frameofmind6: (Akame: You&I)
Title: Shuuji to Chikara
Pairing: Kiritani Shuuji / Oishi Chikara
Characters: N/A
Mentions: Kusano Akira (Yamashita Tomohisa – Nobuta wo Produce), Kotani Nobuko (Horikita Maki – Nobuta wo Produce), Kai (Keanu Reeves – 47 Ronin), Oishi Kuranosuke (Sanada Hiroyuki – 47 Ronin), Lord Asano (Tanaka Min – 47 Ronin)
Rating: PG-13
Genres: Romance/Humor, Fantasy/Adventure
Word Count: ~22,700
Warnings: Muddling of a classic work of Japanese literature. (For practical reasons, including but not limited to the author’s ignorance, in this story the movie version of 47 Ronin is being treated more or less as historical/literary canon. Sort of.)
Summary: He’s left his hometown behind. The cell phone doesn’t ring as often, but he gets an occasional postcard. The only enemies at his heels are bosses with paperwork. So far, chasing the future isn’t quite the thrill ride Shuuji had hoped for in his youth.
A/N: This was written for [livejournal.com profile] silentflutter for the Drama Character challenge at [livejournal.com profile] amigo_santa. The pairing turned out to be a little but more of a challenge than I expected, but I think it worked out pretty well in the end... ;)

Many thanks to [livejournal.com profile] dori_liv, who betaed this on a moment’s notice when I was up against the deadline. You're awesome, dear! ;)


Shuuji to Chikara (Part 1/3)

It’s a long walk up to the third floor, especially at the end of the day.

Why did he rent a third floor walkup anyway? Why not a ground floor or at least a second floor? When the building manager first showed him the place he’d been charmed by the view over the tiny little park out back, imagined himself sitting on a stool on the narrow balcony with his coffee cup in the mornings and easing into the day. He’s pretty sure he hasn’t opened the balcony door more than twice since the day he moved in a year and a half ago. And usually just to air out the place after a late-night cooking disaster.

It’s dark already. How does it get dark so quickly? There was still a bit of light left when he left the office, but that was gone by the time he got on the train. He should have been off early today, but his supervisor caught three mistakes he had missed in the proposal he’d been proofing, and he’d ended up splitting his time throughout the afternoon reproofing it and running all the errands people kept piling on his desk.

Something catches his toe as he reaches the third floor landing, and there’s a familiar clatter as a load of takeout containers and mangled tunafish cans tumble out of one of the plastic bags perched against the wall. Stupid jerk at the end of the hall again—seriously needs to learn how to actually use the trash chutes, rather than leaving booby traps around for everybody else. Shuuji grumbles to himself and sets his briefcase and the small stack of mail in his hand to the side to start picking up the mess, sorting the contents of the bag properly into the slots, and throwing the remainder into the burnable trash chute. Then he picks up his briefcase again and lets himself into his apartment, closing the door behind him.

The mail is mostly bills. He drops a few ads straight into the recycling, leaves the bills on the kitchen counter to deal with later. There’s a picture postcard from Akira—a photo of the Taj Mahal with a cartoonish pig sticker stuck onto it giving him a V-sign. Shuuji smiles at it as he flips it over.

India is amazing—you should’ve come with us!!! Nobuta wants to take sitar lessons from some guy in the park…

Kon kon,

Akira

P.S. Hi, Shuuji. I hope you’re well. The people here are lovely. See you next time we’re in Tokyo. Best, Nobuta

He pins the postