all the accumulated grime.

“Of course!  That’s why I brought you here,” She smiled, “Just cast a water spell into the tub to fill it up.  We don’t have any way to get water from the stream unless you take it bucket by bucket, so…”

Hikaru’s shoulders slumped.  A water spell?  He didn’t know anything like that.  In fact, his magick repertoire consisted of strength and speed enhancing, a tiny bit of floating, and death-related magick.  He hadn’t known about the basic heat spell until what felt like yesterday (he didn’t know how long he’d been kidnapped for) and he had no clue how to cast any.  He asked sheepishly, “Can you teach me how to do a water spell?”

Nase looked at him like he’d grown a second head, “What?”

“I don’t know how to do any elemental magick, so…”

“Oh dear lord,” She turned pale, “You never learned the basics?  Touya is crazy, they’re all crazy!  How good could you be if you don’t even know basic magick?”

Hikaru crossed his arms and blushed angrily, “Maybe I’m not but right now I would like to take a bath, and I would like to know how to cast a water spell, so I can take a bath.”

She smiled, a little laugh escaping her, “Right.  Well, for now, I’ll cast the water spell, and I can teach you more later!  I’ll be your teacher!”

“Okay,” He sighed, “That works too.”

Hikaru watched as the deer girl struck a pose, a dance move that reminded him of Sai’s fluid motions, and then twirled with her foot, and dipped into a deep bow, her hands touching the rim of the bath tub.  Endless water seemed to rush out of her cupped palms and poured steadily into the tub.  Once clear gleaming water filled the entire bath, Nase separated her palms and the water ceased to pour from them.  Next, she continued her graceful motion in a pose that slid her so her knees touched the ground and her back was arched, her body a powerful curve.  Her arms stretched upwards towards the sky as she leapt from the floor and, as she pulled those arms back, fire erupted from her mouth and scorched the entire room.

Hikaru blinked to clear his vision, and once he looked, the bath was steaming, and miraculously nothing else was on fire.

Nase shrugged sheepishly, “That’s basic elemental magick.  I even did the appropriate dance moves too, so you could watch.  In battle the dancing makes the magick stronger, but usually when we do stuff around the shrine, we just pull forth our magick in a similar way and skip the unnecessary motions.”

The duel-haired teen nodded, in complete understanding.  Ko had taught him how to summon forth his magick without dancing, but in the flash quick second one would need to react with if they were in battle.  Sai on the other hand had taught only the magick with dance moves, unless necessary.  With both teaching styles at odds with one another, it was interesting to know that some people used both on the same spell.  He could actually learn a lot more about magick from Nase, he thought, things that Sai hadn’t deemed necessary in the struggle of trying to get Hikaru to learn any dancing at all (he admitted that he often was hard to teach) or that Ko had found tedious or boring.

“Thanks,” He grinned, “For the bath and offering me lessons.”

She smiled, “No problem.  There’s spare clothes in the cabinet.  Meet me in the main foyer after you finish, and I can see about letting you stay here for a bit.”

Nase left him to his bath and his turbulent thoughts, and as he soaked in the warm water, Hikaru thought that it was kind of odd that he hadn’t seen Touya, even once.

“The kurosumomo have their own quarters,” Sai said softly, fading in from the walls like one would imagine a ghost doing regularly.

At this point, Hikaru didn’t even jump.  He sighed, Welcome back.  I suppose asking where you’ve been won’t get me anywhere, so tell me more about what you know of this place.

“Don’t be rude, Hikaru,” Sai sat down huffily, looking kind of like a dumpling with his poofy pants and sleeves, “I see you found Zougeiro.”

Yeah, I asked directions.  I did get kidnapped along the way though, so there’s that.

“As you look fine, minus the injuries on your neck and face, I’ll assume you dealt with it without needing any assistance.  You’ve grown, Hikaru.  I’m proud of you,” The ghost smiled.

I guess, Hikaru thought, smiling.

“As for the Great Shrine, it looks untouched from how it did when I lived here in my lifetime, and much how it looked when my last protégé did as well.  It was restored after the fire, I assume, with the blueprints from my time, and all the previous expansion that was destroyed in the fire remained destroyed,” Sai’s dark hair fluttered in an unknown magick wind, “I do think that the feeling has changed here.  There is more happiness.  The Touya family has been good to this place.”

I wonder about that… Why do you think only girls are allowed to see Touya’s mother? Hikaru pondered.

Sai shook his head, “I’m afraid that we may not want to know.  Every family has its secrets.”

I’m curious.  And I keep hearing strange things about Touya, like he’s a half-breed or something.  Didn’t Waya say that all half-breeds were crazy and dangerous, and that it was forbidden?

“Hikaru, the more you think on this, the more confused you will become.  If you are to know, you will know,” Sai said hastily.

He finished scrubbing his hair and dunked his head underwater, feeling refreshed and confused.  Sai didn’t have any answers, except that he shouldn’t know the answer, and he couldn’t think of anything that made sense.  He didn’t know how to connect the dots.

What was the mystery behind the Touya family? 

And, Hikaru’s brain thought idly, could it be connected to my powers as a kurosumomo heir?

Chapter Text

Nase was his favorite of the shrine attendees, had become a friend and mentor during the time he'd been at Zougeiro, but Hikaru had developed a fondness for Fukui.  As for the rest, he either didn't know them well enough to form an actual opinion or he wasn't too fond.

Hikaru had quickly found that where Sai had been lax and more about the emotion, Nase's teaching style was very strict.  She was constantly adjusting his arms, legs, posture, even his facial expression, and stopping him when his movements weren't "fluid" enough.

She explained it in simpler terms, "Magick that isn't your natural strong point requires more concentration and more attention to detail.  My magick is stronger when I work with the elements of earth and nature.  Plants and rocks obey me without more than a nudge, but fire is picky."

Their usual teaching setting was him following Nase around the grounds as she did her required duties as a shine maiden.  She cleaned, cooked, did the laundry, made charms for good luck, fed the koi fish in the pond, and a multitude of other things that he barely could keep track of.  Even though he was mostly hopeless at all of it, Hikaru did his best to help her with whatever was on hand while asking questions while and stopping to test out movements in hopes of manipulating elemental magick.  He hadn’t bothered to ask for theory, but Nase had decided that with how terrible he’d been at manipulating elemental magick, today’s lesson would be on theory, since she had a spot of free time.

Magick was best done outdoors where there was more space to move, and so Hikaru sat down with her next to the green, tranquil pond outside the main entrance, the flicker of a koi in the corner of his eye, a distracting peace disturbed by nothing.  Nase drew a rough circle in the dirt with a stick she’d picked up off the ground, and then wrote little symbols on the outside of it.

"Nature," She pointed out, "Its opposite is fire."

The little drawing of a rock was connected to the drawing of a flame with a one way arrow.  The characters for the images were beneath the pictographs, and Hikaru felt guilty to admit how much easier it was to understand with a picture.

"Fire's opposite is water," Hikaru supposed, following the drawing, "So Isumi can't do fire magick very easily, huh?"

"Yes, from what I've heard of your friend, he wouldn't," Nase drew a yin-yang symbol in the middle of the circle, and tapped it with the stick to emphasize it, "What do you think this is?"

Hikaru caught on, "Life and death magick.  I can do death magick.  But... water, nature, and fire, they're all in the yang symbol.  What are the other ones?"

"Strength, aura, and energy," Nase pointed to each symbol accordingly, "Those are yin magicks."

"I can do those, though," Hikaru caught on, "Wait, all I can do is yin magick.  I can't manage any yang at all."

"Yang is elemental manipulation, and comes from life, the energy around us.  That is yang," Nase pointed to herself, and then to the rest of the place around them.  The air seemed to be buzzing with magick, with it all swirling and dancing through maple leaves and sakura blossoms, rippling across the crystal clear pond water and tickling his cheek in the whistling breeze.

The Great Shrine of Zougeiro was full of magick.

"Life magick... that's yang?"

"Yeah, life magick is perhaps the ultimate form of yang magick, like death magick is the ultimate form of yin.  Yin is internal manipulation, personal magick..." Nase pursed her lips in concentration, before she said, "Aha!  Okay, I got it.  Remember how I said that the people who are in tune with nature have a hard time with fire?  Those who are naturally yang have trouble with yin, and vice versa.  However, the only people in the world that are naturally in tune with yin are the kurosumomo.  Life and death magick, both of those belong to the Kurosumomo alone, and that's why they're treated like the kings of all monsters, called grim reapers.  They aren't death itself, but the managers of the balance of death.  That's why they are naturally yin.  Everyone else is naturally in tune with yang, because they are alive, and kurosumomo inherently are, um, not?"

Hikaru looked down at his knees, wearing the same red hakama as all the other shrine attendees; for some reason, he was always an outcast even when he looked exactly like everyone else.  This explained that.  His feelings, obsession, whatever with Touya came from that; there was finally a person he could say he was no different from.  The idea of a rival, an equal; that was an addicting motivation when he’d isolated himself from everyone, whether purposefully or not.

Mumbling, he asked, "What do mean, we're not inherently alive?"

"Oh, not, um--!" Nase waved her hands dismissively, blushing up to her ears, "You misunderstood me!  The best way I can explain it, is that you and Touya are partially dead.  Your souls are more like a ghost's than a human's.  I've heard that you can just detach your souls entirely from your bodies if you wanted to!  Normal people can't do that without lots of training, and even then, it's dangerous for us."

Hikaru remembered doing just that, walking straight out of his body.  He'd been attached to his physical form with nothing more than a thin rope of his orange aura.  He hadn't thought much about it since, just brushing it off as just another weird experience.

The brown haired deer girl frowned, "When you go through the ceremony, and fully become a kurosumomo, you become even more dead.  Since you're mostly dead already, nothing can kill you anymore.  Your body ceases to become something you need to live, you could just discard it entirely and be fine, so nothing that happens to it will harm you."

Ah.  So that's how the whole becoming immortal thing worked.

"What ceremony?" He asked, jarred out of his nodding along to her explanation.

"You know so little!" Nase giggled, "I feel so smart sometimes."

Hikaru groaned, "Don't be mean!  I know I'm not the usual material but you could try to take my questions seriously!"

"Fine, fine!  The young master is almost ready to take the ceremony.  His father doesn't want to pass the candle until then, and it's been sort of arranged that they're waiting for you to challenge the young master and that’ll decide who gets to take it."

"Yes, but what is it?"

"It's where the heir becomes the next kurosumomo.  The old Kurosumomo goes into the deepest part of the shrine, where there's this secret room that no one can go into, unless they're an heir or the Kurosumomo himself.  It’s called the room of profound darkness.  No one knows what goes on in that room but the old Kurosumomo never comes back out once he's entered with an heir.  The heir exits, and can't ever talk again.  The shrine attendants sew their mouth shut, and the process is complete."

Hikaru raised an eyebrow, "That was specific."

"I'm not allowed to know such sensitive stuff!" Nase huffed, her thick nails clicking against the wood of her makeshift stylus.

He crossed his arms, "How can there be two heirs with the death magick?  If it's this sacred thing, with all these ceremonies, it's not just unheard of, it's...against the flow of nature or something!"

"I'm sorry, I don't know, Shindou," Nase leaned back on her palms, "I don't have all the answers.  But if I had to guess, I'd say it's because of the young master."


“Why would you guess that?”

Nase shook her head softly, “I’m sorry, Ogata forbid me to say anything about it at all.  Maybe if you can get the young master to tell you himself, then…”

Hikaru hated the fact that there was a secret hiding in Zougeiro that no one would speak of, the secret that explained everything, and that quite clearly, it pointed to Touya.  It all pointed back to Touya.  Everything of Hikaru’s was interwoven with Touya somehow, and it didn’t seem weird to him to know that this secret of the two of them pointed straight back to Touya himself.  This secret could be the answer to saving them both.  He wanted—no, had to uncover it.

It took two days before Hikaru got his wish to see Touya in person.

Touya looked like he remembered him; properly arranged, hair straight and cut bluntly below his ears, his eyes still a green so sharp that meeting his eyes was like cutting himself on glass.  Hikaru tried to soothe his heart, thudding as it was in his chest, as he watched him from across the courtyard.

It wouldn't take long if he ran, and Touya would be within his reach.

A hand touched Hikaru's shoulder, nails biting into his flesh, and Hikaru had to tear his eyes from the person he most wanted to confront to address the person assaulting him from behind.

Ogata, Hikaru thought with irritation.  Ogata had been a thorn in his side ever since he showed up here, and nothing had ceased to anger him about the Orochi, who proved he was a slithery, slimy toad every time he so much as spoke to Hikaru.  The duel-haired teen believed that Ogata was a master of magick, he'd seen him in action, but he didn’t believe that the blonde was any form of respectable being.

“Don’t disrupt the young master,” Ogata sneered, his fingers clawing out a rhythm in Hikaru’s shoulder, “At the moment, he has no time for you.”

“If that was true, he wouldn’t be standing there—” Hikaru shook his shoulder free, the movement more violent than he’d expected.  But, it was too late; Touya was steered away down the hallway by an attendants’ hands just as abruptly as Hikaru had been, pushed away from each other before they could get out a word.

Hikaru watched as white robes disappeared beyond a paper screen door, and he could feel Ogata’s terrible smirk from behind him, the calculating evil behind the spectacle'd eyes of his.

“You hate me for some reason,” Hikaru hissed, turning on the snake-like man.

“Of course.  You’re an outsider, but I’d rather call you an invader, and so long as the Touya family does not see you, you will continue to be so until we forcefully remove you from the premises,” The blonde smirked, “We can’t have you with your designs on our young master.”

The duel-haired teenager snorted, “What designs?  What sort of threat is a teenaged boy?”

“Too much of one,” Ogata shoved him back, up against the wall, sword drawn a threatening stretch out of its sheath as a reminder that magick was not the only weapon that Hikaru would have to be wary of.

Hikaru wanted to shove him back and scream a bit, just enough to force the man away.  He was a strong opponent, stronger than Hikaru, and as he kept being reminded, he wasn’t immortal quite yet. Maybe he’d never be, if it came to that.  But he needed more information to figure out the puzzle, of how to keep both of them alive through this.

“Give me a chance to prove myself, if I have to!  I’ll do anything you demand, so long as I can talk to Touya afterwards!” Hikaru grabbed Ogata’s hand and tried to shove him away. When he resisted, his sword inching out, he grabbed the hilt of his own sword, swinging it in a flashing arc to smash against the older man’s, using his strength magick to parry the blow and create some space between them.

“A chance, you demand,” Ogata slid his foot forward, and almost too fast Hikaru had to duck to dodge the slush of ice spears effortlessly spit at him.  One movement for such complicated elemental magick?  Hikaru jumped forward and spun on his left foot, drawing an arch of blood from his lightning quick sword strike.  After that, Hikaru noticed that Ogata would not risk getting close to him, his wariness revealing his weaknesses like when the clouds pull away to show the sun.

He ducked and jumped and sent a wave of pure magick and knocked Ogata over, finishing him off quick before they could get into a longer battle by forcing him back down with his foot.  Catching his breath, he repeated, “A chance to prove myself.”

A foot from behind them stomped gently, a way of announcing his presence.  The two turned to glance at the newcomer, and Hikaru was surprised to see a tall man with a thick white kimono, dressed up to the nines, and with dignified salt and pepper hair and a regal stature.  His mouth was sewn tightly shut with thick black thread, so the expression on his face seemed to be permanently locked into a stern grimace.

“Master!” Ogata hastily shoved Hikaru away and rearranged his clothes as best he could in a hasty manner, “Why have you left your quarters, when…”

“I see my son’s adversary in the flesh for the first time,” This thought echoed in Hikaru’s head, and it felt, like an autumn day where your breath comes out in puffs of white, cold somehow.  Like an icy breeze, it was accompanied by a tiny bow from the man, who obviously had no business bowing to Hikaru.

“Um,” Hikaru said in a very articulate fashion, very organized and with his bearing straight, obviously. “Well, I, erm, uh…”

Ogata rolled his eyes, “Someone stop that boy before he hurts himself.  He might move well but his brain is completely empty.”

Hikaru hissed under his breath, “You wanna get your ass kicked again, jerk?”

“I know your tricks now,” Ogata folded his hands together much like how Sai enjoyed doing, and the gesture was so familiar that it actually repulsed Hikaru instead of comforted him from how it looked on an enemy.

“Don’t fight,” The man laughed in his head, frozen and condescending and completely steely, “Shindou Hikaru, I have heard of you from my son.”

Hikaru wasn’t stupid.  Tall and regal was in all white.  There was only one sort of being he could possibly be, and there was only one son around here that could possibly have talked about him.  This was the Kurosumomo.

“I will accept your challenge,” The Kurosumomo, Touya senior, smiled, the stitching on his lips stretching morbidly.

Hikaru stood a bit straighter, “What do you mean, um, Touya…”

“Touya-meijin, please.”

“What do you mean, Touya-meijin?” He demanded, the name thick on his tongue.  It was hard to associate the name Touya with this man that looked nothing like his own son. Perhaps their hair was a similar sort of dark, but there was nothing else.  Maybe in their eyes and their personality, but it was hard to associate Touya’s slim and fluid androgynous appearance with his father’s weathered wrinkled skin and harsh lines.

“You wanted a chance to prove yourself and your worth of staying here.  Dance with me,” Touya-meijin opened his arms wide, his long sleeves enlarging his presence, “to prove your worth, and I will evaluate whether or not you belong here.”

Of course, Hikaru thought, I can do that—

“LET ME, HIKARU, PLEASE!” Sai screamed, suddenly there, suddenly everywhere, his voice overpowering everything else, “Let me be the one!”

Sai… Hikaru jolted, knocked off balance and his hands grappling for something to support him, Sai!  No, this is to prove my worth!  It won’t be right if I let you have a go with him, not when he’d supposed to be evaluating me.  You can have your magick battle with him later!

“I don’t have any time left,” Sai demanded, his hands feeling chilly on Hikaru’s shoulders as he squeezed just a bit too hard.  “It has to be this, it has to be me!”

“Shindou, do you accept my challenge?” The kurosumomo looked upon him with a certain judgmental ice in his thoughts, his mouth pursed in a grim line, and each stitch made Hikaru feel sick.

“I do,” Hikaru said, and bowed as Touya-meijin took Ogata by the arm and left.  Hikaru waited until their backs turned out of sight, before turning back to Sai, I can’t let you fight this time.

Sai’s hands formed fists, knuckles turning white and trembling from the extremity of the action, “Hikaru!  Please, I have so little time left here on this earth!”

Why do you keep saying that?!  You’re only going to leave once I surpass you and become the Kurosumomo!  If I ran away now and never improved again, you’d be here forever! Hikaru knew the thought was petty but if he had to lose his friend, he could be petty about it at least a little.  If that was the cost of Sai’s continued presence, he could suffer it.

“Hikaru, it’s not like that! Just give me this one thing you promised.”  The pleading tone should have been enough to convince him but it wasn’t.  Why was Sai so adamant on getting the one thing that meant so much to Hikaru?  He had fought to get a chance to prove himself and now Sai wanted to take away something that could have severe consequences.

I didn’t promise this!  It’ll happen again, I promise, that you can compete with him.  But this is my challenge to prove myself, not yours.

Sai’s eyes dropped to the floor, and he said forlornly, “Why did I think you would understand?”

He did understand though.  This chance was not a chance that came by every day, and he’d been promising Sai that he could test his meddle against the current kurosumomo since the beginning.  It meant so much to Sai to be able to do this. 

But this wasn’t any fight.  This fight would determine whether or not he would stay here and see Touya.  He couldn’t figure out how to save them both if he was told never to come back, was killed in the duel and that was that.

Sai was stronger than him, though.  Sai was his most important friend and teacher, his guide and almost like a parent to him.  Sai could win this fight, no problem.  Sai wanted this more than anything. Hikaru felt guilty for wanting it too. 

“Fine!!” Hikaru covered his mouth, realizing he’d said it aloud on accident, But I’m giving you a handicap!  You can’t use any magick I don’t know.  Those are the rules.  He has to think it’s me that is challenging him, not you.  I can’t have him second guess me for this.  If this goes wrong, I lose Touya and Zougeiro altogether.

“…Hikaru, this means more than anything on earth.  Thank you!!” Sai took a nosedive towards him, and he did his best to open his arms and not twitch when he felt the awkward sensation of a ghost passing right through his body.

Hikaru grinned, Do your best for me.  This means a lot to both of us.

“I absolutely will!” Sai beamed at him, the brightest smile adorning his face.  Even though it hurt him to pass over the challenge, seeing Sai so happy was worth it.

Sai might’ve stuck around for a bit, but by dinnertime the specter had vanished once again.  Hikaru inhaled through his nose and rolled over on his futon, the day having exhausted him to bits.

A knock shook him out of his descent into sleep, and when the sliding door opened anyways to admit someone wearing a shrine maiden uniform, Hikaru just assumed it was Nase.

“It’s super late, Nase, is something up?” He asked, leaning up and rubbing at his eyes.

“Shh!” The person brought a finger to their lips and went for the lantern, lighting its candle with a whispered spell.

The light ignited more of Hikaru’s questions than it answered.  In the soft gold glow of the lantern, the late night visitor’s face became visible.  The short, choppy haircut and the softened green eyes, the high cheekbones and the mouth that he’d kissed more than once; it was definitely not Nase who came to see him.  It was…

“Touya,” This name Hikaru expelled in a breath without truly realizing it, and he stared, dumbfounded, for a heartbeat too long.

“Didn’t I just tell you to hush?” Touya whispered, kneeling down closer and folding his legs into proper sitting position.

Hikaru felt very aware of his sprawling position and shuffled himself into sitting cross-legged.  When he looked back up again, their eyes met.  He asked in his softest voice, “Why are you here?”

“Isn’t it more fitting for me to ask you that?  I live here,” Touya looked away guiltily, “I came here because I was told that you challenged Ogata, and through him, my father.”

“I did.”  Hikaru couldn’t think of what to say.  He was a slight bit stunned to see Touya in the flesh.  Touya had almost become an idea rather than a person in the years they spent apart, and even though their meeting half a year ago had reminded him that they were both human, no—that they were both real, it was still hard to dispel the shock of it.

Touya looked at him, steadfast, “My father is excellent at magick and an even better dancer.  You will lose.”

“The point’s not for me to win this challenge,” Hikaru cocked a grin, gaining a bit of his confidence back, “The point’s that I prove I’m worthy of you.  I am going to prove to everyone here that we’re equals, win or lose.  It might mean coming back here even after I’m banished and trying again, but I have questions and I know this place can answer them.”

“About why you exist,” Touya murmured under his breath, barely audible in the stagnant night air.

“Yeah, I gotta know.  I have these abilities that aren’t natural, not to humans, and neither of my parents is anything but a normal human.  I know at least that much about my dad, even if he’s gone all the time. There’s no source that caused it that I can think of, but… what we have can’t just be a random accident,” Hikaru frowned.

Touya smoothed out the hakama covering his legs, his pale hands resting on his knees.  There were callouses on his fingers, and Hikaru couldn’t rip his gaze off of them.

“Aren’t you ever curious?  About… us,” Hikaru gulped, unsure of what to say or how to say it.

“Us?” The other boy turned his head away, his hair slipping from behind his ear back to frame his cheeks, “Maybe about you, but I’m not in the habit of questioning myself.”

“I meant, you know--!” Hikaru didn’t know how to put it in words that didn’t come out sounding like one of them was meant to die.  He was going to save them both, and neither of them were going to die.  This prophecy thing where there was only supposed to be one heir had fucked up somehow but now there were duel heirs, and Hikaru was going to make sure that they both lived. “—about why there are two heirs when there should be one, why there’s us instead of just you.”

Touya leaned forward, his hand touching Hikaru’s, folding over his with a sort of gentle determination, “I know what you meant.  But when the only other person in the world who can kiss me says us, I have to remind myself not to get my hopes up.”

“Hopes?” Hikaru asked, his jaw slack, his heart doing funny things in his chest, his head about to burst.

“I haven’t ever wanted to be something other than what I am, but I have thought about what it would be like if I wasn’t myself.  There are certain normal things we shall always be denied.”

“Like kissing,” Hikaru realized, leaning forward.  Even if it killed him, he could just lean forward and kiss him, finally feel his soul again.  It had been a bit of a revelation when he’d figured out that Touya was his inspiration, his guide towards his answers.  He was starting to think this meant he loved Touya as well.

He sort of did love Touya.

Kissing him, right here, right now, he could do that.

Hikaru’s eyes connected with harsh green ones as their noses bumped together softly, their foreheads pressed together.

“I could kiss you right now,” he whispered.

“But you shouldn’t,” Touya sounded gentle, soft, as he whispered back, “I don’t want you to die.”

“I won’t,” Hikaru said, and kissed him.

He’d severely underestimated the deed when he’d been considering it.  The actual touch was glorious, just soft lips against his, but the magick it activated was overwhelming, and this was the first time Hikaru had felt it this strongly, without Sai to control it.  His magick surged up, from that dark place that magick only came from when he remembered their previous kisses, and it slammed into Touya’s, a tidal wave of desperate energy that sucked back and plowed forward at the same time, completely out of Hikaru’s control.  Touya’s soul, which before had been green, soft and inviting with flickers of blue and pink, was now so blinding that Hikaru couldn’t even see its colors, couldn’t even look at it, and Touya’s magick felt like a forest fire, licking at the edges of his own.

It was a good burn, like a piping hot sip of scalding tea, and he was thirsty, parched.  He wanted to drink down all of Touya until his soul answered with its own fire.

Against his better judgment, Hikaru forced his magick to obey his will, manipulated it and drew it back, painfully and not with anything that could be described as ease, to rest inside him.  He wasn’t going to hurt Touya, and he knew that his rival wasn’t going to hurt him either.

At first his soul surged forward, far too fast, but then he felt Touya’s wildfire cease, Hikaru’s body aching with as the embers of the supernova of the dark haired teen’s magick drew itself back as well, and for a moment their kiss was just a kiss and nothing more, before their mouths separated with a soft pop.

“Like kissing, there are some things we’re forbidden,” Touya said, withdrawing, his tone suddenly sharp and all the kindness in his voice gone, “Myself more than you, I assume.  You were asking about if I ever thought about us.  About why there are two of us… I think I always knew the answer to that.”

Wonder and betrayal filled Hikaru’s voice, “You knew?”

Touya stiffened, his hands clenching the ends of his sleeves, “I didn’t understand it but I knew it.  And now I understand.”

“Tell me.”

Touya remained silent, his mouth shut firmly.  His eyes were downcast, and suddenly they looked tired, as if their kiss had ravaged him, stole his energy without stealing his soul.

But this had to do with whether they would both live or die, it was this secret that meant everything.  It didn’t matter how tired, miserable, exhausted, drained, whatever Touya was at the moment, Hikaru was having none of it. 

“Tell me, Touya,” He insisted, “Please, it matters.”

The kurosumomo heir was frustratingly quiet, to the point where Hikaru saw red.  Why was Touya hiding this from him?  Why would he bring it up like that if not to say something?  It concerned them both; Hikaru had a right to know!  Touya couldn’t just keep mum about something like this.  Hikaru’d spent so long looking for it!  It could mean that they both got to live at the end of this, if only Hikaru knew, and Touya was just sitting there, mute and demure, as if he wasn’t denying something from Hikaru that he’d been searching for since he was eleven, since he met Sai and learned about himself, since so long ago!

Hikaru reached out, unthinking, and grabbed the front of Touya’s plain white kimono, pulled him closer, close enough that their eyes couldn’t avoid looking at each other, “Tell me why I have these powers.”

Touya saw something in his eyes that made him finally admit, “I don’t know why you have them.”

“You just said you did!” Hikaru hissed, the thought of Touya lying to him hurting him somewhere deep down.  Touya was honest, if nothing else, always had been honest, and the thought of him lying…

“I know why there are two heirs, but I don’t know why you’re the other heir,” The dark haired teen clarified.

“Why are there two heirs, then?” Hikaru would take any hint, at this point.  Anything that could help him unravel the mystery and figure out how to save the both of them.

“Because I am illegitimate.”  

Touya stood up, brushing off his hakama.  Turning sharply, he left the room through the screen door, leaving Hikaru to actually think about those words.

Touya was… illegitimate?  But Hikaru was the one who had nothing of a kurosumomo other than his powers.  He didn’t have the hair or the skin, the upbringing or the parentage.  If Touya could be called illegitimate, then so should he.  Hikaru was the invader, as Ogata put it.

How was Touya even remotely illegitimate?  Was it connected to the half-breed thing his kidnapper had referenced?  Gah!  That was one of those things where when the question was answered it just brought up more questions.  And Hikaru was going to get answers.  Touya might not tell him more himself, but he would take everyone head on until everything was sorted out, and that was that.

Nase did nothing to answer his questions when he bugged her the next day.  He had to wait a while before the Kurosumomo finished his business and would be available, although what business he was up to was not on a need-to-know basis, apparently.  Their dance had been postponed until two days from now, and Hikaru needed that time to polish his magick in preparation for the fight.

He’d promised Sai could fight it, but he needed to be in prime condition to match Sai’s elegant, precise, deadly techniques to the specter’s satisfaction.

So two days.  And he was spending them harassing training with Nase.

“Touya said he was illegitimate!  What does that even mean?  I want answers but also I want to kick him for giving me such a vague statement!” Hikaru grumbled, stretching out his arms behind his back.

Nase swatted him with a broom, “Sweeping here.  Please stop standing where I need to sweep.”

“You’re just as bad as he is.  You won’t say anything!”

“I can’t tell you about the young master’s legitimacy or lack thereof.  He’s perfectly legitimate in all the ways that matter, as you already know.  You need to talk to him yourself.”

“I don’t know where to find him!” Hikaru whined, snatching the broom away from Nase so she’d properly pay attention to him.

“Go to his rooms!” She grabbed the broom back.

He took the broom yet again with a harsh tug, “Where are his rooms?!”

Nase sighed and let him keep the broom, “Remember when I gave you your tour of the Great Shrine and I told you to keep away from the west wing of the building?  I said something about there being lots of mosquitos, but that was a lie.  That’s where the kurosumomo and his family reside, and their private quarters.  Now let me sweep in peace!  I have so many chores today and Ogata will kill me if I don’t finish on time!”

“Fine, fine, I’ll go find Touya then!” Hikaru stuck his tongue out, but finally relinquished the broom to her awaiting palms.

He turned to go back inside the main entrance, and upon reaching the main hallway, followed the path towards the kitchens.  If he remembered correctly, then that was the way to the west wing.  Not that he’d ever been in the west wing before.  Hikaru hated mosquitos, even if there hadn’t been too many in Ojikeshi.  To know that there wasn’t actually a mosquito infestation and that Nase had lied was really frustrating, because he’d also been avoiding spending time near the kitchen in fear that the mosquitos would expand their borders and take over there, next.

The dark hallway leading off from the kitchens to the west wing was very short, and as he walked down it, he came upon a turn at the end, which led to another equally short hallway in another direction.  The further Hikaru went, the more he understood that the building was made to be a labyrinth here, and that one really, really, had to want to get to the end of it to keep getting twisted and turned every few steps in a dark path that seemingly went nowhere.

Finally, it opened up into a nice lit hallway, with a window at the very end and lanterns to make up for what the window didn’t quite reach, with three sets of ornate sliding paper doors.

One door held the yin-yang symbol, another had bamboo leaves and dragonflies, and yet another was a go board with two players sitting at the ready.  It was hard to know which was which, and Hikaru couldn’t decide which to try.  Did he knock and hope Touya answered?  What if he accidentally knocked on the wrong door, and the Kurosumomo came out of his room?  What if the Kurosumomo decided he was obnoxious, snooping scum and banished him, on principle?!

No, he had to be sneaky about it.

Hikaru approached the closest door, the one with the yin-yang symbol, and right as he was about to touch the door to peek inside, he heard footsteps from within.

Shit, shit, shit!  He panicked.  This door was no good, he’d just sneak inside the next one and hope either Touya or nobody was home.

Slipping inside the door just as he saw the Kurosumomo exit the paper doors with the yin-yang symbol to his right, Hikaru let out a sigh of relief.

He looked around the room he’d actually entered, the one with the dragonflies, and saw a room full of exquisite trinkets; combs made of jade, ivory, ebony, encrusted with pearls and diamonds, necklaces with pedants and beads probably worth more than he did himself, long, draping kimonos in every pattern imaginable with silk brocade obis draped next to their stands, all in all a room full of treasure.  A large silk screen separated the main portion of the room from what he assumed was the bedchamber, judging by the shadow of an ornate bed behind it, so most of the size of the room had to be estimated.  It was hard, with riches coating every corner, to think of it in that sort of way.  The room looked like the room of a queen, a wealthy queen.

Hikaru highly doubted he’d found Touya’s room.

A voice, probably one of the worst, screechy croaks he’d ever heard in his life, said slowly, “Is that you, Nase?”

Hikaru was stunned to silence, unable to speak or confess his snooping to who he guessed was Touya’s mother, the lady of the house.  Or his grandmother or something, who knew from that sort of voice.  No, Nase had said that the Touya family only included the three members, there shouldn’t be any extended family members here.

“I’m terribly thirsty, can you get me a glass of water?  You’re awfully quiet today,” she rasped, and the shadow of her figure behind the screen motioned something with her hand.

“I’m not Nase,” Hikaru managed to say, “My name is Hikaru.”

Nase had said that only she was allowed to attend to the mistress of the house, and Hikaru feared deeply in his soul that she’d react horribly and order for his death or something.

Instead, she coughed and said, phlegm in her choked tone, “Oh, that’s a nice name.  Mind fetching me water anyway?  My throat feels terrible today.”

He could believe that, judging from how she sounded like she was suffering terribly, with a croak like that.  Hikaru eyeballed a tea set on the right side of the room, next to carved jade dragons, a silver hair brush, and a calligraphy set. Was the kitchen terribly far back?  It sort of was… but he spotted that there was a sink on the other side of the room, and that would do.  Even if he was going to be serving Touya’s mother tap water, it meant he didn’t have to venture out of the room, and she’d probably not even notice if she was drinking it with a throat that sore.

He filled up the cup and walked towards the screen, unsure if it was okay to pass around it.  How should he give her the water?  Was there a door?

“Don’t mind the screen, please,” Touya’s mother said, and her voice, despite its screeching quality, sounded amused.  She was having a grand time, somehow, and it leaked through into her tone.

“Okay, um,” Hikaru opened the screen and took a step inside, “Please excuse the intru—”

He almost dropped the glass of water.  She was… the woman in this room was a genten no bakemono.  She wasn’t only sick, like Hikaru had thought, that voice was just her voice.

The woman had short dark hair, stringy, greasy, and combed back in a desperate attempt to tame it.  Her eyes were a dull black, the whites of her eyes yellowed, her teeth chipped and broken, her tongue swollen, her body limp and boney and fat somehow all at the same time.  Her stomach was lumpy and her mouth was cracked and dry.

Hikaru recovered from his bout of staring, and fearful that he might die painfully, he placed the cup of water in her hand gingerly and took a step back.

“Thank you, dear,” She took a long sip, in a way that would’ve been elegant if she had been a court lady, or really, any sort of true human at all.

“It wasn’t a problem,” Hikaru said, his voice steady despite his fear.

The last genten no bakemono he tried to help tried to kill him.  He didn’t favor his chances here, even though she had been perfectly hospitable.  There had to be a multitude of ways she was planning on ending him.

No wonder Nase was the only shrine attendant allowed to serve Touya’s mother.  Genten no Bakemono always tried to kill every man they came across unless there was something stopping them.  Because men are the ones who stole their beauty, stole their humanity, stole everything they knew from them just for the joys of sex.

“Are you Touya’s mother?” Hikaru asked, “I mean, the younger one.  The son.  Akira.”

“Oh, are you Akira’s friend?  Yes, I am Touya Akiko.  Akira is my precious child.  I am proud of him, he’s very talented,” She smiled, and it only made her lip crack and bleed into her water.  Pus gushed out of one of the sores on her cheeks from being stretched so, and it was horrible to watch.  Hikaru had to physically stop himself from shuddering.

He gently handed her a napkin from the closest table, and slowly, Hikaru said, “We’re friends, of a sort.  Actually it’s more like we’re rivals.  You see, for some reason there’s two heirs instead of one, and I’m the other heir.”

Touya’s mother’s face turned to stone, “So you’re here to try and kill Akira?”

“No!” Hikaru blurted out before he could think, “I mean, sort of but, no.  I’d let him kill me before I’d kill him myself, but technically we’re supposed to have a duel to the death.”

Her lips twisted up into something of a smirk, “I see.  Do you love my son?”

He didn’t have a good answer for her.  He didn’t know yet.  Hikaru didn’t have anything else more coherent than that, so that’s what he told her.  He just did not know what his feelings were exactly for Touya yet.  It was a half yes, half maybe, or something equally as confusing.

“You have a good heart, I can see it,” She tapped her hand over her heart, “He’ll see it too.  For my sake, please don’t ever let yourself love him.  It’d be far better if you were dead.”

Hikaru shuddered under her gaze, unable to promise anything.

“I don’t want to see him hurt,” she admitted, and Hikaru, who liked to think he didn’t judge on appearances but it turns out he really did more so than he would like, finally began to understand Touya Akiko.  She was no monster, she felt everything as humanly as he did.  And even though all of her beauty had been stolen when she’d become pregnant, her humanity never suffered a blow, because Touya-meijin had seen through her outer appearance and saw the beauty of her soul inside, and never wavered in his love for her.

It was easy enough to see in the room.  The Kurosumomo treated his wife like a queen, and all of her things were lovingly taken care of.  She was honest and kind, two traits Hikaru could see in her son clear as day.

And her soul was beautiful.  The soft hues of pink that Hikaru occasionally saw shot through Touya’s were the bright color of her own soul, and it shone, not with magick, but inner strength, peace, and love.  Her curse was essentially broken, because her outer appearance didn’t matter any longer.

The Kurosumomo had forbidden men to see her was so that she never had any outsiders try to damage her core goodness, because she must’ve known, even though there wasn’t a single mirror in the room, that she had transformed into something hideous on the outside.  Having men label her a monster for it, that wouldn’t do anything but hurt her.  Even women, too, could say horrible things, but at least women would be spared from her ire if she ever lost herself to the same all-consuming grief of the genten no bakemono.

Hikaru then felt something click.

If Touya’s mother was a genten no bakemono, then Touya too should be.  He should be a daughter, because all the genten no bakemono gave birth to daughters.  And even if he wasn’t a daughter, he should have the same damn curse.  Even though technically the kurosumomo were human, they also technically were not.  Like Nase said, they were born different, partially dead.

The great secret of Zougeiro was that the Kurosumomo’s wife and son were both monsters.

Waya had explained that normally, half-breeds were crazy, violent, murderous animals.  That they were taboo, forbidden.  Even if that description was so very far away from Touya, it must not have mattered to fate.  The universe had ruled him illegitimate for being a half-breed and found another heir.

“You don’t want me to love him because you’re afraid he’ll be a genten no bakemono,” Hikaru whispered, almost hoping that she wouldn’t catch it, “And you can’t risk it if he loses his mind like that, because he has too much magick and could essentially become immortal if he goes through this ceremony.”

“You aren’t wrong, but that oversimplifies the matter,” Akiko answered, her croak hissing in the still air.

“I’m the only real threat, aren’t I?  Because Touya can’t kill me, but anyone else he kisses is toast so romance would normally not even be an issue,” Hikaru realized, thinking it over, “A relationship would be too terrifying for anyone to consider.  It’s hard enough finding someone who’ll accept that you can kill them with a kiss and that you will have your mouth sewn shut for the rest of your life, that you’ll hold supreme power over life and death and would outlive them and maybe a thousand others like them too, but finding someone who’ll accept that you’ll transform into an insane, murderous creature that wants to kill people after you have sex?  That’s near impossible.”

“Touya is terrified of intimacy far more than he has ever desired companionship,” She coughed into her napkin, flecks of pink staining the white from her blood, “You are the only person I have ever felt afraid of.”

“I don’t understand why you’re scared,” Hikaru stared at his sock covered feet, wiggling his toes.

“My son has spoken of you with affection,” Touya Akiko bowed her head, “I understand the longing to not have this solitude.  But I am dying, and my husband does not wish to live on without me.  A new kurosumomo will soon rise, but I only wish that you did not have to die for my son to live.”

“If I die, then Touya is safe from the whole, losing-his-sanity thing,” He felt a shiver run down his back, something like his convictions wavering.

“Yes, that’s the ideal,” She smiled again, and this time Hikaru saw the beauty behind her wrinkles and bleeding, sore covered skin, “But he may die after all.  The universe saw to it that he could die without consequences.”

“I’m not going to kill Touya,” Hikaru shook his head slowly, smiling even though he wanted to cry, “I’m going to find a way for both of us to live.”

Akiko folded her frail, yellowed and black with bruises, hands together, “I look forward to seeing if you can.”

Hikaru stood stiffly, uncomfortable in his own skin.  Talking to Touya’s mother had uncovered more than he’d have liked to know.  He could barely look at anyone now that he knew their dangerous game that they were playing.  Touya was a fuse and they were spending all their time desperately making sure he was never lit.  And Hikaru was essentially fire.

They couldn’t coexist.  But here he was, trying his best to make sure they both did.  This match meant more than Hikaru had originally thought it did.

He’d promised Sai that the ghost could fight this match himself, but Hikaru had no clue where the ghost even was.  The challenge was about to start, and Hikaru was a sitting duck, just watching as Touya-meijin took off his heavier robes so he could move about easier.

As an official sort of watcher, a referee perhaps, Ogata stood at the sidelines and was tapping his sandal covered foot in irritation.

Hikaru felt sort of guilty that he’d kept his sword on him, but he didn’t know how intense things were going to get, and if Sai didn’t show up and start dancing with him, he’d have to use his own rough style of fighting and dancing together in hopes of having even a chance in hell.  He wasn’t even quite sure what the Kurosumomo was testing for here, because Touya-meijin was just as confusing as his super confusing and frustrating son.  Were they still pretending this fight wasn’t about kicking Hikaru the hell away from Touya?

Yes, he was still sort of upset about the whole great secret thing.  And he was about to try and beat the shit out of Touya’s father to get the aggression out if Sai didn’t show his face anytime soon.

Just as Ogata made the signal to start, Sai appeared by Hikaru’s side, face geared for a fight.  He looked regal and imposing, and though Hikaru knew he was the only one who could see him, he thought it was a shame that all anyone would see of Sai in this fight was Hikaru’s desperate mimicry.  Sai deserved so much better than that.  Sai, whose eyes were latched onto his opponent with not even a glance for Hikaru himself.

Hikaru thought, It’s finally here.  Are you ready, Sai?

“I am.  I see that troubling news has reached your ears, but you’ve kept your promise despite that.  Thank you, Hikaru,” the specter inhaled deeply, his hands moving to create a semi-circle around his torso, a pose of calm and grounding.

Hikaru copied him, and, letting the familiar voice of Sai guide him, he started to dance.

Waves of blue were already in the air, a thick dark hue that looked like the night sky, and every move Hikaru copied let off sparkles of lavender, painting stars against an inky canvas.  It was a perfect dance he was copying, perfect in that his moves were choreographed effortlessly by his tutor to eviscerate every weakness in the powerful magick of their immortal opponent.

It wasn’t like Sai and Hikaru’s dance with Touya, where Touya had danced with a fervor that brought them close, too close, their magicks tangling and biting at one another until Touya collapsed in an instant.  It didn’t have the same heat, because the Kurosumomo’s magick was like a heavy, suffocating blanket, and Sai fought back by cutting through it with a thin blade.  It was subtle, and each move weighed heavily on the outcome.

But somehow, Hikaru could keep track, and he noticed a moment where Touya-meijin, instead of pulling towards them and focusing all his power at once, a sure way to overcome them, hesitated, and it was just enough that Sai managed to tear the curtain of the night magick away into a blistering, blinding display of magick.

As Hikaru had asked, Sai hadn’t used any moves or magicks that Hikaru didn’t know.  But the style was such a far cry from what he normally would use that he felt horribly incriminated, as the Kurosumomo’s soul laid out in his hands to manipulate.

But then, without a pause, a dark pulse of Touya-meijin’s magick blasted everything around them into nothing, and it was like Hikaru was jarred back into reality.  He just now felt the sweat on his skin and the fatigue in his muscles.  Feeling returned in prickles in his toes and fingertips, exertion weighed down his breath.  He was, simply and utterly, completely exhausted.

“Well done,” Touya-meijin did that creepy smile thing with his lips.

“Does this mean…” Hikaru took a deep breath, “That I get to stay here?  That I’ve earned your trust?”

Does this mean you trust me around your son, now?

The Kurosumomo looked amused, like he was being a simple, silly person without a logical thought in his head.  “It means you have become my son’s challenger.  You two must now duel to the death, however when that duel shall be depends on how much longer I desire to remain in this world.  But you may stay here until that duel, if that is your wish.  You are now as much a legitimate heir to me as Akira.”

Right, Hikaru thought, the whole duel thing.  Had nothing to do with the fact I’m in love with Touya and can potentially make him destroy himself.

“Hikaru, I don’t think he knows that you know of Touya’s heritage,” Sai told him.

What, Touya’s mom didn’t spill the beans? Whatever, right now I have to ask.

He cleared his throat, “Er, is there no way that we don’t have to duel?”

Ogata remarked, “We could just kill one of you two and let the other become heir on default.”

“Why does one of us have to die?!  Is there any scenario where both of us walk out of this alive?” Hikaru demanded, taking a step forward towards Touya-meijin.

“It’s the way of the universe,” Sai said softly, unhelpfully, “If left on your own, you’d perhaps someday discover the secrets of life magick, even without the ceremony, and you could destroy the balance of life and death, essentially the entire universe.  Even if that was not the case, from what your memories have told me about Touya’s birth, there was never a way for both you and Touya to live.  I’m sorry I deceived you.”

…Sai?  Why did you…?

“There can only be one Kurosumomo, or the world as we know it could be destroyed.  Is your own life worth so much?” Touya-meijin told him, his thoughts somber and stern as his tightly sewn mouth.

“No, but your son’s is,” Hikaru spit out, turning his back on the three of them.  If he had to, he’d die to save Touya.  It wasn’t a hard decision.  He’d always sort of known it’d come to this, this decision that he’d die.

He would, too, would do anything because he knew, Shindou Hikaru knew, that Touya Akira could not die, not for his sake.  There was just too much between the two of them for the both of them to live on.  It was too dangerous.  The burden of that life was one that Hikaru would never be able to carry. 

All that was left for him now was to die.

Chapter Text

If there was an incentive for lifting his head from where it was, rested on his knees, Hikaru couldn’t think of it.  His stomach felt like it was turning against him, like he would vomit but not enough to actually make him toss up whatever food he hadn’t eaten in the last four hours.

Sai floated by his side, looking appropriately guilty.  He had, after all, taken what he had let Hikaru believe and quickly told him that it was a lie, once he’d been presented with all the facts.

“Dance with me, Hikaru?” Sai asked, although it was hard for Hikaru to hear his words.

Hikaru’s first instinct was to tell him to shove his request back up his ass, but he quickly shook the thought from his mind before Sai started sulking or worse.

“What the hell, why not?” Hikaru answered, getting to his feet.  He didn’t really want to dance, but he also did because magick was part of his lifeblood now and he loved Sai’s dancing, loved the deadly precision and style he identified as Sai’s method of manipulating his power.  No one was truly an equal to him, but Touya-meijin was so close.  If not for that one moment of hesitation…

Hikaru started humming, and Sai sang for him.  Sai used Hikaru’s magick as his own, and Hikaru let him, gave up control of it.  He didn’t mind, because he could let Sai use half and use the other half for his own, a trick that he’d developed from their other dancing sessions, so they could truly compete.

Most of their dances were for teaching, and this one was much the same.  Sometimes Hikaru just knew he was being corralled into making certain movements, copying Sai’s techniques because they would work far better than whatever militant motion he’d decided for himself.

But haphazardly realizing that their dance was following the last match between Sai and Touya-meijin, with Hikaru’s magick becoming a thick blanket of orange that Sai’s lavender was slicing through, Hikaru paused and thought, You know, if he hadn’t hesitated here, he’d have completely destroyed us.

Sai stopped as well, “Right about now, he paused? If he’d tried to drop the full weight of his magick just a second earlier…”

Yeah, we’d totally have lost.

“But he did pause.  I won.  I could win again, if I so desired,” Sai frowned, “You should have had the chance to test your worth as well.  I apologize.  As it is now, you’ll only have the chance to defeat him once more if you kill Touya.”

Don’t act like it isn’t set in stone.  You know how I feel about this, Hikaru flopped back down to the futon, his legs and arms spread out wide.  And here I thought my biggest issue would be forcing Touya to forget you.

Sai didn’t respond to that, but simply continued his dance, elegant and synchronized with Hikaru’s breathing, since the rhythm of his feet no longer provided the heartbeat of the song.  Tired, his magick stretched and his limbs sore, Hikaru curled up, and let his ghost do as he pleased.

His eyes were soon glued shut, heavy with his twisted emotions.

Interlude:  Sai

As soon as his protégé fell asleep, Sai could no longer borrow his magick, and had no choice but to be still.  There was a heavy feeling in his heart.

Sai had said it was impossible, had denied it, but… he knew that it was a lie.  Technically, there was something he could do to save Hikaru.  He tentatively tried to touch the boy’s forehead, his palm and long fingers longing to brush aside the stray bangs that fell there, and Sai hurt inside to know he couldn’t. 

Hikaru was so precious.

Sai had been selfish with his other pupil.  He never truly gave him the gift of the ultimate life magick, because he was selfish and he wanted more life of his own.  Kurosumomo passed on that gift to their heirs in the ceremony.  Passing on life magick however, it meant an ultimate sort of death.

Once acquired, it was a life force.  A knowledge of all things.  It could not be separated from the soul, just like how death magick could not be separated from the soul. 

Kurosumomo heirs were born with death magick, born deadly and precious and isolated because their souls were inherently different, unable to truly connect with their bodies.  For every other creature, their life came from their soul’s residence in their body.  Harm to their body could end their life.  A kurosumomo without life magick was the same; their body weakly supplied whatever life it could to a soul that didn’t accept it.  But when they acquired life magick, it became that life source.  Their soul would be alive without their body.  It was not becoming more dead, like Nase Asumi had explained to Hikaru.

It was becoming truly alive.

There was only ever one source of life magick, however.  There could only ever be one.  That’s why there could only ever be one heir, because without life magick, an heir would live a half-life, and their death magick would consume them until they died themselves.

Even fate itself would not be so cruel.

Sai had thought that fate had been cruel to Hikaru since the beginning.  He was born with the power to kiss and kill, the power to manipulate souls through dance, to steal away life, and he had not known, not even for a second.  He had no connections to the previous kurosumomo; there had never been a moment that Touya-meijin had even glanced upon Hikaru before, at least none that Sai knew of.  Sai knew that without gaining control of that magick that Hikaru had been born with, Hikaru could hurt himself and hurt others and would have ultimately died before he could fight to be the rightful heir.  Hikaru would just have to destroy the other heir, Sai had thought.

He had never predicted Hikaru would grow to value Touya Akira’s life over his own.  Maybe he’d known that they would develop some sort of friendship, but never to this extent.  Never so much that he would consider dying for him.

Sai, frustrated with his own short-sightedness, folded his hands together and sighed, deep and low.

He was vanishing back into the afterlife, the true afterlife, the cycle of rebirth.  Once he was reborn, he’d forget everything from before, cease to be a ghost, and go on, living a new life.  No magick could call him back from the dead, his soul cleansed of all that made him ‘Sai’ and renewed.  He’d been resisting the cycle as long as he had a purpose, but… if he did as he was considering, he’d never be needed again.  The more the universe sensed this imbalance, the more it called him back and told him it was time to become born anew.

If both Hikaru and Akira gained life magick, then they both would live.

Sai had never passed on his own life to an heir, or chosen to die.  He’d kept it with him when he went to the afterlife.  He’d angered a powerful exorcist of his time, and that exorcist had wanted to steal his power. They tricked him into leaving his body, and once he’d left it, shredded it to pieces.  With nowhere to return to, Sai had travelled to the Gods themselves arrogantly and presented himself, still very much whole and alive, and told him his sole desire.

“Let me go back, give me another body,” Sai had demanded, “Please, I want to continue to be the Kurosumomo as I was before, I want to save souls and practice magick.  My immortality, it was cut short!”

The Gods were not merciful, but they were not cruel either.  They had given him his sentence for his foolishness and arrogance.  One did not demand things of the Gods, and Sai was no exception.  His punishment was thus: When an heir had no proper teacher, Sai could go back to earth and become their instructor.  He would help them find the late kurosumomo’s life magick when they were ready, and the cycle could be continued.  For certainly, there would be a Kurosumomo who would decide to die without an heir, and an heir would be chosen without a teacher someday.

And so Sai waited, and waited.

His first student, Torajiro, he adored, but his student had died before Sai let him search for his teacher’s life magick, too eager to be back on earth to want to end his time there.  Perhaps if Sai had helped him win the war instead of leaving him to fight on his own, or if Sai had actually tried to instruct the poor child instead of depraving him of proper magick tutoring because Sai had only wanted to dance himself, then Torajiro would not have died like he had. Sai had held desperately onto his new position as mentor, wanting more than the barest scraps of true living he’d been given.  Torajiro had lost control of his powers, and had died, his body scattered to the winds.

The Gods hadn’t been pleased at his failure.  He was to sleep for 100 years at least before he could resume his duties.  It was a long sleep and an even longer wait.

And then Hikaru.

There was too much to say about Hikaru for Sai to think it in the time he had remaining.

Hikaru was different from any other heir.  He didn’t look right, act right, nor was he raised right.  But instead of making him less of an heir, it made him the most suitable one.  Hikaru would never grow tired of life, Sai knew, because he would not live it alone.  Companionship would erase the need for the cycle of heirs.

Fate had not been cruel.  Fate had been loving, as it chose Hikaru.

Sai loved Hikaru much, much more than fate.

He smiled, one last true smile as Fujiwara no Sai, and gave Hikaru the last thing he could give him and the thing that Hikaru wanted, most of all.

Back to Hikaru

Hikaru woke up on his own, his heart heavy.  Usually Nase would be in here to shake him into the land of the living, stepping on his stomach with a tray of tea in her hands.  She sometimes actually let him drink the tea, but mostly it was just her tea and she carried it in to taunt him.  He almost always woke up thirsty.

Zougeiro sucked the words out of his throat, and he felt it related to the thirsty thing.  That was a new development.

Today however, it was different.

There was a distinct sense of loss.

Something was missing.

Sai…? Hikaru asked in his head, searching desperately for some remainder of his ghost to explain what was going on.  But of course, he was gone too.  He’d be back later, Hikaru promised himself, but as it was, he should start looking for whatever he’d lost.

Hikaru gingerly picked himself up onto his feet and poked about the room.  What had he lost?

As soon as the question crossed his mind, the world exploded into streams of colors and emotions and vibrancies.  Everything flew past him fast, and he could see the walls decaying around him and rebuilding themselves, all at once.  He could hear, feel, see everything.  More than that, he understood things he didn’t know before.

Tears leaked down his hypersensitive cheeks and the water hurt his skin and everything burned and his head felt like it would explode.

But like he knew lots of things he didn’t think he should know, he knew intimately that at this brief flicker of a second, everything in the material world was as it should be.

His sword and all of his material possessions were here.  He was where he should be.  Touya was on the other side of the house, Hikaru could feel his soul there pulsing with life and serenity.  He was asleep, and the wispy touch of his soul against Hikaru’s mind eased his pain.

Most everyone else was asleep too, their souls just felt like they were.  The entire area felt clean, and there was no sign of anything wrong.  Everything was alright.  The world was turning as it should.  Even as he cried tears that burnt his skin like acid and his body trembled with enough force to be blown apart, Hikaru could sense this.

The only thing missing was Sai.

Hikaru had some clue, and he had no clue why, but he just knew, like how he just knew everything else that Sai was gone, and he would be staying gone.  It was permanent.

His magick burned his chest, choked him, and the fire of knowing everything burnt out, the kaleidoscope of pain and knowledge, entwined so closely together, faded to a blur of his restored vision and thudding heart and tears that dripped softly and painlessly down his cheeks and to the floor underneath him.

Sai was gone, Sai was gone, entirely gone, and he didn’t have the strength to find him, not now that Hikaru’s magick felt like a broken bone or a swollen ankle, something that didn’t want to respond to his prodding and ached even when he tried to ignore it.

Why did this happen? 

Why me? 

Sai, why are you gone?! 

Why didn’t you stick to your promise?  You promised me that you’d stay until I became the Kurosumomo or died, and neither of those things happened! 

I still need you, please… Sai…

Hikaru laughed bitterly, his voice choked up with tears, You’re never coming back.

Those powers, the power to know all, without even trying; that was something that he’d gained somehow.  That was the ultimate power of Yang, and Hikaru had been given it by Sai.  Sai had passed it on to him, the ultimate manipulation of life magick that the heirs were supposed to be given in the ceremony.

Life, Hikaru thought.  At this moment, I truly am alive, and I’ve never been alive before.

I never wanted this gift if it meant I had to lose you, Sai.  I’ll find you!  I’ll do that magick thing again and find you, pull you back!  I can get you back, Sai!  I’ll let you dance, I’ll let you do all of the magick, anything, I’ll trade you anything, just please come back!  Take back your life magick, and come back to me, please…

Hikaru let out a scream as his senses went wild again and every stimuli, sight sound taste everything burned burned him until he couldn’tbreatheorevenexistanylonger

Was there anything more excruciating than even your own thoughts bringing you pain?

He tasted blood in his throat and it tasted painful but notlikepainful should taste.

Hikaru could watch was watching had watched as Zougeiro was built and burnt and decayed and rebuilt and abandoned and left to rot and then rebuilt and then how there was nothing after but all at the same time

Make it stop

He couldn’t move without his muscles screaming, simultaneously here and not here, old and new and young and decayed and soft.  His clothes irritated his skin and breathing scorched his lungs with fire so he tried to make it stop and he was always touching the floor and he couldn’t make that stop either because he couldn’t move or even jump long enough.

Magick shouldn’t hurt, why did this hurt so bad?  Why did his head hurt so bad?  He couldn’t handle this, he wanted to be dead!

Why did he know everythingespeciallythat


Wasnevercomingbackandnothinghurtmorethanthatloss he couldn’t be… alone…

Hikaru gasped as his magick retreated, his vision clearing from the haze of seeing through corporeal objects and the decades at once.  Suddenly the ground was once again a comforting magick, his clothes keeping him nice and covered and his lungs able to consume soft gulps of oxygen.

He had to leave here.  Hikaru had to find Sai again, go home, whatever else petty that meant he was not here, not near Touya or in the room he lost his closest friend in.  He just… needed to go back to where he first found Sai and pull him back.

He didn’t tell anyone that he’d left.  Hikaru just did.  He just packed up his stuff and, easy as breathing, left everything behind him.

The first steps were the easiest.  The rest of them felt sluggish.  The streets of Edo smelled good but everything good just hurt now, like he wasn’t allowed to enjoy anything now that Sai couldn’t either.  The cobblestone under his feet was giving way to dirt paving as he climbed downhill, through shops and houses and away from the Great Shrine and all the horrible broken mess he’d left there.

Hikaru was glad he’d left.  He was only going to die if he stayed, or worse, Touya would die.  This way, he could find Sai again.  He had to find Sai again.  Even if he never saw Touya again, he did the right thing by leaving.  He definitely did.  He had no doubts at all… none, not even the ones screaming in the back of his head.  He absolutely didn’t doubt his decision, but he was staring to doubt his sense of direction.  Which way was home from here, anyway?

Of course, as soon as he started to ask himself a question, his magick wrenched itself up out of him and tried to answer it.  He bit down hard on his wrist to keep from screaming out in pain as he could see, through the buildings and through the enormous distance, exactly where Ojikeshi was and which roads to take to get there.

He cried silently at the pain and even more at the fact that he’d much rather have asked Sai and had someone to tell stories to and smile with and… just, anything but this loneliness.  Sai had made himself part of Hikaru so neatly that the lack of him made everything spill out of Hikaru in waves of pain, pain painpainpain--!

Finally, his magick settled back down under his skin and he could breathe again.

“Crazy brat,” he heard a thing with wrinkled skin, goat feet, and horns say as it strolled past, thick lips curling up over tusks and suddenly Hikaru hated it, more than anything he’d ever hated before.  Everything on this street, he hated.  All the creatures who hurt people and killed and everyone had told him it was normal for them but it was wrong and it wasn’t normal and he was the only one who even looked human at all.

Hikaru shook with a desire to go home and pretend that nothing else but being home in his safe sanctuary with his mom and Akari and only his memories from before Sai existed.  He couldn’t stay in a monstrous place like this.

His feet starting to stumble forward once more, Hikaru pushed himself until he was running, as fast as he could, regardless of his surroundings.  He didn’t care what monsters he walked among.  He didn’t want to admit monsters existed at all.  All that had happened with Sai, it was going to be a dream.  He was going to wake up and realize that there is no such thing as Touya Akira and that kurosumomo are fantasy beings that are nothing more than kid’s nightmares, and that most importantly, he never met a ghost named Sai that had become his friend, his mentor, and his family.  Sai never existed so he couldn’t be a better father than Hikaru’s ever-absent one, nor could he be more of an understanding mother than the one that arranged a marriage for him without asking his opinion, nor more of a sibling than the ones Hikaru had always wished he had but didn’t.

This had all been an incredibly fucked up dream.

What did that say about Hikaru, who couldn’t let go of it?  He’d never been as happy as he had been having Sai at his side and Touya as his goal and his best friends, Waya and Isumi and Le Ping, on his adventures with him.

Hikaru wiped away his tears and kept running until he saw the gate of Edo in view.  The land outside of it was green and full of rice fields, not like the endless wheat of the Shinimikami.  Still, he had already seen the way, and it didn’t surprise him when he burst through the gate and onto soft, muddy ground.

He didn’t stop for the rice fields.

Hikaru didn’t stop running until night fell, and even then it was only a temporary break from his running.  He wasn’t done running until he had successfully run from it all.  Everything that he’d built from his life, he didn’t want it.  He wasn’t going to ever use magick again, or ever see Touya again, or ever see his friends.  He couldn’t handle it.

The rice fields morphed into wheat fields and then the golden yellow of the Shinimikami.  The unnatural heat of the place was gone but the monsters harassed him more than ever.  But honestly, what did Hikaru have to fear?

This was all a dream, and even if it wasn’t, Sai had given Hikaru his life, so there was nothing left on earth that he would let touch him now.  He had to protect Sai’s life, so he could give it back.

The Shinimikami gave way to forest, green and lush, moss underfoot and the smell of foliage and flowers, the sweet trickle of streams, and then mountains, tall and treacherous and cold, snow covering him and slowing down his feet, making his trek sluggish, and then more forest, mushrooms growing in the dense underbrush and deer scattering when he appeared.

It felt like Hikaru didn’t have to eat anymore, his body could just starve and it didn’t bother him one bit, but he stopped and pretended he still was hungry, because being not hungry wasn’t human.  After all, he was not going to rely on Sai’s life magick.  He wasn’t going to rely on his own magick either.  If he did, it’d be so much harder to pretend that none of the events of the last few years even happened.

The forest he was in finally was becoming mountainous once again, and the terrain looked familiar.  The trees bent in familiar, crooked shapes.  The ground wet with dew and sprinkled with orange poppies.  The scent of the local river and how it echoed throughout the valley.  Yes, he’d finally run far enough.

He stopped in front of a familiar, worn down statue.  Cracked, greyish blue stone in front of him, and it looked much smaller than he remembered.  He remembering it towering over him, a lost relic of an elder age, and himself just a child that knew nothing.  Now Hikaru was no child.  He knew what he had seen there once before.  This was where he’d first come across Sai.  This was where he hoped he would find him again.

Hikaru knelt down, traced his hands across the grass where he’d seen a lone paper fan, waiting and hoping desperately to hear a familiar voice in his head.


But it was no use, like Hikaru almost had known it would be, all along.  Sai was gone.  He wasn’t ever coming back.

Hikaru started crying, desperately, clutching at dirt and unwilling to move his legs, wanting nothing more than to sink into the ground and just die, right there, because everything had gone wrong.  Everything had gone so so so so so wrong.

Hikaru walked into Ojikeshi silently, a stolen hood from a sleeping traveler pulled down over his features in fear that he’d be recognized too soon or worse, not recognized at all.  Did he have too many other choices?  He had come here to escape back to the past, and everything was horribly nostalgic.  Hikaru hurt with the knowledge that he’d left all of this behind to chase a dream that ended with dead boys and heartbreak and nothing else.

He’d been gone for years, and he had nothing to show for it but magick he refused to use and a broken soul.

It was hard to walk back to his parent’s cottage, the place he used to call home so long ago.  It was even harder to knock on the door, but he managed.  Hikaru had nowhere else to go, after all.

The door creaked open a sliver, and his mother, with only a new wrinkle to explain away the missing time between them, peered out.  Her eyes widened as he pulled back his hood, and, since there were no words that would suffice, she just waved him on in as if he hadn’t walked out on her with no explanation years ago.

Her feet were cracked and her fingers gnarled, her eyes tired, and Hikaru had been living in a place where such traits didn’t belong.  Still it struck him how different she was to Touya’s mother.  Akiko had been trapped inside of her cursed, dying body but she defied her fate every way she knew how, happy in spite of her circumstances, but his own mother, who always called herself ‘plain’ and ‘a simple country woman’ when she never tried to be any different, was miserable in a life of her own choosing.

“Where’s my father?” Hikaru asked softly, genuinely curious to know.  He wanted to compare him to what he knew of the stern, imposing Touya Kouyo.

“He’s off chasing a day-dream again,” his mother said, putting the kettle on the fire.  No doubt she was making him tea.  She always made his father tea when he came back.  It was a passive aggressive way she had used to tell his father that she was angry with him.

He guessed she had every right to be angry with Hikaru, too.

Hikaru sat down on the chair he’d always used when he was little, and wondered aloud, “What is he looking for that’s more important than his own family?”

“You tell me,” she snapped, “You left me just like he does.”

Hikaru took a deep breath, almost involuntarily.

“He never finds her, I don’t know why he keeps looking,” She muttered to herself, taking the now boiling water off the fire and pouring them both cups of green tea.

Hikaru blew on the surface of his and watched the ripples, “I didn’t know he was looking for a woman.”

“His first wife,” Hikaru’s mother answered the unasked question, “She was gorgeous in every way that mattered.  Her hair was black silk, her eyes were gemstones, and her skin was like a painted china doll.  Your father thought she was worth everything on this planet.  And then she left him.”

“She left him…?”

“Vanished into the night.  No one ever saw her again.  Your father and I married less than a year later.  We all assumed she’d died,” His mother took a long sip of her tea, but Hikaru’s was too hot for him to drink.

He tried his best to forget that Nase had a favorite charm for heating drinks and keeping them to the perfect temperature, and Hikaru had never quite managed it.  Nor had he managed to do a neat ice spell that didn’t cover the room in icicles when he blotched it, and he almost always blotched it.

Hikaru was going to go back to pretending magick didn’t exist.  Anyone who claimed they could use magick was a disgrace and a fraud here, and he hadn’t forgotten that.  After all, humans were so happy pretending that magick belonged only to demons and spirits only.

His mother noticed him avoiding drinking it, and she looked almost frustrated with him.

“I didn’t poison it, Hikaru.  Drink up.”

“I know, Mom, sorry,” Hikaru picked up his glass and drank a too large swallow, wincing as the heat scalded his tongue and throat as it went down.  He could feel it settle in his stomach even, hot as it was.

She didn’t look pleased at it, but she didn’t complain either.  “I’ll tell Akari that you’re back.  She’ll be glad to know that your engagement will not have to be annulled.”

Shit, Hikaru almost dropped his tea cup.  “Are you sure?  We could get caught up, talk about what I missed out on.  There’s got to be a lot to say, so you could just, not yet—”

“I don’t care for your tricks, you little snot.  Are you still unhappy with that arrangement?  She’s turned into quite a catch while you were gone.”

It didn’t matter if he was pretending all those years didn’t happen.  He didn’t want to marry Akari any more than he had back then, even if he wasn’t going to kill her.  It mattered not if she’d grown up pretty.

He answered, “I’m incredibly sure, terribly, terribly sure.”

“Did you find someone else…?” His mother snapped, irritated by his disobedience.

Hikaru was about to say no, but he lost his will.  He had.  What else could he call Touya that explained it properly?  ‘Friend’ didn’t even begin to stretch to cover the range of their relationship, and they had kissed enough that calling them more didn’t sound impossible.  After all, Hikaru loved Touya, more than anything in the world, more than life itself.  And as long as he was here, they’d both be alive, and that was all he’d ever wanted, wasn’t it?

“Sort of,” He said, “But it’s not like that.  The family doesn’t approve of me.  Let’s just say there’s a duel to the death involved if I go down that pathway.”

His mother laughed helplessly, and in that he saw the mother he left behind, “Oh, Hikaru, you never manage to stay out of trouble.  It’s good to know that you never change.”

If only you knew, Mom.  I’m in a lot more trouble than you think.

Akari took his return better than he’d expected.  She’d taken to it extremely well, in fact.

“They were just about to annul our marriage, you know!” She’d told him when he came to her house to tell her that he’d returned, “I always knew you’d come back.  Mitani was so sure you were dead.”

Hikaru scratched his head as he walked inside, “I got close a few times too many.”

“Sounds like a good story,” She said as she led him to her room, brushing out her hair as she went, which had grown longer than he remembered but still the same dark auburn color and still straight as a sheet of paper.

“If you like tragedies,” He shrugged, taking note of the changes that had occurred to her house while he’d been gone.  Kaga’s futon had been pushed up against Akari’s so she had more room to spread out, and the rest of the room was as sparse and clean as it always had been.  Absolutely nothing littered the floor, and the tatami mats were in better shape than he remembered.

Akari leaned back against her wall, spreading out her legs even though her yukata rode up her thigh scandalously.  Hikaru was starting to see her as a woman, now that she’d filled out.  She had gone from twiggy to curvy, with long hair and well-set features.  Her eyes, which he remembered as a boring brown, were now sunlit oak.  Akari had grown up well.

Hikaru hadn’t seen himself in a mirror for a while, and he’d last seen his reflection in the koi pond at the Great Shrine.  He still felt like a child next to her, all disproportioned and lanky limbs.

She crossed her arms, “Why did you come back?  What happened regarding your crazy magic lie?”

“I wasn’t lying,” Hikaru took a deep breath, “There was someone I wanted to find, and here is the last place I could’ve looked.  They’re gone now.”

“Do you mean gone as in, dead?”

“Yeah, they’re dead,” He said, and really, nothing there had changed.  Sai had always been dead.

Akari didn’t miss a beat.  Her arms reached out for him and her eyes looked appropriately sorrowful, “I’m terribly sorry for your loss, Hikaru, are you…”

“I don’t want to think about it, Akari,” He sighed, moving away from her offered embrace.

She let her arms drop, and Hikaru didn’t have to look hard to see in her eyes that she had never known loss or death intimately as he had.  She had never killed anyone, nor had she lost someone she loved to death.  It was odd, that a person he’d known since birth, had spent the majority of his years with, could suddenly be so foreign, left without a trace of the consuming force that twisted his every action.

Hikaru looked her over slowly, letting the words drip off his tongue, “I was going to let someone kill me, you know.”

“You—no, you can’t mean it,” she shook her head, her hair swishing back and forth against the flower patterned fabric of her yukata, “That’s not funny, Hikaru, that’s a horrible thing to say.”

“I wasn’t joking,” He told her, “There’s this person; his name is Akira.  I was going to let him kill me.  All set on it, actually.”

Hikaru didn’t know why he was telling Akari this.  She wouldn’t understand it; she had never had to hold something so important in her hands.  It was cruel for her to hear this.  He was only doing this in spite, to hurt her.

Why was he being so petty?

“He must’ve been very important to you,” Akari said, her voice choked, “More than me… more than anything else on the planet.”

He opened his mouth to respond, and found that he couldn’t.  Hikaru felt his eyes water, “Even now if you asked me to die for him, I would.  But I can’t.”

“Of course you can’t,” She scolded, but her eyes held a desperate edge, “What would he do if you died?  What would we do?”

Hikaru looked up.  He wanted to tell her that he really, physically, could not die, even if he wanted to, but somehow her logic seemed more infallible.  What would Touya have done if he had died?  He knew Touya well enough to guess that his rival would hate him if he lost on purpose, and it wouldn’t sit right with him at all.

“What would I have done if you died?” She asked, her voice taking on a strange gentleness, “I never met my brother’s mom but I know that her passing left a scar on my father forever.  You have to think about the people you’ll leave behind.”

Hikaru whispered, “I didn’t think about that at all.  I just thought, somehow, that it would be how things were meant to be.”

“Sometimes, I don’t know how you managed by yourself.  You don’t have enough common sense… Did he know you wanted to do something so silly?” Akari asked, leaning forward again.

“No,” He muttered.

“What do you mean, no?  How could he not know?”

“No, he didn’t know.  What was I supposed to say?  Please kill me so I don’t have to kill you?” Hikaru snarled, his eyes flashing to hers and he leaned forward, his arm snatching her forearm to grip it too tight for comfort.

“So you were fighting?  He was trying to kill you?” Akari whispered, looking deep into his face, searching for something Hikaru was not sure she’d find.

He swallowed air and gritted between his teeth, “It was going to be a duel to the death, him or me, and…”

“Is he dead, then?  Is he the friend you lost?” She asked, worrying her long nails into her palms.  She looked concerned, like he was something dangerous and she couldn’t say the wrong thing.  She was more right about that than she thought.

“No, I’d rather feel him rip my soul out than to hurt him.  Akira’s still breathing, and he’s going to stay that way,” Hikaru glanced down at his hands, exhaling and wondering if he’d said too much.  He definitely had said more than he’d meant to.  He’d wanted to tell someone everything, and she was the first friend he’d had, and for the long time, the closest.

His answer seemed to annoy her, and Akari frowned, “Do you think you’ll ever see this Akira again?”

Hikaru stopped, and thought.

If he never was to use magick again, if he really had turned away from his mentor and dancing and duels and all of the monster world, then the answer was no.  But the part of him that was a question demanding Akira as its answer, it proudly answered yes, that nothing could keep them apart because they were rivals, destined by powers above and such claims cannot be easily tossed aside.

Everything he had worked for had involved Touya Akira and his father.  He couldn’t toss it all aside yet.

“I don’t know,” Hikaru answered truthfully, and he let Akari pull him in close, holding him tightly and burying her nose into his warm shoulder.

She breathed in his scent, like it was still familiar to the kid she once knew, and he let himself rest limp against her.

“I don’t know either, but you’re where you belong now.  If you see him again, that’s up to destiny now.  And fate is a fickle thing.  You could see him tomorrow, or never again in your life.  It’s okay if you’re confused about the future.  I’m confused too.  But I do know that I am going to be your wife someday, and it’s my job to get you unconfused,” She whispered, “I love you, Hikaru.”

Mitani glowered every time Hikaru so much as looked in his direction.  Akari giggled from her place attached to his arm, finding the redhead’s anger of great amusement to her.  He slumped, torn between wanting to shake her off and wanting to glare back at Mitani.

They were engaged, technically they weren’t doing anything weird.

Akari wanted to make sure everyone knew he was back.  And everyone knew.  He was the talk of the town, and he wasn’t sure he liked it.  Everyone felt suspicious of him except Akari and his mother, and even then he saw them giving him too many lingering looks.

There was nothing to see or deduce from his behavior that was actually outside the norm, so he checked out for a regular bill of health and sanity as himself after a short village trial, in which his closest friends and relatives grilled him on himself.  Hikaru could barely remember the answers to some of the questions and he was sure that sometimes they made things up to trick him because he knew his favorite type of potatoes had never been scalloped.

It was weird, being parading about for no reason other than that he continued to breathe.  The last time he got paraded, he’d saved a large amount of rare dragon eggs in the middle of a war. The normalcy of his actions now, like the most important thing he needed to do was brush his teeth, was bizarre.

Hikaru could barely keep track of everyone who waved or embraced him, false happiness plastered on their masks of faces.  Most bizarre was the fact that none of them had scales, or horns, or hooves, and everyone only had one head, two arms, and two legs... Well, except that there was one who didn’t belong.

He stopped abruptly, jerking Akari back.  He had only been gone for a week or more, he hadn’t expected to see a slim figure in a heavy white kimono, a familiar white cloak tossed over his head.

Hikaru had sort of been expecting that Touya would chase him down eventually, after all he’d left without a trace or explanation.  Touya had always known where Hikaru had grown up, because it was where they had first met.  Ojikeshi was small, but the bloom of the poppies in the spring and the bright red sugar maples in the fall made it unforgettable.  He had not grown up without the splendors of nature around him.

He’d even sort of expected Touya to confront him like this, publicly.

“Shindou,” Touya said, and his voice was the same thrumming vibration that Hikaru would never fully be able to accept.

Hikaru turned to Akari, “Hey, mind if I talk to an old friend for a bit?”

She patted him on the arm and leaned up, her face getting far too close to his for his liking.  He turned away, and her mouth hit his cheek.  She huffed, almost disappointed, and patted his arm again.  And then, thankfully, Akari left.

Oh, and was Touya fuming.  He didn’t look like he was jealous, just angry.

“You could’ve killed her,” The other heir began, “It’s not like when we kiss after all, her soul can’t resist yours.  Just a fraction of a second and it’ll float out of your hands.”

“I’m not going to kiss her, if that’s what you’re worried about.  I know the consequences,” Hikaru reached out, pulling him away from the village and any potential eavesdroppers.  It was safer if no one overheard.

Touya didn’t look appeased at that.  He hissed, “You just left, without a word; I--Nase was terrified you’d been kidnapped.  We looked everywhere for you in Edo, and then Ogata started saying you were just a coward who had gone off to die in the wilderness—”

Hikaru couldn’t look as soon as Touya began to speak, throwing out everything he had, all fury and demands for answers and beauty, so much beauty and concern that Hikaru could’ve drowned in it.

“It doesn’t matter, you have to come back.  My mother’s health is waning.  The duel will be soon,” Touya snapped, withdrawing back into an icy shell of indifference.  All the passion of his argument before faded when Hikaru refused to respond to that passion with his own wave of emotion.  He couldn’t go back, he couldn’t think about anything but life in Ojikeshi, because to give in here would mean to go back to that dark world of broken dreams and unhappiness and loss where magick only had hurt him in the end and he had to lose everything just to live.

“I’m not leaving here again.  There’s not a power on earth that could get me to go back,” Hikaru promised, because even here, even now, he desperately loved Touya to the end of the world and back, and that’s precisely why he couldn’t return.

And it hurt seeing Touya visibly shake with the knowledge that he had been rejected, him and his entire world, with no explanation.

Hikaru hadn’t been expecting a lot of things to happen after rejecting Touya’s demands, but Touya following him to his house, angry and silent and indignant and unwilling to say a word, was not one of them.  It did make sense; Touya had to stay the night somewhere before he left and turned his back on Hikaru forever like Hikaru had essentially just done to him.

Hikaru’s mother though.  She was doing the most unexpected thing.

As soon as he’d come up to the doorstep, she’d stormed out, face red and twisted up into something hideous and angrier than he’d ever seen her before.  She looked like a monster, and Hikaru had seen enough monsters to know that she looked like one of the more terrifying ones.

“I know that face,” She hissed, “I know what your dirty features hide underneath and there’s no way you will ever get near my son again!”

“Mom, you’re not making any sense—,” Hikaru began, but she didn’t let him talk, she lunged at Touya with her arms out to grab him, and only him grabbing her by the waist stopped her from clawing at him.

She struggled back out of his grasp, stronger than he’d ever remembered her, and she nearly roared with fury, her voice was so terrible, “Are you blind, Hikaru?!”

“No!” He said, taking a step back from her.  She’d never acted like this before, and it was scaring him.

“It’s a monster, that there, following you, it’s a monster!” She grabbed his shoulders and shook him hard, her eyes blazing with terror and fury, “It’s evil!  There’s nothing good in it, hiding behind that pretty mask, just waiting to transform and kill you!  The men of this family were always weak to a pretty face!”

Hikaru glanced back at Touya and he could almost see the unearthly beauty in his elegant features, how he looked almost too good to be human, and for once, Hikaru realized that Touya looked absolutely nothing like his father.

But more importantly, he looked terrified, rooted to the ground with wide dark eyes and a trembling mouth, frozen still in fear of a woman who couldn’t have hurt him with her bare hands when he could kill her with a flick of his finger.

She slapped Hikaru’s cheek, turning his face back to hers so he had to stare into her maddened eyes, “Why did you think I engaged you so quickly to Akari?  She was perfectly human, but no, you bring back this to me!  You are far too much like your father!”

“No, it’s not…” Hikaru tried to say.

“That thing will never love you back!  It wants to kill you, for sport, like a toy, and you tear out your heart for it, so it doesn’t even have to!”

“You can’t talk about him like that, he’s not a…” Hikaru didn’t want to lie, not when he’d spent so long lying for Sai, “He’s just as much of a monster as I am.”

“I will not let you protect it!” Hikaru’s mom grabbed the nearest rock in her fist, the size of a large egg, and hurled it at Touya, but her poor, crazied aim let it just whiz past him.  She grabbed another, and this time Touya was not so lucky.

Hikaru ran up to her, trying to grab her wrists and stop her but she lashed out with flailing limbs and hit him, harder than she’d ever done before, and when she wriggled out of his grasp she threw another rock and another and soon Hikaru was just watching as Touya stood there, motionless, being battered by stones.

Touya didn’t even use his magick to stop her.  He just stood there, taking the abuse.  After all, being one kind of monster was bad enough; exposing his magick would do nothing but anger her further into madness.  She would raise the town guard, and Hikaru knew how the villagers would react to a threat.  There would be a lot of death, if Touya so much as cast a shield.

Hikaru wanted to strangle him for not helping himself but he also wanted to cry.  They were both frozen in helplessness and confusion and fear, unable to move or to stop the events happening just before their eyes.

Touya looked up, just slightly, and their eyes met, and Hikaru could do nothing but swallow.  All he saw in those eyes was ultimate betrayal.

It was like they were saying that this was all Hikaru’s fault, and in the end he supposed it was.  If he hadn’t let down Sai, if he hadn’t had to go looking for him, then Touya wouldn’t have had to chase after him to Ojikeshi.  Touya wouldn’t be covered in bruises from being stoned by Hikaru’s mother, of all things.  He wouldn’t look so hurt, so scared… it was all Hikaru’s fault.

He’d never be able to fix this.  Everything was wrong and broken and horrible.

His mom ran out of rocks before she ran out of anger.  Her eyes blazed with fury even as Hikaru numbly began to move again, grabbing her waist and stopping her from running to the neighbor’s cottage to get more stones.  She shoved at him, but a frail older woman had little hope against her equally determined, teenaged child even if he refused to shove her back and just held her arms to her sides, suffering the pain as she beat and struggled against him. 

He hadn’t been able to stop her before, but this time he wasn’t going to allow it to happen again. Maybe he couldn’t use magick, but he hadn’t spent the past few years sitting on his ass.  He was a sword fighter, he had more than enough muscle to stop her.

Touya had taken one last look at him, green eyes painful in how they cut Hikaru open and judged the contents of him, and he knew, somehow, that Touya wasn’t looking at his physical body but the soul inside of him.  The kurosumomo heir just shook his head, and left in a flutter of ripped, roughed up, dusty white kimono and dark strands of chin length hair.

He just watched Touya go.  What else could he do?  Chase after him, beg him for forgiveness?  He didn’t have anything else to say.  He wasn’t going to go back and he wasn’t going to use magick anymore, and he knew that that sort of answer would not suffice Touya’s curious and stubborn mind.

It was a betrayal.  Why did he want to pretend otherwise?

Hikaru let his mother go when he knew that she wasn’t going to do anything crazy, like chase after Touya with rocks.  She turned around in a huff and marched back into her cottage, and he’d never seen her look so disgusted.

He followed her with silent steps, afraid of her anger.

She said nothing, just made more boiling hot tea.

“You’re dead to me,” She whispered, pouring it, “You’re not Hikaru anymore.  I can’t believe it.  You’re an imposter.”

“How could you do that back there? Why?!” Hikaru demanded, his voice raising in anger.

“Why?!  Why?!  Are you sure you want to know why?!  I’ll tell you why: because it’s a monster!  Your father chose the same fucking monster before!  All beauty at that stage, you know, I saw her!  I wanted nothing more than to be exactly like sweet, wonderful Kaede!  She held everyone’s attention and everyone loved her, and all I wanted was to wreck her!”

Hikaru wasn’t sure he could handle much more of seeing his mother like this.  She looked terrible.  She looked wild and devastated, and tears were streaming down her cheeks from her flaming eyes.  She didn’t look like the soft, gentle mother he’d always known.  The passive one whose punishments were never spanking but just the withholding of dinner, and whose loving touch had bandaged his every skinned knee or twisted ankle.

This person was another.  She was a strange, mad woman, her sanity fled from behind her eyes.

“Those things don’t belong in our village!  I knew it before anyone else suspected but your father stuck to his story.  Kaede was just sick, it had nothing to do with that legend.  Oh, but it did!  She had gotten pregnant, and lost her luster!  We all knew when she started looking ugly!  Your father refused to suspect that she was a monster, but the rest of us knew!  If she hadn’t’ve left when she did, we were planning to stone her to death.  After all, what is a better fitting end to that farce of a marriage than to kill the genten no bakemono?”

Hikaru’s grip tightened on his teacup.  His mother, his supposedly nice, kind mother, who had put up with his shenanigans and always looked after him, his mother had planned to stone a woman to death on mere suspicion?  How much of what he had known had been an act, covering up for this insane woman behind the mask?

“I married him soon after, while he wept in grief for her loss.  He was rich, once.  I wanted someone to take care of me and he wanted a body to pretend was her.  He was never the same though, and then all his money was wasted on a woman who had vanished and he left me just like you did for the same, sickening reason!”

“Mom…” Hikaru whispered in horror.

Everything he’d thought was true about his childhood was just gone, in a second.

“GET OUT OF MY HOUSE!” She screamed, throwing the tea kettle at him, “GET OUT!  GET OUT, GET OUT, GET OUT!!”

Hikaru dashed out the door, the shattering of tea cups and the sobbing of a broken woman echoing in his ears as he ran.

No place was safe, or sacred.  Not even home.

How much more was he going to lose before this was over?  He’d lost his home, his mother, his happy childhood memories, and he’d lost Touya.  He’d lost nearly everything.  Where could he even go now?

As it turned out, he ended up in Akari’s house for the evening.  So, apparently the answer was that he could go deeper into the trap of his arranged marriage.

The master of the town, Akari’s father, had understood when he’d explained how he did not have any money for a tavern.  Despite how the familiar crooked smile of the wise elder made him remember how this man had stepped in the ease the load his mother had to suffer supporting a child without a father, the chill of the village’s past willingness to kill made him wonder who else he had grown up respecting that could’ve been a murderer.  This in mind, Hikaru wasn’t going to tell anyone about what happened that afternoon.

Akari hadn’t bothered to properly hide how thrilled she was that he was staying with them.

“It’ll be just like when we were kids,” She beamed at him, “We can watch the stars and look at fireflies together!  Don’t you think?”

Hikaru grumbled uneasily, “We’re not eight anymore, jeez.  Can you be any more of a kid?”

“Oh, like you’re any better.  You love catching fireflies,” Akari waved off his half-hearted moaning and groaning.  The extra futon, the one that Kaga had used, had been pushed back to where Hikaru remembered it being back when Akari’s half-brother still lived with them.  Clearly, that was where he was sleeping.

Sleeping in the same room as his fiancée, at this age, made him feel uncomfortable.  It wasn’t like Akari was unattractive, but there were too many opportunities for her to get close to his face, and that worried him.  Especially because she seemed to think it was appropriate, being engaged, that they actually started acting like a couple.

Well, she hadn’t said as much, but how she’d been acting that afternoon made him think she might’ve been entertaining those sorts of thoughts.  Akari had been downright suspicious, sometimes, and it bothered him.  It felt wrong, and not just because Touya had called him out on how dangerous it was.

Hikaru sat down on the futon laid out for him and crossed his legs, relaxing his shoulders so he could stare down at his hands.

When he thought about it, he’d been so many places and done so many things, danced so many dances and wielded his sword so many times.  He’d left his body and travelled in another plane of existence, he’d teleported over a hundred miles, he’d killed beasts that Akari couldn’t even dream of and he’d learned how to conjure fire with a motion.  He’d seen dragons soaring in flight, he’d kissed cannibals and a murderer and drained their soul out of their body, and he’d done it all with a friend that was now gone forever.

He wished he’d known why.  Hikaru would give up all he’d done and learned if he could get Sai back.

“You’re lost in your thoughts again,” Akari said, sighing with a shrug.

“Sorry, I got nostalgic or something,” Hikaru shook his head, “You still want to catch fireflies?”

She did.

So they went outside in the woods, no longer afraid of some invisible line past which they’d get in trouble, and lost themselves in the dark with nothing but bugs and stars to light the way.  Akari had made a grapple for his hand, and Hikaru let her take it, because that way he could convince himself she was real.

This world was so familiar, but it wasn’t anything like what he had known before.

The trees filtered the starlight and the faint shadow of clouds occasionally left them wandering the dark, but Hikaru had no fear of umeshichi coming to eat him and Akari didn’t seem to care even if there were.  Maybe she thought he’d protect her.  Hikaru liked to think he would, but he also knew that all of the umeshichi were right where he left them, on the forested borders and the vast plains of the Shinimikami, so there was no danger this far north.

The fireflies were all lit up, and they looked like the stars, tired of dancing across the sky, had come down to flitter amongst the branches. One had landed on Akari’s shoulder, and another on her head, and she looked like some sort of bug princess.

He squeezed her hand before letting go, and he watched as she clamored over fallen logs and strode light across the ground, her feet crunching the leaves beneath her toes.  When the fireflies flew close, she darted out for them.  Akari grappled nimbly for a firefly, her palms gently capturing it so its light shone from between her fingers. 

“It’s so beautiful,” She marveled, releasing it slowly and watching it soar away in a streak of yellow.

I’ve seen better, Hikaru almost wanted to say, but she was right.  The evening was so calm, so serene, that it was indescribably beautiful.

“You’re right,” he agreed, and her hand found his again.

Something about the evening right now was enrapturing, and it wasn’t the same as when he was a kid and snuck out with Akari to go hunt the lightning bugs.  Maybe it was because he was staring at the twinkling of the milky way through a filter of maturity, but…

Captured by the beauty of it all, Hikaru didn’t notice Akari start to move.  In the corner of his vision, he didn’t register that she had pressed up against his side, so close that their noses almost bumped together.  He saw her almost a second too late.

She almost kissed me, Hikaru thought with horror as he threw her away from him, shoving her as hard as he could before she got any closer, “You can’t!”

She stumbled to her knees and fell on her butt, almost comically, but her eyes were nothing but hurt.  Mouth trembling with the threat of tears, she snarled, “Why not?  Is it because I’m not as pretty as that boy you know?”

Touya, he instantly thought, but this wasn’t about Touya.

“I’m a monster, Akari,” Hikaru said, aloud, and it felt like the first time he had ever said it and meant it.

She didn’t look convinced so he just let it all spill, letting every feeling he’d kept hidden inside out, finally getting rid of the first lie he ever told for Sai.  He told her how he met Sai and how he met Touya, and how he’d watched as his friend killed innocent people, helpless, and how he’d been helpless when his friends almost died, and how he’d almost died in a million different ways, all the magick he had learned, and finally, why he’d cast it all aside.

She stared at him, looking almost struck dumb, her mouth moving but failing to form words.

Finally, Akari said, “You’re not a monster, Hikaru.  Being a monster is part of who you are, not what you are.  If Sai loved you enough to stay by your side through all those journeys, he wouldn’t want you to be hurting like you are now.”

Hikaru felt something in him weaken, and like wood under too much weight, he splintered.  She reached out and held him, like his mother used to.  And he cried.

Chapter Text

The night was thick and heavy when Hikaru opened his eyes.  The stifling humidity and the stagnant air made it hard to breathe.  But it wasn’t silent, he realized.  No one came out of their houses this late, not if they couldn’t help it.

Hikaru grabbed his sword and sheath from where he left it, next to Akari’s extra futon.  The light blanket slipped from his shoulders as he tiptoed to the window, weapon in hand.  He didn’t see the source of his unrest, but he knew the feeling of something being off.  And something was.

So he toed around Akari, who looked like a doll with that sweet smile on her flaccid features.  Then once he'd slid the door open only enough for him to slip into the hallway.  He walked as silently as he knew, which was more than enough to sneak by Akari’s father.  Hikaru shuddered as he approached the front door, the wood cold underneath his feet.

The sense of disturbance wasn’t fading.  Something was lurking about in the darkness.

Hikaru held his sheath in one hand and the handle of his sword in the other.  He nudged the front door open with his shoulder and peered out into the dark street.  His eyes didn’t land on anything amiss, but that only meant he had to venture further.

Into the street he crept, and then, there was a sound.  His ear twitched at it, disconcerting when earlier he’d strained to hear anything in the silence.   Hikaru followed the sound to the village well.  It had almost sounded like a splash, he thought, and he peered down the well, tensed and waiting for something to jump out at him.

Nothing did.

Hikaru peered around, until finally he caught sight of someone, sneaking away behind one of the houses.

He lunged for them, and noticed too late that they were smaller than him, a girl of ten years or so.  The two of them toppled to the ground, and Hikaru found himself sitting on top of a smaller child with his sword pressed up against her neck.  She was pretty in a tomboyish way, but she looked absolutely terrified of him.

Hikaru sheathed his sword awkwardly.  He cleared his throat, “Um.  You should be in bed.”

“I-I was thirsty!  I just got a drink from the well!” She stuttered.

Hikaru stood up and helped her to her feet, “Be careful, okay?  What’s your name?”


She would’ve been a tiny child when he’d left the village.  No wonder he didn’t know her.

“Get home safe, Oka,” He faked a cheesy grin, turning on his heel, hiding how terribly embarrassed he was from the girl.  She scurried off, nodding politely.

“Dude, you totally attacked her,” said a man’s voice, soon lost to a wheezing, silent laughter.

Hikaru whipped around, and his guard dropped at the sight of Waya, standing by one of the trees on the edge of the forest.

“Waya.  I knew I sensed something off,” He wondered aloud, and then he asked, “Why are you here?”

Waya shrugged, “Prince Charming found us floundering around the Shinimikami looking for your lousy ass so he tipped us off.  But he didn’t look happy with you.  I might even go as far to say Touya looked distressed.  He said you'd changed.”

Hikaru stiffened.

“Isumi and Le Ping took the first shift, so you can’t talk to them until tomorrow morning.  Mind filling me in on what happened since you left?” The umeshichi almost sounded threatening, his face unreadable.

Hikaru shrugged, looking back towards Akari’s house, afraid to meet Waya’s guarded eyes.  “I honestly don’t want to talk about it.”

“I must’ve phrased that wrong.  Tell me what happened,” Waya leaned in close and grabbed the left side of Hikaru’s yukata, the threat now clear in his voice.

He’d never thought he’d get intimidated by his own friends.  But he had hurt them by abandoning them, willing or not.  They did deserve an explanation. 

Having made up his mind about that at least, Hikaru shook his head, unable to speak without emotion poisoning his voice, “Someone kidnapped me via magick, and I ended up in Edo.  I… I didn’t think about going back because I was already where I needed to be.  But when I got to Touya, I wasn’t ready to face him really, and when they gave me the choice between Touya and myself, I chose Touya.  Then just when I’d resigned myself to dying, Sai vanished, so I went looking for him.  But he’s gone, forever.  My friend is gone forever, and it's my fault somehow!  Is that enough for you?”

He sounded like a mess, even to himself, and he felt tears threaten to fall from his eyes.  Instead, he wiped them away before he had the chance to embarrass himself in front of Waya, of all people.  Isumi, he’d be okay with crying around but seriously, Waya would make fun of him for it for a million years.  Even if he looked far more likely to punch him than mock him now.

But Waya didn’t mock him for being weak.  Instead, his expression softened.  He wrapped his arms around Hikaru, hugging him so tightly that Hikaru could feel Waya’s rough brunet hair against his cheek.  He couldn’t find it in himself to do more than clutch at his friend and squeeze his eyes shut.

“Tomorrow,” Waya promised, “We’ll talk about it with Isumi and Le Ping.  You need some sleep, you’re all sniffly.”

“Tomorrow,” Hikaru repeated, thinking of it like an ultimatum.

Tomorrow came more quickly than he’d like.

Akari forced him into decency, talking about how a pair of respectable young men had come knocking for him that morning when he’d been pretending to sleep.

"Can't it wait, just like, five more minutes?" Hikaru whined, hopelessly longing for the warm futon.

Akari looked put upon, "Gods no.  I let you sleep in far too much already."


"Stop acting like some dead thing and get up already--," Akari clicked her mouth closed, "Right.  Sorry.  I'll make breakfast."

Hikaru blinked his way after her.  She still wasn't totally accepting of his magick, but she had been trying, which was more than Hikaru could say of his mother.  And it wasn't like Hikaru was going to use his magick again any time soon.

He sighed and scrubbed his face with the spare rag and slid his yukata over his shoulders, leaving it untied in his laziness.  This morning wasn’t looking to agree with him.  He just knew that Waya and Isumi would rip him a new one if he couldn’t figure out how to explain himself.  And even though he’d had stayed up thinking almost all night, he hadn’t come up with any decent way that didn’t include lying.  And Hikaru was done lying.

Yawning, he resigned himself to his fate.  He’d grab a pinch of breakfast, eat it as slowly as possible, and perhaps spend another good half an hour on his appearance, and only then he’d deal with their presence.  But his plans flopped horribly because when he came out into the main room, Hikaru was abruptly greeted by Isumi and Waya, far too soon for his liking.

“She didn’t say she invited you inside,” Hikaru said before he checked his mouth, “I mean, I thought I was gonna meet you guys elsewhere.  Sorry, that was rude.”

Waya snorted, “When are you not, Shindou?”

“Shut up, I am not,” Hikaru quickly fixed his clothes to decency before he sat down.

“It’s nice to see you again, Shindou.  We were worried,” Isumi smiled tenderly, and for all they had been separated eight weeks at most, Isumi looked much older than the last time Hikaru had seen him.  He looked more regal too, his shoulders back and his back straight, his bearing proper and his clothes in almost pristine condition.

Waya looked even scruffier next to him, now that Hikaru got a good look at him in the light.

“You two look like you did well for yourselves,” He sighed, scratching the back of his neck, “I’m sorry I vanished on you like that.  Things were crazy for me.”

Waya crossed his arms, “You should be.  Le Ping thought you died, that the trap door took a sacrifice to open.”

“Hey!  That wasn’t my fault.  It turns out there was this crazy guy who wanted revenge for his wife.  He wanted Touya, but he fished and caught me instead.  I killed him, but I was already on the other side of the Shinimikami.  I figured you would catch up eventually if I stayed in the same place.”

At least this part sounded okay…  Hikaru didn’t want to get to the part where he confessed he’d fucked it all up with Sai and basically killed his own friend.  Yeah.

“You weren’t wrong.  When you vanished, we held up the entire monster town ransom in hopes to get you back.  When we found out that they were telling the truth and that they didn’t know a thing about you, we went town to town asking if anyone had seen someone matching your description.  Finally we were greeted by a powerful spirit who sold Isumi an unfairly priced comb in exchange for small talk about you.  Turns out she saw you in Edo’s Worukansenkyo.”

“Did she happen to have no face, but a big gaping mouth with tons of teeth?” Hikaru remembered her, she had asked him to come back when he wanted to buy something for his sweetheart.  He doubted he’d ever actually come back.

“Shindou!” Isumi covered his eyes, shaking his head, “She was an utsuroname-no, and they are spirits of riches.  She could have made you rich beyond your wildest dreams if you appeased her, and sucked all joy out of your life if you angered her.  That’s why you treat utsuroname-no carefully and with much respect.  That’s why we had to buy a comb from her, because we couldn’t approach her otherwise.”

“So I could’ve cursed myself asking her for directions?” Hikaru’s jaw dropped.

“Hell yeah!  She was incredibly powerful!” Waya slammed his fist on the table, “You are a dumbass!”

“I didn’t know!  Obviously I’m fine!” Hikaru shot back.

“We told you you needed us,” The umeshichi sniffed, leaning back on his palms.

“Waya is just worried for you,” Isumi explained, giving his partner a sour look, “Now, what happened when you were in Edo?  Why did you leave so suddenly?  Touya was awfully put out when we saw him; your disappearance caused quite a scandal apparently.”

Hikaru swallowed, “Uh.  I guess, I mean, I…”

“You left us in the dark, and now you won’t even explain why?  You owe us, Shindou,” Waya shook his head, his brown eyes narrowing into slits.

Hikaru scrunched up his nose, “Give me time to explain, sheesh!  I went to the Great Shrine of Zougeiro in Edo, because… Sai told me that’s where I could find Touya.  I stayed there for a while and I learned Yang magick from a shrine attendant there named Nase, but then the high priest Ogata challenged me to a duel which turned into a duel between Touya-meijin and me, and then somehow turned into a duel between Touya-meijin and Sai.  We won, but then…”

Hikaru couldn’t do it, he couldn’t think about it.  Everything hurt, like he was being crushed by the weight of his own despair.

“Shindou…” Isumi said sharply, “Please.”

“But then Sai vanished!  And every time I start to ask questions about why, my magick goes haywire and all I can sense is that he’s gone and he’s never coming back!” Hikaru sobbed, slamming his fists down on the table and squeezing his eyes shut.  Someone laid a hand on his shoulder, but he shrugged it off and wiped at his eyes, furious and angry and miserable.  Hikaru choked, “I am never going to practice magick again.”

Waya stood up, his voice thunderous, “You’re crazy!  How is that going to solve anything?”

“I can’t just ignore how my selfishness hurt Sai!  He was the one who loved magick, not me, and I stole it from him.  I can’t just…” Hikaru slumped, losing all his anger.  His shoulders shook against his will, and he did his best to shove the misery threatening to choke him back down his throat.

“You’d give up on it just like that?” The umeshichi demanded.

“What other choice do I have?” Hikaru shook his head, “I can’t go back and pretend none of this happened.”

Waya flushed an angry red, and his whole face darkened and soured until he got up and stomped out of Akari’s house, leaving Hikaru alone with Isumi.

The two left remaining sat in relative silence after that.  Hikaru did his best not to cry.  Crying was forbidden.  He had made his decision, so there was no room for regret.

Isumi tapped his fingers on the table gently, his voice gentle, “Now that I have Le Ping, I have much more magick than before.  I was hoping to ask you to duel me, because out of all of us, you know how Hon and Ko fought together.”

Hikaru shook his head, “I’m sorry, I can’t.”

“Not even for me?  It’s not like I’m asking for you to go back and duel Touya or accept your destiny.  Just one little duel between friends.  I would like to know how much I’ve improved, after training with Le Ping.”

Hikaru felt his hand shaking on the table, and he was desperate to say no again.  But this was Isumi, and Isumi was one of his closest friends.  Isumi had saved his life before, several times.  If Sai was here, Sai would understand.  He couldn’t leave Isumi hanging out to dry.

It wasn’t because he wanted to dance, or fight, or wield the magick just under his fingertips.  Hikaru clenched his fist, and said, “Okay.  Just this once.  Then you’ll stop bugging me about magick.”

Isumi smiled, and the two of them went outside.  Akari, who’d apparently been eavesdropping the whole time, waved him off with an encouraging smile.  Hikaru turned back to her and waved, just so she knew that he knew she wasn’t being sneaky.  She stuck her tongue out at him, and headed back inside her house.

Isumi and Hikaru ended up in Sai’s clearing.  Hikaru winced, his eyes drawn to where the fan should have been.  The grass lay undisturbed, and the birds chirped overhead.  The sun filtered through the trees to give them dappled shade cast over their faces.  The dew from the early morning slicked the grass, and Hikaru’s sandals squished in somewhat wet mud underneath.

This dance would not be elegant or even sensible, he realized, not in these conditions.  Still the challenge of moving and fighting in such adverse conditions made his heart pound with excitement—No!  He wasn’t allowed to like this stuff anymore.  He wasn’t.  It was a betrayal to Sai.

“Are you ready to begin?” Isumi shifted into a stance, his body loose and malleable.

Hikaru mirrored him and nodded, “I’m ready.”

Isumi began with a delicate set of circles, his feet light, and it occurred to Hikaru that he didn’t often see this kind of magick.  The Ryame could turn themselves into rain and summon the elements of water, but Isumi usually used that only as a last resort.  More often, Hikaru had watched Isumi use his voice to tame beasts and his magick in a non-threatening, non-violent manner.

Hikaru began to move, remembering the dance Nase had taught him for chilling things.  He’d just freeze Isumi’s rain and counter from there.  His legs almost moved on their own, and he used the slickness of the grass to slide in and out of the proper forms, the hairs on his arms raising as he felt the elemental cold build up.

Isumi must’ve caught on, because he dropped his pattern, and a wall of water fell from above their heads, drenching them both.  Hikaru slipped in what was now a puddle and, too late to stop, completely froze most of the water in the clearing.  Shit, elemental magick had never been his strong point.  He yanked his foot out of the ice and began the motions for his preferred magick.  He was far stronger with Yin.  Sai had taught him Yin magick, he remembered with a jolt, and he had to stop, his whole body heavy with guilt.

I can’t do this after all.

“Are you alright?” Isumi asked, pausing in his motions.

Hikaru nodded slowly.  He was doing this for Isumi, he couldn’t just stop in the middle.

They picked up where they left off, Isumi on the offensive and Hikaru on the defensive.  Isumi danced with the slow and powerful surety that he must’ve gained from Le Ping.  A dragon of the earth was heavy, stocky, and forward.  Isumi had always been light-footed and quick, but his new confidence and focus made him devastating.  Hikaru had a much harder time keeping up than he expected, but where Isumi had gained in style, Hikaru had gained in variety.  He darted forward with his extra speed and pinned Isumi’s hands just to have to dodge a wall of water coming for him, or he threw blows towards Isumi’s vital points that would have not been pleasant if they’d hit before Isumi evaporated himself into a pitter patter of rain drops.  In a pinch, Hikaru would just summon ice or fire; neither element was great against the water Isumi so confidently wielded, but earth was ineffective when Hikaru and Isumi had about the same amount of control over it. 

Nothing like having your attack be redirected again and again and again to make you avoid that tactic, Hikaru thought.  Now for something a little more tricky to dodge.

He lunged forward, putting his weight on his foot, and rolled past Isumi in a somersault, his magick effectively catching Isumi in a net, while a sideswipe with his foot created a wave of energy that would’ve knocked Isumi out if he’d actually been trying.  With his remaining magick, Hikaru grabbed Isumi’s soul and tugged on it, hard enough to bring Isumi to his knees but not hard enough to do any more.

“Good job.”

Hikaru swung himself around.  Had he just heard Sai?  There was no one behind him or beside him, or anywhere.  Sai was nowhere, Sai was gone, Hikaru knew that.

But… he swore he just…

Sai was the type of person who’d have done that sort of trick, he realized.  Sai liked to do things indirectly and especially with that sort of fluid grace.  Hikaru had never really thought about it, but he rarely fought without his sword in hand.  Doing so without made it obvious that he’d gained some of that elegance that Sai valued so highly in his dancing.

In his magick, Hikaru realized.  Sai had been in his magick all along.

He turned back to Isumi and let go of his soul, sniffling.  He had started crying, he guessed, but he didn’t know when.  The tears were silent as they dripped down his cheeks and off his chin, even though every breath he took rattled in his chest.  Hikaru felt his magick just under his skin, and he felt fuller and far more alive than he had ever before.

“You win,” Isumi stood up.

He shook his head, “I have to go find Touya.”

“Not what I expected to hear just then, I admit,” The Ryame smiled, using a quick flick of his wrist to magick the muddy water off of his clothes, “Care to explain?”

“I just realized, Sai’s always going to be with me, because he’s part of my magick.  I could feel him with me,” Hikaru smiled, wiping away his tears, “So I can’t turn away from my destiny.  I have to find Touya and tell him that I’m going to walk this path forever.”

Isumi took a deep breath, “I’m glad you found the peace you wanted.  But, how are you going to find Touya?  It’ll take weeks to travel to Edo by foot.  And Le Ping can barely carry Waya and I on his back; earth dragons aren’t strong fliers.”

Hikaru paused for a brief moment, distracted from his impromptu decision to travel halfway across the country by the thought of the tiny dragon he’d last seen with Isumi carrying two people on his tiny back and flapping his tiny wings, “Wait, are you telling me Le Ping is big enough to carry two people?”

“Bonded dragons grow fast to catch up to their partners.  We’ll be the same physical age before you know it.  And from then on, we’ll be the same age until one of us dies.  But that’s off topic.  We can’t fly, let’s leave it at that.  How are we going to track Touya down?”

“No, no, I’m curious.  You two flew on Le Ping to get to Ojikeshi that fast?”  Hikaru remembered Hon’s dragon flight with interest.

“Yes, we did.  Le Ping isn’t good for long flights, but he managed to greatly speed along our journey.”

“That’s awesome!  If he grows that big, do you think we could all hop a ride back half the way if we get started on foot?”

“No, he’s not made for flight like Hon.  His wings are small in comparison to his body, and he tires too easily.  His own weight isn’t suitable for flight, ignoring placing the weight of three humans on his back.”

“Lame.  Well, I have another idea,” Hikaru thought aloud, “Remember I said the guy who kidnapped me zapped me with a portal?  What if I just did that to all of us?”

“Hikaru, that’s complicated magick…”

Hikaru couldn’t figure out a good way to explain what his magick could do now, but he’d try his best.  “I know, I know, I haven’t tried to do anything like that before, but I get this feeling I can do it.”

Isumi frowned, “I don’t know if you should try something so dangerous.”

“I can do it, I know I can. Because my magick does this thing, this weird thing when I need to know something important where it freaks out and tells me,” Hikaru rubbed his chin, “Well, that’s a terrible description but that’s the gist of it.  I can just know things, if I ask myself hard enough…” He felt a shiver down his spine as he thought of it, “That’s how I know Sai is really gone.  My magick tells me that sort of thing, if I try.”

Isumi looked appropriately concerned.  “You’re telling me that your magick can just tell you things you don’t already know if you ask…?  How do you know if you’re really finding out the truth?”

Hikaru shrugged, “It got me back here well enough.  I… I can’t explain.  Just know that I can do that spell.  I just have to ask.”

“Then ask.”

Hikaru focused, and thought, as loud and clear as he could, How do I cast a teleportation spell?

His magick went haywire, his skin crawling with sensation, and everything burned with the power of it, and Hikaru was drowning in sensation.  It was even more horrible than he remembered, but as he watched the ages of the world go by, he saw a dance in his mind, delicate and full of gentle steps, something like what Sai would do.  And of course, that was the dance he wanted.  His magick reacted to what he saw in his mind’s eyes, having the knowledge he’d desired, and it settled down once again underneath his skin.

“Ughhh…” Hikaru groaned, blinking as he tried to get the burning salty sensation out of his dry eyes.  “I feel like I gurgled rocks.  Rocks that were on fire.”

Isumi swallowed, “Hikaru, you don’t know what it looks like when you do that, do you?”

Hikaru looked up, “Uh, no?  Just that I learn things and it feels terrible.”

“You glow.  Very brightly.  Especially from your eyes and your mouth,” The Ryame shook his head, “A little warning next time would be nice.  I’m still seeing stars.”

“Oh shit, I’m so sorry!  I didn’t know,” Hikaru rubbed at his eyes, and shook his head, “Needless to say, I know what to do now.”

Isumi said dryly, “I would hope so.  Am I to collect Waya and Le Ping, and our things?”

Hikaru nodded, “Yeah.  Let’s get going soon… actually, wait!  Take your time packing and stuff.  I should actually say goodbye properly this time.”

Isumi nodded, “Very well.”

Hikaru had barely entered Akari’s home when she caught him with a dark look.

“I know that face.  That’s the, ‘I have something to tell Akari that she won’t like’ face.”

“That is the face I am wearing, yes,” Hikaru grumbled, “Akari, I wanted to do things properly this time.  I’m going to be leaving.”

She frowned, “Right.  Of course you are.”

“I’m sorry, but I don’t know how safe it’d be to bring you along.”

“I know,” She sighed, flattening out her yukata with her hands, “I know.  Hikaru, I… I love you.  But I’m not part of your world like I was before.  Monsters and magick, it’s all beyond me.  I like it being beyond me.  I like being safe.”

“Then this time, don’t wait for me,” Hikaru said, “I’m pretty sure our engagement should’ve ended last time I left, but in case it wasn’t clear, it is now.  Because I like you being safe too.  I’m sorry I involved you in this mess at all.”

She straightened her back, sitting with perfect posture, “If I do my best to move on, you have to promise me that you’ll come back and visit occasionally.  Don’t die on me.”

“I’ll do my best.  But that might be a little hard,” Hikaru winced, “Uh, and Akari?  I love you too.”

She nodded at him with a sad smile, “I knew that.  Now go do your Kurosumomo thing!”

Hikaru had always had a little bit of regret for how he left his mom the first time.  So even after all she had done, after all he had done, he still had to talk to his mother.

She had slid her door open when he knocked, but she’d shut it on him quickly, in no mood for even the tiniest bit of communication.

Hikaru had expected that, almost.  He called, “I’m here to say goodbye!”

A noise that sounded like dishes shattering was heard from the kitchen.  She’d probably thrown a plate against the wall.  Hikaru just slid the door open and walked inside, toeing off his sandals to avoid tracking mud on his mother’s new, nice tatami mats.  His mother had replaced them since he’d left.

He found her sitting on the floor of the kitchen, a bottle of sake in her hand.  Her tear stained rags were falling off her shoulders.  She made a sight.  It was like all of her anger had drained out of her just to leave some hollow husk of a person.

“Mom,” Hikaru said, his heart breaking a little, “Come on, you can’t do this.”

Her head flopped listlessly to the side, her eyes darting away from him, “Get out of my house.”

“Nope,” Hikaru took a deep breath.  She was probably dehydrated, he realized, judging by the scent of alcohol and the state of the house.  The new mats were already getting filthy.  He was going to make her tea, and he was going to tell her when he’d come back, and eventually she’d have to accept that he was not human and he wasn’t going to live the life of one and that was that.

He filled the kettle and put it over the fire, and pulled out the pouch his mother kept her tea leaves.

“Stop wearing the face of my son,” She rasped from her place on the floor, “You’re not him.  He left me and died.  I’ve lost everything.  I’m nothing but a widow with no children left alive.”

Hikaru’s breath shuddered in his lungs.

“No, you’re drunk,” He reminded himself, “You don’t really wish I was dead.”

“I don’t have a son anymore,” his mom giggled, her chest heaving with the effort.

Hikaru poured her a cup of tea and placed it in her hands, “Drink up.  You’re sick.  Even if you wish me dead, I don’t want anything bad to happen to you.  My father and I did this to you and this is my fault.  I’m sorry I left.  I had to leave.  I have to leave again.”

His mother stared at her tea with dead eyes, “Why did you come back?  To torment me?”

“Because you’re my mom and I love you,” Hikaru shook his head and swallowed, his throat thick with emotion, “You tried to do your best by me.  You gave me a happy childhood and an understanding best friend.  I’m so sorry I left you like I did.”

He wasn’t sorry he left, he’d never be sorry he left or that he met Sai, but he was sorry about the way he left her.  Just telling Akari to wish her goodbye wasn’t enough, wasn’t right.  This time he was going to pay his dues.

“...tell me about her,” she said, without even looking up at him.

“Him,” Hikaru corrected thoughtlessly, “You mean Touya?  He’s my rival.  We’re both the Kurosumomo’s heirs, but he’s the Kurosumomo’s son so he’s got a much better rein on his magick than I do.  I can spin circles around him with a sword though.  Touya’s confident and prideful, but he knows when to be humble and kind.  He has good intentions, and he’s very talented at almost everything I’ve seen him do.  He has a sharp mind and a sharper tongue.”

His mother coughed and finally took a sip of her tea.  When she lowered the cup back down to her lap, she looked him directly in the eye and said, “Don’t let that boy hurt you.”

Hikaru understood immediately what she was really saying.  She didn’t need to say it aloud.  He’d heard her clearly.

“I’ll be back before the year is up,” He promised, “Make me some tea when I return, please?”

He saw the tear rolling down her cheek, and he left her with that.  He couldn’t make the others wait up for much longer.

Even though it was his first time casting a teleportation spell, he was absolutely sure he’d pulled it off.  The stretching and pulling and the chains and everything were so similar to last time that he was sure he not only managed it but had gotten it down to the point.

Once he’d gotten more comfortable going small distances, he took a deep breath and laid out the movements to send them all to Edo.  A few uncomfortable moments of being dragged through space-time and then, he could open his eyes to corporeal reality once again.  And judging by the smell, a wafting aroma of sweet buns and noodles in a robust salty broth mixed with a heady scent of cherries drifting down from the hillside, Hikaru had managed the spell.

He examined himself for all his bits and pieces; it wouldn't do if he'd managed to lose a limb in between Ojikeshi and Edo.  When nothing appeared to be missing or severed, he let out a sigh of relief and took a look around.

He'd picked out a place down by the markets, close to where he'd first climbed up the stairs of the Worukansenkyo.  The great bazaar of Edo was probably just under his feet.

Isumi, Waya, and Le Ping exploded into reality in front of him, just as disorientated as he had been a few seconds prior.

"I missed you guys!" Hikaru flung his arms open wide, grinning.

"It's been a few seconds at most?" Isumi asked, before he looked down to check for all his extremities.

"He's just playing," Waya snorted, getting to his feet.

"I don't know why we're here specifically but—"

"It smells so good!" Le Ping yelled, pulling on Isumi's sleeve, "Buy me something, please?  I want takoyaki and okonomiyaki and maybe ramen, too!"

"How rich do you think I am?" Isumi groaned.

"No, we totally should get something!  Edo's got great food.  Shindou, you probably know all the best spots to eat, you practically lived here for a month!"  Waya and Le Ping looked like hungry twins, especially now with Le Ping only a foot smaller than Waya.

"Uh, I ate at the temple most of the time.  The shrine attendants cooked two meals a day.  Mostly it was just lots of rice," Hikaru shrugged, "Maybe we should go to the shrine first though?"

"No way!  Touya's gonna duel you and he'll decimate you, and you'll never get to eat Edo's delicious food!" Waya pulled out his puppy dog eyes, big and watery and effective.

Isumi melted right away, "It couldn't hurt to postpone going to the shrine an hour or so."

Hikaru was a little more staunch about his resistance.  Touya was so close, it was like he could taste him in the air.  And since he was so dreadfully close, Hikaru only felt a stronger pull to go rush and fix things between them.  It had been a week since he'd seen Touya last.

But when Le Ping and Waya turned their hungry begging faces at him, he sighed, "This better be quick."

It wasn't quick.  He should've known better than to assume it's be quick.

"You're telling that guy wants to kill us because you stole sweet buns from his cart?" Hikaru berated the tiny dragon, whose cheeks are stuffed so full of the sweets that he looks like a squirrel.  Hikaru could kill him.  He'd help the man trying to do just that if not for Isumi's pleading eyes, begging him to leave it well alone.

"I'll shove your—" a loud clang sounded as the man tripped over the cart in front of him.  His set of two feet per leg made him move in a peculiar fashion Hikaru could only describe as skittering.

"Why don't you just give him money for it?"

"We would if we could, but the lady back there cleaned us out," Isumi shook his head.  "Who knew ramen could be so expensive?"

"Well we're being chased by a guy with a knife!  None of us has anything left?" Hikaru begged, turning his eyes on Waya, who he'd hoped would be sensible enough to save some coins for their next meal.

"I'm broke, don't look at me!" Waya said as he dove down an alley, a tight fit for the three of them plus a dragon.

They squeezed themselves through eventually, and their pursuer couldn't fit, because his two sets of feet were too wide.  They didn't have much time if they wanted to take advantage of their trick; it was only a few more blocks down the way for the man to get to a connecting street.

The rest of the way they ran was up hill, and the closer they got to the scent of cherry blossoms, the more it clogged Hikaru's throat with sadness.  Sai... had disappeared here, with this scent in the air of the evening.

He wished he could somehow bring Sai back, but he understood that it was impossible.  So Hikaru ignored the guilt settling under his skin and exhaled, letting the idle thought go.

"It's just up the hill," Hikaru said softly, "It's a nice place.  Very calm."

"Zougeiro was once renowned for being a place of eternal peace.  When the city was swallowed in darkness, this place was said to be so still, you could hear everyone's thoughts."

"Creepy," Waya poked Isumi in the back.

"I wish.  I have no clue what anyone's thinking," Hikaru crossed his arms, "Especially Touya."

"We ran so much, I'm hungry again!" Le Ping whined.

Everyone ignored him.

"Touya doesn't hate you; he sent us in your direction with instructions to help you.  He wouldn't have been so kind if he'd really held a grudge."

"It's Touya, though!" He protested.

"Trust us, he sounded angry but mostly he was worried.  I could tell," Waya reassured.

Isumi put a comforting hand on his shoulder, squeezing just a little, "He'll have a hard time forgiving you if you don't show any remorse, no matter what you think he thinks."

Hikaru nodded and took a deep breath.  Climbing the stairs wasn't easy.  Frankly, it was nerve wrecking.

The last he'd truly seen of Touya, he'd been beginning to bruise and had looked so hurt, so empty.  Betrayed.  Hikaru hadn't moved to protect him soon enough, his loyalties divided, and when he did it was too late.

His loyalties were no longer split; he knew that protecting Touya and respecting Sai weren't two things at odds.  Touya could still die, but Hikaru couldn't.  Unlike Touya, back then he could've used magick, and he was ashamed that he hadn't when it'd mattered, when his resolve was tested.  He could have leveled that village to the ground, and if that's what it would've taken to keep Touya safe, he should've

The gates of Zougeiro loomed.  Hikaru felt infinitesimally small before them.

He pushed them open anyways, ready to face all that he'd run away from.  Hikaru stood, his friends at his back and his shoulders squared, staring at the calm peace of the shrine like it was a challenge.

His eyes didn't take long to settle on the prim, proud figure of Touya, dark hair tangling in the wind and his hands hidden in his long, billowing sleeves.

It wasn't like Hikaru'd tried to reign back his presence or sneak about, so he wasn't surprised that Touya was waiting for him at the doors, angry green eyes pinning him in place.  Hikaru wasn't surprised, but he still had no idea what to say.

"Come in," Touya said mildly, and his tone didn't match his expression at all.  "My father is too busy to greet you himself.  My apologies."

"I didn't come here to see him!" Hikaru blurted before sense got the better of him.

The black haired boy waved his comment off with a dismissive gesture, "You're here to duel me.  That doesn't matter, my father will see you first.”

“Your father can wait--!”

“He can’t.  My mother's time is short.  Once she is dead, we will duel immediately.  My father doesn't want to be long in this world after."

"To lose both your parents so soon... Why aren't you with them?  Enjoying the last bit of time you have with them?" Hikaru shook his head, "They love you!"

"And yours throws rocks at people like us," Touya swept around in a tight circle, his kimono trailing on the ground.  His dark hair and his anger contrasted with his pale skin and the thick heavy linen surrounding him.  Hikaru wanted to touch just to make sure he wasn’t some sort of fever dream.

"Uh, not to interrupt, but where should we go?" Waya said out of nowhere, memory of his presence coming back in jolts.

"Guest quarters are—" the heir of the household began.

"—on the left," Hikaru finished, staring at Touya's back, "Just down the hall.  Can't miss 'em."

"Uh, we'll leave you to..." Isumi fumbled for words, "  We'll see you soon, Shindou, don't do anything rash without us."

Hikaru nodded, taking a step towards Touya.  To make sure he was real.  To say something.  If anyone deserved answers, it was Touya.

"Please," he pleaded. 

The dark haired boy's shoulders slumped and his posture lost some stiffness, "Why did you leave?"

"Sai, he just... vanished.  I know he'd been trying over and over to tell me that he wasn't long for the world but... when he left I just panicked.  I blamed myself.  I ran away," explained Hikaru, and he closed his hands into fists, tight enough that his finger nails made crescent moons in his skin.

"He meant that much to you."  Touya didn't phrase it as a question.  They both knew the answer.

"I thought that if I hadn't been selfish, if I didn't love magick, then Sai would've been happier, would've stayed.  So I turned my back on magick altogether and ran," Hikaru stared resolutely at the creases in Touya's kimono, the textured patterns in his white obi, the way the fabric was cut so he could see the smallest bit of ankle.  Anywhere but Touya's face.

"But you came back," Touya said.

"Isumi, he, uh... He pushed me in the right direction," Hikaru couldn't help it, impatience got the better of him, "I can't believe you just stood there when my mom starting throwing rocks.  I can't believe I just stood there.  You've gotta be angry about that..."

"She was only trying to protect you from me," Touya folded his arms, "Save you from the monster.  I'm surprised you don't feel the same."

"It doesn't matter to me.  But my mom said my dad, he... His first wife was a genten no bakemono.  He never stopped looking for her when she left him.  That's why my mom and I, she raised me by herself," Hikaru shook his head, "I never understood why he was always gone.  Didn't he love us?  My mom always knew the truth, that a monster stole her husband from her and she was convinced another one wanted her only son.  But she knows now that her son was a monster too, all along."

"You told her about your magick, about what you are?" He unfolded his arms, reaching out for Hikaru's shoulder.  His hand faltered part of the way, sinking back down to his side.

Hikaru smiled ruefully, "If she's going to hate you for what you are, she should know that we're the same.  I'm never letting her hurt you ever again."

Touya stayed silent for a moment, "You seem so sure of that.  But by the end of this week one of us will be dead and the other will be immortal.  You can't keep that promise unless you kill me.  Is that what you intend?"

"No!" Hikaru grabbed Touya's wrists, slender and solid under his hands, "After this duel, you'll be immortal.  Then she can't touch you anymore.  No one'll be able to touch you."

"My father told me that you once said my life was worth more than yours.  And maybe he agrees with you.  But you're forgetting something important," Touya twisted out of Hikaru's grip, and took a step back, out of range.  His eyes were downcast, his posture slumped, and his mouth looked almost wild, twisted into both a smile and a frown.

"...what am I forgetting?" He asked.

Touya laughed, but it wasn't joyous at all.  He turned on his heel and left, his last words lingering in the still afternoon air.

"That I don't agree with you."

Chapter Text

Touya didn't come to get him for his meeting with the Meijin.  Nase did.

She was overjoyed to see him again.  Her arms were around him before he knew it, and she slapped him on the shoulder and grinned at him when he tried to bow to her and apologize.  She'd already made fast friends with Isumi and Waya in the time it had taken him to finish talking with Touya, although Le Ping was still a bit standoffish with her.  Hikaru could almost understand; too many new people too close to his bonded partner would make the tiny dragon uneasy.

"You have good friends, Shindou," She said, brushing off the red pleats of her shrine maiden attire, "But I'll get to know you all better later.  Touya-Meijin wants to see you today, and he's not budging on that."

"Fine by me," Hikaru said.  He followed after her, ready to get the probably painful conversation over.

"The Kurosumomo, he's not very happy with you," She explained as she dragged him down the hallway he'd only been down once before, "He sees your actions as an obnoxious inconvenience at best or a grave trespass of tradition at worst.  He's determined to see you dead before the week's out at this point.  The young master isn't happy about that."

"Charming," Hikaru rubbed his forehead.

Nase slapped him on the shoulder, "You'll show these stuffy jerks.  As much as I respect the young master, I know it'd be better if you won.  He's very unhappy.  The prospect of living his life all alone until he can't take it anymore and kills himself, well, he hates it."

"I'm not terribly fond of that either," he groused.  If he really was immortal already, then he had to lose this duel. He just wasn't sure how to lose a duel to the death when he couldn't die except by choice and the other participant could.  And if he fucked this up and killed Touya on accident, he'd choose to die on the spot.  There were some mistakes not worth suffering.

Nase shrugged, "You're good at making friends.  I think you'll be okay.  But Touya... He can't get close to anyone or he'll lose his mind."

Hikaru looked at her oddly, "I thought the crazy had to do with being pregnant.  And since he's a guy...?"

"Well you could say the young master has odd parentage.  The Kurosumomo has always been male. However genten no bakemono only ever give birth to daughters.  So I don't know myself, but there's a rumor that he went both ways.  He just is a he because he is.  So maybe the pregnancy thing still applies or maybe it doesn't, but the fear it might is already enough."

"That doesn't make much sense to me," Hikaru shook his head.

Nase tutted, "You were raised with humans.  It's different here."

"A truer sentence has never been said," He laughed.

The two of them waited as Nase rapped on the door, her hand scraping against the wood frame.  The colored paper looked faded, and Hikaru knew that even though he was going to see Touya Meijin, he was really going into Touya Akiko's room.

When the door slid open, another female shrine maiden stepped out and motioned them inside.  She was new, Hikaru thought.  Nase had been the only girl before.

"Thank you, Yuri," Nase said stiffly, bowing to her.

Hikaru bowed as well, watching the girl leave.  She didn't really step anywhere, he realized.  Like Ogata, she was an orochi, but she seemed to be a bit more full-blooded.  She slithered, seeing as she had no legs, just a long snake tail.

"She's the healing specialist that Master Touya-Meijin called in," Nase whispered, "I don't like her."

"...why?" Hikaru whispered back.

"She is sweet on the young master.  And she has ambitious ideas in her old fashioned head," Nase scrunched up her nose in disapproval.

"That's a bad thing?" he asked, "Touya needs all the friends he can get."

"She doesn't want to be friends.  She wants to be his lover and enjoy the prestige and power that would afford her, and she clearly is waiting until his parents are dead and he is at his most vulnerable to make herself known."

"That's underhanded," Hikaru shook his head.

Nase nodded, "Plus, no one wants to risk him having any lovers.  Why do you think Touya-Meijin is so set on your death?"

He'll be disappointed to learn I can't die, Hikaru thought.

The two of them finally entered the room, at the signal of the Kurosumomo's hand wave.  Akiko was fast asleep in her bed, her breathing wet and rattling in her throat.  Touya-Meijin held her hand, smoothing her wrinkled and yellowed skin with his thumb.  Hikaru could smell the sickness in the room, and he resisted plugging his nose.

"She is likely to die within the hour," Touya Kouyo projected his thoughts out, softly.  Still, having someone else's thoughts in his brain made Hikaru distinctly on edge.  "My son is ready to replace me.  My own death is going to take place tomorrow.  I would beg you not to take my son from me, but I too will be gone soon and I doubt you are as eager to die tomorrow as I am."

"I want to live, but not if it means Touya will die.  So if that's the only way Touya lives, I want to die," Hikaru decided to say.  He didn't want to risk Touya's well-being by admitting his position to the person risking his son's life just to uphold some sick tradition.

"Touya has the capability to win this without your pity," Kouyo thought, with a hint of proudness, "Soon even the gods will have to fear him.  There is nothing he cannot kill."

The Kurosumomo sounded impossibly sure of that, and the man was not one to exaggerate.  Could he have been telling the truth?  What was Hikaru's measly immortality to someone who could kill gods? 

Hikaru pursed his lips, thinking.  Could Touya really kill him?  They could kill anything with a kiss but each other, and even then Sai had warned that if they weren't equals, their kisses were still deadly.  What if he really could die in tomorrow's duel?

He had thought Sai's life meant he was invincible but... the old Kurosumomo killed themselves transferring their life to their pupils, and Sai had "died" when he was stranded without a body.  It wasn't a fail-safe immortality.  It meant your body was forever young, that time and blades and sickness couldn't kill you.

But maybe death magick could.

Their duel tomorrow would be with death magick.

"Your son will survive tomorrow," Hikaru said, stalwart in his conviction, "I don't pity Touya Akira. I respect him far too much for that."

"I'm sure he is glad to hear that," Touya-Meijin replied, motioning behind Hikaru.

He hadn't heard him approach, but there was the Kurosumomo's aforementioned son, looking a bit gloomy and formal, his eyes the slightest tinge red.  Noticing his stare, the youngest Touya turned his head away from Hikaru's line of vision.  He entered the room, barely brushing against Hikaru's side as he passed through the door, his fingertips trailing the edge of the paper screen.

That seemed to be the end of that conversation, because Nase had begun to fidget.  Hikaru glanced one last time at Akiko, and he wished that her passing was easy.

Just as he wished her well, Akiko’s eyes crept open and landed on her husband.  He held her hand gently and she wheezed, her breath catching in her throat.

She coughed, “Dearest, please...”

“Can’t you hold on another few minutes?” Nase begged, “I’ll go find Hidaka Yuri, please, make her hold on just a bit longer!”

“Nase, dear girl...” Akiko smiled, and for a second it was the most beautiful thing Hikaru had ever seen, “I cherish... all you have done... for me... But it is my time.”

“Of course,” Nase choked, tears running down her face as she went to grab her mistress’ hand.

Touya stood stiffly by his mother’s side, but she beckoned him weakly with an upward twitch of her withered mouth.  He placed his hand on top of hers and Nase’s, gentle.  Hikaru couldn’t see much of his face, but he could feel somewhere in his soul all the love everyone in the room held for the dying woman.

She had been such a presence that Hikaru regretted that he hadn’t been able to spend more time with her or meet her sooner.

“Akira... you have a... fragile soul... but a will of... steel.  I know... you will... be alright... because so many... people will come... to see you and... love you... like I do...” Akiko sharply inhaled, her chest heaving with effort, “I wish I... could have lived to... watch you become who... you are... meant to be.”

Touya trembled, his fingers clenching tight around hers as if just holding onto her hand would keep her alive and with him.

“ love...” Touya’s mother wheezed, as she turned her head to face Touya Kouyo, “You... have been the light... of my life... I will be... waiting for you... so please...”

Touya Kouyo squeezed his wife's hand one last time, before kissing her tenderly, their lips connected for the first and last time.

Hikaru stood in the doorway, watching, numb.  He thought he might’ve felt a tear run down his cheek and drip onto the floor, but he couldn’t really move or think or feel.

Early in the morning, gentle hands shook him awake.  Even without opening his eyes, Hikaru knew his assailant; no one's soul burned that absinthe green but Touya's.

Hikaru yawned and reached for one of those hands, tangling their fingers together.  He waited for his vision to focus on the dark haired boy.

"Kill me," Touya said softly, "You should.  This whole time, you've been tossing yourself away for me, but you barely know me.  I never considered trying to kill myself in this duel but it makes sense.  You have your powers because I am unsuitable.  I am meant to die here.  If you die here and I live, I'll have lost everyone I love within the same week."

Hikaru lost most of his sleepiness.  He squeezed Touya's hand, "It'll be okay, T—"

"There's no hope," Touya shook his head.  "My mother is already gone.  My father is soon to follow.  I cannot bear to take your life and continue living after.  I'd rather we both died!"

"Touya..." Hikaru pulled him into a one-armed hug, his hand tangling in his smooth dark hair.  Touya's head rested limply on his shoulder.

"Can I ask a favor?" Touya whispered.


"Lie to me, Shindou.  Tell me we'll both survive this."

Hikaru soothed, "Of course we will.  We can just be immortal together.  We'll just have to suffer each other for eons and eons.  But you know, if we're going to spend so much time together, you really should call me Hikaru."

Touya Akira snorted, "Oh, why not?  It's not like I haven't been already behind your back."

Hikaru teased, "Without my permission?  You're so bold, Touya!"

He got a light slap on the cheek for that.

"I get certain privileges when your mother tries to stone me to death," Touya defended, "It's retribution.  But you're just distracting me now.  I came here to convince you to fight me properly in the duel.  I need you to aim to take my life as I will yours.  If this must come to be, I would hope we both could have an honorable death."

"I've wanted to test our magic against each other for ages.  I'll give you a fight if that's what you want.  I won't promise to kill you.  But I do promise I'll give you everything I've got in the duel."

The dark haired boy smiled against his shoulder, "I will do the same.  And... Hikaru?"

Hikaru hummed, waiting for him to continue.

"If I do die, I'll regret never having said this... So I will tell you now."  He swallowed, taking a shallow breath, "When I was a child, I was bored, lethargic, dull.  Magick came effortlessly to me, my lessons were pointless, and I told my father to just have another child because I had no desire to become Kurosumomo.  I was living through life with no purpose."

Touya squeezed him a bit tighter, his face buried in Hikaru's shoulder.  He took in a shuddering breath and continued, "My parents were concerned about me.  Once, my dad said he wished I'd been born in a difference time because I lived my life with such misery.  I eventually ran away from here, hoping that maybe if I saw a bit more of the world than this shrine then I'd find my purpose for being alive."

"You ran to Ojikeshi," Hikaru realized.

"It wasn't intentional," Touya shook his head, "I went many places.  But as soon as you kissed me in that tavern, I suddenly had lost everything and found myself.  A rival for my unwanted, predestined future should have discouraged me, but it didn't.  If it meant I could dance with you, fight you, see you again, I devoted myself to my destiny.  My life was nothing until I met you."

Hikaru didn't know what to say, so he just stroked Touya's back slowly, the thick fabric of his yukata soft under his hands.  He had noticed all the way back then that Touya Akira was probably lost, but he hadn't ever thought that he had done anything to help him find himself.

"This isn't fair," Hikaru murmured.

It really wasn't, but he could do nothing about it.  He just held Touya closer and ignored how the sun was creeping up, how soon he'd have to face the day.

When Hikaru woke, Touya was already gone.  It didn't surprise him, not really.

His hand flopped back down to cover his eyes.  Even if he felt comfortable now with using his magick, he still felt like Sai was this ever-present invisible weight on his shoulders.

"I saw that," Nase teased, poking him in the side with her foot, "I brought you tea.  Big day today and all."

"I don't know, is it?" Hikaru pulled his blanket up above his head.  Shit, he wasn't ready for today to start.  He was still so lost, so clueless.  He had none of the answers.

"Touya's been awake since dawn, meditating.  I think that's probably why he hasn't been puking up his guts.  Yuri's been fawning over him because he looks just green enough that it's justified," Nase said, completely ignoring his question.

"She's barking up the wrong tree," Hikaru muttered, "how long do I have until the match?"

"2 hours.  Good luck, Shindou, I'm rooting for you!" Nase clapped him on the shoulder, "Remember, don't be cruel with your kindness.  If he wants to die, kill him."

Hikaru wouldn't, under any circumstance, be able to kill Touya Akira.  He didn't care how cruel it was, he could never.

He said instead, "I promised him a fair fight.  He'll get one."

Hikaru picked up his clothes, dressed in his nicest fighting gear, and sheathed his sword at his waist.  He wiped off his face with a tiny washcloth, and headed out into the main hall anyway.

The first room he drifted to was the room that Waya, Isumi, and Le Ping had taken over as theirs for the duration of their stay.  When Hikaru knocked, Isumi opened the door a smidgen.  He glanced back at the two sleeping brunettes behind him, and then motioned for Hikaru to follow him.  The two of them set off on a walk around the gardens, the insects still asleep enough that their buzzing had yet to really escalate.

The air held a chill to it, but Hikaru had dressed heavy enough that he enjoyed it.  Isumi looked a little less satisfied, being in his sleeping wear.

"I take it you need to walk out some jitters?" Isumi asked.

"I guess.  I wanted to say goodbye, rather," Hikaru stared down at his feet, "I don't want to say I'm not coming back when there's a chance I will be, but things are gonna get messy up here soon either way."

"Shindou.  You're our good friend and this is your time of need if you'll ever have one; we're not going to leave you." The dark haired Ryūame shook his head, one hand coming up to push his bangs out of the way of his blue eyes.

Hikaru smiled, "Thanks, Isumi.  For everything, really.  I feel like I might really be able to fix everything knowing that you're going to be there supporting me."

Isumi laid his hand on Hikaru's shoulder, "You will be able to do this. I know you can."

Hikaru never knew how much affect such simple words could have until he heard them.

They two of them walked for a bit longer, watching as they sky turned from grey to blue above their heads.

"You should head back," Isumi stated softly, his hand pressing a gentle weight on Hikaru's shoulder.  It felt horribly fin all, thinking he might never see some of his friends again.

"Yeah," Hikaru agreed, and he headed back towards the shrine, his dawn excursion ending on a melancholy note.

He finally returned to his room in his shrine, settling down to a comfortable sitting position.

Sai, I'm finally going to have a real first dance with Touya, he thought.  Would you be proud of me?  I think I can actually win this, actually keep both Touya and I alive.  Did you give me your life for this chance?

He didn't get an answer.  He wasn't really expecting one, either.

I miss you, Sai.  But you live on in me, and I will always have you with me.  I'm going to honor that.

Even if Touya does kill me, then I'll just hope that I can find you in our next life.

Hikaru took a deep breath, steady but for the thudding of his heart.  He didn't have much time left to prepare.

In fact, it felt like no time at all had passed when Nase came back and led him to where they would be fighting.

As they approached the door, Hikaru could sense heavy magick, thick and powerful and ancient.  Nase said simply, "Your duel will take place in this room."

"I can feel that," Hikaru shuddered, "It's heavy."

Like a candle flame, Touya seemed to strike into existence beside him. His rival spoke softly, "It's a curse.  When we're inside, we won't notice, but what it does is absorb any magick that would normally damage the walls."

"Of course you'd know that," Hikaru grumbled.

"My father locked me in here once when I acted up as a child," Touya said blandly, "I never acted up again."

"Touya, that is not the way to make me feel more comfortable!" Hikaru yelped.

"It's not meant to," Touya replied.

Still, as they entered into the oppressive space, it felt to Hikaru that they had formed some sort of united front, that they understood each other.

Touya stood across from him, his body relaxed but poised for movement, his stance strong and steady and as unyielding as his stubborn personality.  There was no question about it, Touya was done with waiting for this.

Good, Hikaru thought.  He was done with waiting too.  He was ready.

He let himself fall into something comfortable, natural to him now as breathing.  He drew his sword, holding it up straight, his palm against the flat of the blade to support it.

Touya-meijin entered last, possibly to stand as referee, possibly because he wanted to watch what might have been his son's last moments.  It was the three of them, alone, and Hikaru took a deep breath to steady himself.

"Ready?" He asked Touya.

"I have been waiting for this for years," Touya replied.

"Good.  On a count of three, begin," The kurosumomo instructed, his thoughts touching both of their minds in a dull, almost lifeless way that he had not had before.




Hikaru made the first move, a lazy and easy slide forward, his foot pointing to the left.  His sword remained steady, pointing at Touya's neck.  His magick responded in kind, a wave of energy behind such a simple motion.

Touya wasted no time in replying.  His energy was vicious and quick to strike with a burning bite, snaring Hikaru's legs in a whip as its master danced a circle around Hikaru, his socks sliding on the wood and accelerating his already slick movements.

He really is impatient for this fight, Hikaru thought.  That's good, I am too.

Hikaru sliced through Touya's trap with a flick of his blade and he floated from stance to stance to match Touya's liquid movement.  They were mirrors of each other creating a distorted image of orange and green that could have laid waste to everything around them.

Hikaru was matched at every turn by his rival's acid grace, and he matched Touya for each spin and jab with his own blend of swordplay and bold footwork, their magick filling the room and mixing and snapping with intensity strong as their masters.  They crept closer, and closer, their souls jerked back and forth with each close call.  Hikaru ran a hand up Touya's arm, pulling him in only to rip at his burning green soul, his magick greedy for purchase with every movement he made.

Touya spun away, his jade-colored energy dispersing Hikaru's orange in bursts of absinthe flame, only to dart forward and cast a heavy enough net of magick to flatten Hikaru under the pressure.

The only dance Hikaru had ever had that felt quite like this was when he'd dance with Sai, and even then he hadn't felt this competition, this magnetic attraction.  The fact that he could touch Touya, he could pull at him until they were close their souls felt like they were touching, it was fantastic.

Hikaru lost his balance under the weight, making it simple for Touya to trip him with his ankle, and the two of them fell to the floor, their magick pausing in what looked like confusion; directionless energy.

Touya's eyes are so green, Hikaru thought.  He smiled, placing his hand on the back of Touya's neck.

Sai had always said their final duel would be a kiss, not a dance.

With that in mind, Hikaru kissed Touya, gentle and sweet and suddenly just as much of a struggle as their dance had been as his magick surged up in response.

Touya's though, his magick was blinding as his soul, and it quickly overwhelmed him.  He was a supernova of light, and Hikaru loved him far too much to actually grab his precious soul and rip it out of his chest.  Hikaru doubted if he even could, too, considering how impossibly strong Touya was.

He felt his soul dislodge out of his body, but there was only a brief moment of panic.  It was like someone had extinguished the torches and everything went black.  Very suddenly he knew nothing, could see nothing, and felt nothing but a blurred world of Touya's hands, soft and gentle, coming up around him and sheltering him like he was delicate cargo.

Hikaru's last thought before he drifted off was that he'd never known dying could be so comforting.

Interlude: Touya and his father.

Akira had never actually thought he'd win.  Hikaru was, always seemed to be, well, so much more confident and unshakable than he was.  Even now, Hikaru was tiny and delicate and just a glowing orange ball of whisky smoke in his hands and he still seemed so steady and strong.

Akira didn't dare let go of him, however.

"Congratulations on your victory, Akira," his father told him, a frown gracing his lips.  It pulled at the thick black stitches, and all Akira could think was that he was living a nightmare.

"Father, please," he begged, his voice about to crack, "How do I..."

"You can't save him once he's dead," His father shook his head, "It is simply impossible for an heir.  You must have mastered life magick first."

"Then you save him!" Akira cried, water creeping down his cheeks, dripping off his chin, "Please!  I can't lose him too, not on top of you and mother.  I don't know how to live in this world alone!"

"Son..." His father thought softly, "That won't be necessary.  Give him to me."

Akira hesitantly brought his hands over to meet his fathers, light escaping his fingers in rays that scattered the shadows around the room.  Hikaru's soul passed from his palms to his father's.

For a horrible second, it looked like his father would just let him go, let Hikaru Shindou drift off to the afterlife, but it was only a passing fear.  Akira trusted his father not to lie.

The Kurosumomo stroked the surface of the soul with his thumb, a self-deprecating amusement in his projected words, "My son, you found a rival beyond all expectations."

"What do you mean?" Akira asked softly, his heart pounding with every second Hikaru was in his father's hands.

"Shindou Hikaru has life magick," His father thought, incredulous, "He had no need to duel you for mine.  He was already immortal and he chose to offer you his own immortal life rather than kill you."

"He did?" Akira wondered aloud. 

"I don't know how, but it is true."

Sai, he thought.  Hikaru had been taught by that odd ghost, Sai.  The ghost must've been who he'd gotten his life magick from, as strange as that sounded.

Instead, Akira said, "Then reviving him should be simple for you."

"Yes," The Kurosumomo projected, "But I will actually leave that duty to you.  Your first lesson of life magick..."

Akira took Hikaru's soul back into his hands, his ears focused on his father's familiar lecturing tone.

" that souls who have life need only be placed back inside their bodies to be revived."

Akira nodded, holding Hikaru's soul up to his mouth.  He accepted the soul into his body, resting it on his tongue, just long enough for him to kiss the slack mouth of Hikaru's empty body, and for his magick to overthrow its natural instincts to pull and instead pushed, with every inch of himself, wave after wave of his magick pushing Hikaru's soul down back into his chest where it belonged.

He broke the kiss as he felt Hikaru's breath faint against his skin.  Akira smiled, his hand coming up to cradle his rival's face.  He looked oddly young right now, awfully defenseless.

"It is time, Akira," his father chided, his thoughts protective and loving and deeply sad and full of grief and acceptance.  He could read so much into the emotions he felt from his father.

"Yes, father," He replied, leaving one last kiss on Hikaru's forehead.

They left the room together, their destination the secret caves of tradition, the only true passage in Japan to the underworld.  It was a short walk from the room of profound darkness, only just down the hallway and down into the basement.  For Akira it was still one if the hardest treks he'd ever walked.

When they stood in front of the doors, his father laid his hand on Akira's shoulder, "Live a long happy life, my dearest son.  I'm glad you can spend it with the one you love, as I did."

"Thank you.  And, Dad?" Akira turned to look his father in the face, those familiar and much loved lines and features burned into his brain even as his voice cracked, "I love you so much.  I'll always miss you."

"I know," Touya Kouyo thought, smiling, hugging his son tight to his chest.  "I have always known."

Akira sniffled, blinking away tears, "Dad, I'm scared, I..."

"You are ready.  You won't be alone," his father reassured.

With that, the two of them entered the darkness.  Only one of them would ever leave.

Back to Hikaru

A breeze caused his bangs to tickle his eyelids, and the ache he felt as he tried to move his arm to fix the problem were the first two things he did to know he was alive.  Touya hadn't killed him.  Why hadn't Touya killed him?

"You're awake!" Nase sounded both relieved and tired.

"Yeah, uh," Hikaru leaned up, his head pounding, "Why?"

Nase looked down at her lap, her thumbs twiddling with each other, "The young master said he couldn't do it.  He couldn't let you die even after he pulled your soul out.  All he'd said was that he just couldn't kill you."

"And his father didn't make him?" He asked, genuinely curious.  Had Touya-meijin changed his mind and his demands?

"No.  The Kurosumomo wouldn't dare. Sorrow and self hatred corrupt a genten no bakemono so easily when they lose one they love."

Hikaru's heart pounded so hard he heard it in his ears.  He blinked to clear up his foggy eyes, "Touya-meijin won't kill me because he's afraid that Touya loves me?"

"Well, he can't do much killing anymore.  He's given his life to Touya," Nase bowed her head quickly in prayer, "May he rest in peace."

Hikaru had to stop and digest what he had just heard.

"You're telling me..." His voice cracked into a wavering higher register, "That it's all over?  Touya Meijin is dead?"

"Yes.  The young master, he's completing the ceremony as we speak."

"What does that... mean...?"

"Well," Nase drummed her fingers together nervously, "His mouth will have to be sewn shut immediately.  And then he'll sign the records with a fusion of his blood and his magick to officially take his place as the next Kurosumomo."

"They're sewing his mouth shut?!" He felt a shiver run through his body as he remembered the scars on Sai's lips that he'd failed to hide with purple lipstick.  Sai hadn't really talked about them, and the only time he had, well...

"You see, Hikaru, the sewing of the mouth is a vow you make.  Your voice in the literal sense is taken from you forever, whether or not the thread remains.  And from then on, any time you try to tell a secret, the spell will blister your lips, no matter what that secret is.  And if you tell a secret regarding death magick, the thread will rip out of your lips and strangle you, until it cuts through your flesh and destroys your very soul."

Hikaru clenched his fist, anger simmering in his veins.  "Why?  Why do they have to sew his mouth shut when there's no point?!  All that'll do is hurt him!"

"It's a symbolic and unbreakable oath of secret keeping," Nase said, and that didn't satisfy him at all.

"I'm done letting the people I love get hurt," Hikaru grimaced, his voice flat and determined.  He had already fucked tradition up so bad there was no going back. Why would he let something that had no power anymore hurt the person he loved?  "Sorry, Nase.  I can't let Touya go through with that."

Having said his piece and ignoring any protest Nase might have had, Hikaru scrambled to his feet and ran through the cold hallways until he reached the ceremonial shrine's pagoda.  His heart pounded with the fear he would be too late, that Touya would lose his voice forever. 

As he climbed the steps, he could see Touya sitting prim and with his hands folded, as Ogata laced a needle through his lips and pulled tight. Blood ran down the thread and trickled in drops off his chin, turning into ugly stains on an otherwise pristine alabaster kimono.

Hikaru didn't even think, he just yelled, "STOP!  YOU HAVE TO STOP!"

Ogata paused, half finished with his work.

"Even you cannot prevent the sacred ceremony from completion, Shindou," Ogata hissed, "The Kurosumomo will be silenced.  The secrets will be kept safe.  It's the way of the world."

"The secrets don't need to be kept safe this way!" Hikaru shook his head, "I'll be the one to hold him to his oath, I'll keep the secrets!

"You will die eventually.  You can't promise to keep an immortal soul chained by obligations or affection!  It's impossible," Ogata's face scrunched in fury, as he hissed, "Your promise is nothing more than a shameful display of youthful arrogance!"

Hikaru knew he had to prove that he had what Sai had given him.

So he did.  He let his soul's brilliance radiate through his mortal form, simmering and bubbling with magick across his skin like magma under a volcano.

Hikaru felt the burn of his magick, too great for him to smother, and he let it roll off his skin in waves, a crushing weight.  He felt it flicker as it caught both of their souls in its tide, angry and brilliant.  With a quick turn of his ankle, he leveled all of his magick to the ground, leaving the entire pagoda burnt with golden flames.

He'd never felt so powerful or vulnerable in his life, and it scared him if he was going to be honest.

Closing his eyes and knowing it as the truth in his soul, Hikaru stated gently, "I am no longer mortal."

He let his soul settle back, withdrawing his magick.  Hikaru turned back to stare Ogata down, "Kurosumomo Sai gave me his life when he ceased teaching me, like Touya-meijin did for Touya.  We're both Kurosumomo.  We're both immortal.  I will keep Touya's silence, and he will silence me as well.  The secrets will be safe."

Touya shook his head, his eyes wide and his lips bleeding profusely.

"Then we'll just sew your mouth shut next!" Ogata raved, his eyes going hazy, "I can't trust you with this oath! You aren't better than every Kurosumomo who came before you!"

Hikaru took a step forward, "No, I'm not.  But I'm not alone, and the two of us are about as good as it gets.  I know that Touya won't hesitate to kill me if I break my oath, and I, him.  So I won't allow you to do this."

Ogata turned his back on him, the needle returning to his hand.  He grabbed Touya's face, squeezing his cheeks hard enough to bruise as he stabbed the needle through Touya's lower lip.

"I will kill you if you stick that needle back in Touya's mouth," Hikaru whispered, unable to look away from the terror in Touya's green eyes.

Ogata pulled the needle taut, and brought it up to poke another hole in the dark haired boy's lips.

Hikaru didn't hesitate, he'd meant every word of his threat.  He barely had to flick his wrist and slid his foot before he'd ripped Ogata's soul into his hands.

He held onto it, mostly because killing someone close to Touya left a bad taste in his mouth.  He was a monster, but he wasn't enough of one to kill someone in cold blood so easily.

Touya stumbled to his feet, and Hikaru looked at him for a brief moment, "If you tell me to put his soul back, I will.  But this is what he chose."

The Kurosumomo nodded.

Hikaru rolled his eyes but he breathed life back into the dead soul in his hands, something he wasn't sure why he knew how to do (stupid magick, working in sneaky ways), and he shoved Ogata's soul back where it belonged.

The snake man gasped for breath, and clawed at his throat.  His blue eyes stared at Hikaru, accusing.

Hikaru shrugged, "I'm a monster. What did you expect?"

A hand on his arm drew his attention back to Touya.  Touya, who couldn't speak at the moment because that bastard Ogata had gotten too far with his needle and thread.

Hikaru grabbed his sword from its sheath and held it out with the pommel facing his rival.

Touya paused for a second before he took it.  He held the blade level and then pressed his mouth gently to the edge, and cut the stitches holding his mouth together, ending the curse Ogata had started laying upon him. The right side on his mouth would have scars, but they'd heal before too long.

"I can't believe you," Touya shook his head as he handed back Hikaru's sword by the hilt. "I didn't need you to save me.  I had accepted my fate."

Hikaru admitted with a slight grin, "I couldn't let you get hurt for no reason, even if it's something you had accepted."

"I tried to kill you and you let me.  You would be dead if you weren't immortal," he stumbled over his own words, "Why?"

"You couldn't kill me any more than I could've killed you, and you know it," Hikaru wiped away a drop of blood from Touya's chin.

Touya looked away, "We're destroying all the remaining vestiges of tradition."

"I don't really care," Hikaru's eyes lingered on Touya's bleeding lips, "We're both going to live.  I'm... uh, I'll go get you some bandages for that."

"Wait," the dark haired boy commanded.  His fingers reached out and held Hikaru's bare forearm, drawing him closer.

Hikaru felt Touya slump against him, and he wrapped his arms around Touya's waist to hold him steady.

"You don't look so good," Hikaru mumbled into the soft strands of his rival's hair.

"My parents died, I almost killed the last person on this earth I love, got partially cursed, and had my soul manhandled within the same hour; it wasn't a walk in the park," Touya sounded very disgusted.

"It's not the first time I've manhandled it either," Hikaru joked, adjusting their position so he could help Touya to his room.

"Was that after Sai defeated me?  I was close to dying.  I've always wondered why I didn't," Touya sighed, "What am I saying?  Of course that was when.  You like doing the unexpected."

"Touya," Hikaru said quietly, "Ever since we first met, I have always wanted to keep you safe.  Saving you wasn't unexpected for me.  It was my only option."

Touya's hand tightened around Hikaru's arm, his eyes warm, "Shindou, I... I think I need a week of sleep."

Hikaru laughed, "Maybe we should get you in a bed.  You look about as bad as you sound."

Touya kissed him, out of nowhere, and their magick responded eagerly, desperate, welling out of the two of them and smashing together in creating waves of color.  All hostility between their magick vanished as Hikaru deepened the kiss, his hands tightening around Touya's waist.

It tasted like blood and pain and it was borderline disgusting but it also felt perfectly right, exactly how things should be.

Then Touya broke off and patted him on the shoulder, "Sleep.  Lots of sleep.  I feel like I'm tearing my own skin apart."

Hikaru knew the feeling, where everything burns.  All Touya's questions must've been answered, but the magick would've singed him from the inside.  The joys of life magick.  Since he knew how it felt too intimately, he shouldered half of Touya's weight, an arm around his waist, and walked off back towards the main shrine.

When Touya was safely asleep, Hikaru called for everyone in the shrine to come to the main dining room.

Waya was shooting him worried looks, but he just smiled in return.

"I have an announcement," Hikaru began, "Touya is a Kurosumomo.  And so am I.  I don't know what this means and I don't think any of you do either.  For now, I think we should begin preparations for a funeral for Touya Kouyo and Touya Akiko.  Is that okay?"

Nase nodded, a tear dripping down her cheeks, "Thank you, young master Shindou.  I will do my best to help you."

"We're your friends," Waya called out,  "We'll always have your back!"

Ogata said nothing.  His hands clenched, but he did nothing but nod.

Hidaka Yuri said quietly, "Touya's alive?  You didn't kill him?"

Hikaru regarded her with an annoyed expression, "Why would I have killed Touya?  What, did you think I would've been like, 'Thanks for saving my life, here's a sword through your head'?"

"Then how is it that you claim to be the Kurosumomo?  There can only be one!"  Hidaka cried out, her finger pointed and accusing.

"You know what makes an heir the Kurosumomo?  Immortality.  Life, forever.  The magick of life is what the old one gives to the new one.  Touya got his father's life, and I got my own from my master, Sai," Hikaru narrowed his eyes, glaring at her.  He was in no mood to deal with her shit, "Tradition is fucked.  Fate gave Touya and I these powers, and no one can take them away from us now but each other.  You don't like it?  Too bad, sit down and shut up."

He wasn't sure why he was so angry at her opposition.  Maybe it was because he was so tired or maybe it was because she was spitting on the best thing to happen to him since he met Sai.

"This isn't important right now," Isumi said quietly.  "There's a lot to do.  We have to bury Touya's parents properly."

"And after Shindou and Touya will probably have a coronation of sorts," Nase added.

"A coronation?!" Hikaru stammered in horror.

She shrugged, "Tradition, but not a bad one.  The new Kurosumomo is supposed to be declared publicly and in a huge celebration... I know we've fucked over every other tradition in the book, but this one has a purpose.  Everyone living outside of human lands has a right to know who their reaper is, who maintains the balance of life and death.  Usually it's part of the previous Kurosumomo's funeral.  It's a big deal."

Waya spoke up, "I wasn't alive for the last one.  Most people alive weren't.  But legend has it that almost 100 years ago, Touya Kouyo wrote the message himself using the stars in the sky.  Grand announcement there!"

Hikaru let his head smack down on the table, "Fuuuuuuck.  Touya'll know what to do.  Until then, let's talk funds.  How nice of a funeral can we give Akiko and Touya-meijin?"

That was the beginning of the work.

Touya took a couple days of solitude to truly recover, but he was bossy and as much of a perfectionist as ever once he had actually rejoined them in the world.

The Great Shrine of Zougeiro was transformed within days from a place of peaceful stillness and magick serenity into a bustling, energetic and chaotic miniature city that never stopped.  It turns out Touya did know exactly what to do about almost everything.  His directions were clear, poignant, and he held himself with a new sort of inner power.  Hikaru wondered if he himself had looked so changed after becoming truly alive.

And it wasn't just how he held himself that changed.  His eyes were sad, downcast, but Touya made up for it with color.  At first it was just little things.  His obi was a silky vibrant green patterned with dragon flies, or his yukata was trimmed with light blue.  Then he went a little crazy about it.  He was wearing nearly every color under the sun and most of the time the colors didn't match at all.

Hikaru had tried wearing some white just to be official about this whole Kurosumomo thing, but he gave up after the struggle of getting in and out of the ensemble.  He did however give up on his regular outfits.  Most of them were torn, thread bare, or blood stained, and Hikaru had purchased some replacements dyed more vibrantly than before.  Most of his outfits were black, orange, or brown, but he'd picked up a couple ones with gold just so he didn't look so out of place next to Touya.

And next to Touya was apparently a thing that was going to happen as often as they could manage.  Whenever they had a minute to spare, they found a quiet spot to dance in.  It held none of the fury or the fire of their duel at first, but it didn't take long for them to dissolve into a screaming match over their contrasting views of magick.  Still, Hikaru treasured the practice, and even more how he finally could get along with Touya as more than a goal or a rival but as a partner and friend.

The only thing Hikaru didn't like about those moments was their sparsity.  Touya was too busy to allocate any more of his time to Hikaru than 15 minutes a day, it felt like.  There were too many preparations going on.

The funeral was in less than a week, and all who might have cared were invited personally, and all those who didn't care at all were encouraged to show.  Hikaru soon started to see familiar faces fill the shrine to its full capacity and then some.

First to arrive were Ko and Hon. 

With a roar of fire and light, Hon swooped down out of the sky in a graceful circle, until he settled on the rooftop of the shrine with almost no sound.  His wings, still burning brightly with flames on the inside, folded down to let his bonded partner slide off his back.  Ko landed on the ground, having jumped straight off of Hon and the roof at the same time.  The hybrid dragon followed suit, his shorter human form landing in a crouch next to Ko.

That was about when Le Ping lost himself.  The younger dragon squealed, "How did he do that?!  Every time I try to fly, I look like a fat blind bumblebee but—but—but he just aced that landing!"

Hikaru shrugged, "He's not all chunky like you.  You have four legs and a set of wings, he's got two legs and a set of wings.  Plus your legs are thick, heavy set.  His are... not."

"Practice makes perfect," Isumi said comfortingly, his hand gentle on his partner's shoulder.

"I have to ask them!" Le Ping shrugged them both off, too excited for his own good, and sprinted over to Hon and Ko.

Hikaru watched from a distance as Le Ping folded himself over in an attempt to coax Hon's superior knowledge of flying out of him.  Hon seemed both put out and confused at all the sudden new attention he'd gotten, and Ko had gotten downright prickly.

That was about when Isumi tried to come collect his errant dragon, but his hopeless attempts at putting the hyperactive Le Ping back in line didn't do much but anger the ginger haired Ryūame, and soon Waya was called to peel his boyfriend and the errant dragon off the new arrivals.

Hikaru lingered back until Ko and Hon approached him themselves.

Ko let a crooked smirk slip into place, "Heard you managed the impossible. Both you and Touya made it out alive."

"It wasn't even me, it was mostly Sai," He groaned, but he held his arms out for the hug from Hon he knew was coming.

Hon squeezed him tight, his voice going quiet, "We missed you in Ikioi.  Come visit more, you jerk!  You'll get all rusty without proper training."

"You don't have to worry about that," Hikaru laughed, "Touya runs me ragged every chance he gets.  He's determined that I suck at magick."

The worst part of that was that it was only somewhat a joke, Hikaru thought.  Touya really did correct him every two seconds, no matter who came out ahead.  And whenever Hikaru tried to correct Touya's rigid stances into something more natural or teach him a trick or two about how to avoid being thrown around in close combat, he got snapped at.  Okay, he'd admit it; he was growling about Touya's helpful suggestions too.  But he had begun to incorporate Touya's advice just as Touya had his, all bitching aside.

"You do suck at magick," Ko said as he pulled Hon away with a gentle touch on the dragon's shoulder. 

"Says the person who taught me magick usually only reserved for people who are extremely talented with magick!" Hikaru teased.

Ko side-eyes him, "You aligned with Yin.  So I taught you yin magick."

"Plus, Yeong-ha isn't too good himself at Yang magick.  He leaves that to me," Hon added, looking up at Ko with a proud sort of expression, "Though he's never satisfied with my swordsmanship.  It sucks."

To Hikaru's surprise, he saw Ko lean down and kiss Hon on the forehead, tender and gentle.  The ginger haired Ryūame sighed, "That's because you're no good at it.  Blasting everyone in sight with fire doesn't always work.  What if you run out of magick?"

"I can claw them to death.  Or bite them," Hon protested, but it looked like his partner had him beat and he knew it.

"Anyway, it's really good to see you two again," Hikaru said, and he felt like he was interrupting, "We should train together some before you leave. Touya's a hell of a strong fighter with magick but he's more than a little useless when I want to swing my sword around; he just blasts me back repetitively."

"Of course," Ko rolled his eyes, "Now if you don't mind, I need to wash all the travel grime off me."

"You need to?  I'm the one who actually flew that whole distance!" Hon whined as he and Ko made their way back to the guest quarters.

Hikaru grinned after them.  It looked like their bond had only grown stronger and more stable, and he was happy for them.  Especially since Hon had shot up a couple inches since he'd last seen him, and was matching Ko's age far more than before, so their bond looked like it might have the potential to become more.  Unlike Isumi and Le Ping, Ko and Hon were only a few years apart, and there was a far vaguer definition between them to dictate what they could mean to one other.

They weren't the only arrivals.  Also on the list of people who'd appeared out of nowhere for the funeral was Ochi, who'd come with a whole pack of Umeshichi.  He'd lost the cork bottle spectacles, gained what Waya explained were traditional umeshichi tribal tattoos, and he looked proper leading the pack.  Even though there were a couple unfriendly jokes about eating the deceased, the Umeshichi were all on their best behavior, and Waya lit up in a way Hikaru'd never seen before.  Apparently he'd been lonelier than he'd let on.

Most surprisingly, Kaga and Tsutsui were there.  Touya had contacted Kaga specifically, considering the circumstances they had suffered before.  So they came via portal, and were safely tucked away in the Shrine away from most of those who'd assume they were nothing but slaves, food, or targets.

Tsutsui had ruffled Hikaru's head and told him the usual stuff about how big he'd grown, but Kaga had wanted an official talk with him.

"There's shit we should hash out," the older boy said gruffly.

Hikaru agreed, so they'd found what was possibly the only quiet spot on the grounds to have that talk.

"So what's up?"

"So, you're the Kurosumomo now."

It wasn't a question, but Hikaru said anyways, "Touya and I both are."

Kaga nodded, running a hand through his dark red hair, "You have to promise me something, then.  You remember what I said about my mother?"

Hikaru did.  "Touya-meijin killed her after she'd fallen ill."

"Yeah.  You've got to promise me it won't be like that anymore.  I don't like Touya Akira, don't think I ever will like him, but I like to think we're good friends, you and me.  So you understand why I'm asking you this," the human took a deep breath, "Don't do that shit that Touya-meijin pulled on my mom.  I heard recently now that there's a cure for what she had.  She probably wouldn't have lived to see it but what if she had?  So don't take people before their time, not unless they deserve it."

Hikaru swallowed, a lump in his throat, "I promise.  Touya'll promise too, I'm sure he will."

"Thanks, kid," Kaga ruffled his hair, fingers resting there gently, "I'm glad you turned out alright.  Craziest surprise of my life when Touya told me you were both Kurosumomo.  I just about coughed up a lung."

"I'm sorry I lied to you," He said honestly.

"It's fine, we knew you were up to something...  Oh, one last thing.  About my sister, she wanted you to have this," Kaga pulled out a book from his bag and gave it to him.  The book itself was about basic magick spells, which meant Akari had gone through many loops to find it, and inside it there was a red leaf from the sugar maples of Ojikeshi and a short, handwritten note.

'While I will always miss you and love you, I know now that my place has never been at your side.  I'm forging my own path from now on, which means our engagement is null and void.  I feel as if I should let you know Mitani kissed me the other day.  I thought of how I could never truly kiss you, and decided that I cannot wait on a legend.  Your mother severely disapproves of the boy you've replaced me with, but you liked those creepy bedtime stories too much to truly ever have turned out different.  Take all my best wishes, and goodbye.'

Hikaru tucks his gifts away and treasures them.  He may have left her behind but he regrets not being able to take her along.  However as he's been finding out more and more recently, portals are cool.  Instantaneous travel might exhaust him to the point of fainting most days but the thought of seeing everyone he loves more often is worth the discomfort he finds in that method of traveling.

When Kaga returns to his room, Hikaru makes a note to thank him and visit him in Ekone.  After all, Ekone does have a bit of a ghost problem.

With all the chaos of people arriving and the meticulous funeral arrangements, Hikaru has had approximately 0.0005 seconds to talk with Touya, and it was on the day before the funeral that he finally got the guts to pull him aside.

He stood before Hikaru in a missmatch of a kimono.  His elegant looks almost make the purple, yellow, and grey assemble decent for human eyes.

Hikaru took his hand, squeezing, and said, "Nice day, huh?"

"Maybe if we could find some quiet," Touya shook his head, "This is partially your fault.  Everyone's showing up because they're curious about you."

"It'll all be done after tomorrow.  Are you sure you're alright?  You've done more than anyone trying to get this all together and you're still grieving."

Touya leaned his head against Hikaru's, his hair soft and pliant against the taller boy's cheek.  With a sigh, he confessed, "Being so busy lets me not think.  I'm more worried about once this is done."

"Why?" Hikaru asked, sitting the both of them down by the koi pond.  Touya's hand was warm and damp in his own, and his head heavy on Hikaru's shoulder.  Still, it felt... nice.

"Will we part ways after this?  Split my father's burden and go our own separate ways?

"No!" Part of Hikaru already hurt at the thought, "Touya, no.  I want to walk this path forever, and I want you by my side for all of it.  You owe me lifetimes worth of yourself.  Lifetimes."

Touya squeezed his hand, their fingers entwined but so different from each other, and said, "You'll get sick of me before too long."

"Like you won't get sick of me first," Hikaru took a deep breath, "Akira.  Can I...?"

"Yes," the dark haired boy answered.

The funeral was, in a word, gorgeous.  White flowers of all kinds were draped across the shrine, the only color allowed for the ceremony.  Akira led the service himself, dressed in a heavy white kimono, a vision in alabaster.  Wind chimes played a haunting melody as the orphaned son laid his hands on his parents', a light breeze ruffling his dark hair.

Without looking up or letting his voice rise beyond a gentle murmur in the stillness of the morning, Akira recited:

"Lost lotus blossoms,

Spirited away by the wind,

Make way for springtime."

That was Hikaru's cue, and he left the crowd to stand by Akira's side.

This is what they had been practicing all that time for.  This moment, right now.

He took Akira's hand in his own, and squeezed it gently.  I'm here for you, he tried to tell him with his mind.  I'll always be here for you.

Akira met his eyes, and Hikaru knew he understood.

They began the dance they had created for this ceremony very specifically, the dance that Akira had called him out on so many times when his foot was just the tiniest bit astray because it had to be perfect.

Hikaru let his body flow into the correct angles, trying his best to keep his body as light and fluid as Akira's, and he could tell by how the dark haired Kurosumomo centered his balance and stayed steady that they were both doing their best to be equal mirrors of the other.  It was important that they did not miss a single step, because their magick reflected their every movement, both together and apart.  They flowed, forward and back, giving and taking, two parts of the same whole.  Green and orange mingled in the air, creating two very similar images.

With every graceful arc they created, the more their magick painted, until the still images of Touya Kouyo and Touya Akiko were vivid in the sky.

Akira finally brought them both back together in the middle, their hands clasped once again, and Hikaru watched and waited for his partner to signal for the hardest part of the dance.

Akira let the phantom image of his parents linger in the sky for a second longer, and then squeezed Hikaru's hand.  It was time.

Hikaru brought his other, free hand down in a powerful arc, bringing the magick back under his control, and he could feel Akira do the same.  Then, as the air stifled with how still it was, they turned all of that magick into a physical form, fire, and brought it down home to the deceased, releasing the last vestige of their physical forms in a blaze of multicolored fire and smoke.

Akira clenched his hand tighter around Hikaru's, his teeth gritting as he tried not to break down in tears.  Hikaru held on tight to him, thinking of how much it hurt when he lost Sai, and understanding very, very clearly how strong Akira was, not to have run away.

Once the fire died and the smoke cleared, Hikaru asked, "Are you really okay with this?"

"Yes," Akira said, his delicate jaw clenched and shoulders squared.

"Good, because there's no way we're taking this back," Hikaru laughed, before he kissed him, deep and sensual as the ocean and just as powerful, their magick dancing together for once instead of against each other, a spiral of gold filling the sky like a veil of light. 

Akira's awkward posture melted as he grabbed Hikaru around the neck and pulled him closer, their mouths breaking for air.  Hikaru let their foreheads rest against one another, his arms encircled around his partner's waist.

"I can't believe my coronation was a stupid kiss," Hikaru teased, marveling at the way he looked, reflected in Akira's green eyes.

"I can't believe I kissed you at my parents' funeral," Akira huffed.

Above the two of them, the gold of their magick formed the shape of a dragon and a tiger, both forms young and powerful, and they both lept and soared towards the heavens, leaving their masters with nothing more than ash and dragonflies in the grey of the morning.  A new adventure awaited the two of them.

Chapter Text

About a thousand years later, in a much different time but a quite similar place, a twenty-something year old man cursed as his phone's battery died in the middle of what would have been a very promising live show in his Love Live app.  Hikaru tossed the dumb thing across the living room, his magick catching it just before it smashed into Akira's favorite glass coffee table.  (He'd smashed its predecessor and Akira had sent him into IKEA alone to hunt this one down.  He'd barely escaped.)

Akira tsked, looking up from his newspaper only to shake his head, "It's childish how you get so upset over that game."

"You only can say that because you never freaking break a combo! It's a rhythm game!  I'm a dancer!  How do I fuck up in a rhythm game?!" Hikaru whined,but there was a sunny smile stretching across his face.  "Hey, we're still going to meet up with Waya and Isumi for lunch, right?"

Akira blinked, "Is there a reason we'd skip out?"

"Nah," Hikaru shrugged, idly watching as his toes made gold energy dance throughout the room as he wiggled them to a beat.  "I keep thinking they'll opt to reincarnate and one day we'll show up in heaven and they won't be there."

"They're quite happy in heaven as they are," Akira replied, putting his newspaper down on the table.

Hikaru shrugged, "Maybe they're afraid of becoming human?  It's not like Ryūame or Umeshichi exist anymore.  Their closest descendants are just vaguely sensitive humans who can see ghosts and spirits only if they're lucky."

His partner shook his head, "I think they'd rather not risk the chance they'd lose each other.  I think out of anyone, we'd understand that the best."

Hikaru did understand.  He spent so much time trying to track down all of Sai's reincarnations that he spent most of the month of May every year away from home, completely out of touch with Akira, who took that time to catch up with his parents in the afterlife instead.

A yearly month-long separation from his husband was not Hikaru's favorite thing in the world.  But Sai held a special place in Hikaru's heart and that meant he had to at least try to find him.  And anyway, it wasn't like Akira and he didn't spend 11 months cohabiting the same stupid tiny apartment building that had been put on top of what was once the shrine of Zougeiro.  Much more modern, but far more awkward considering the passage into the underworld was turned into a sewer entrance.  Occasionally some poor soul wandered in there and never returned.  Hikaru had to do a patch media job on that one and convince a couple reporters that the poor soul was eaten by an aligator.  Messy stuff.

But that wasn't the point Akira was trying to make.  Isumi and Waya were worried that they'd never see each other ever again, not just a one month separation.  And if Hikaru couldn't find Sai nine lifetimes out of ten, then what hope did two mortals without magic have?

"I understand," Hikaru said softly.

Akira blinked, "Did I hit a sore spot?  I didn't intend to."

"Look at you, talking like you worry about my delicate feelings," Hikaru teased, brushing it off.  His husband could be too quick to apologize sometimes, but only when he didn't actually care a whole lot about what he was apologizing for.  It was kind of annoying.

"I do actually," Akira said, his lips quirking up into a smile, "I make sure to keep you safe from all the big bad monsters lurking in the dark, so all you have to worry about are the trivial things."

Hikaru wandered over to Akira's spot on the couch.  He draped himself over his husband, kissing gently at his ear, whispering, "Didn't you know?"

"Hm?" Akira rolled his eyes.

Hikaru turned Akira's face to meet his own, kissing his mouth this time.

His magick, even more eager for Akira's than ever, lurched forward so quickly that Akira's own magick tasted like acid on his tongue, defenses erected so quickly it stung.  The second kiss however, it was sweet and slow like molasses, the pieces of their souls coming together.  This was all they would ever need.

Leaning back just enough to murmur against Akira's lips, Hikaru said, "The only monsters we’ll ever have to fear are the ones inside ourselves."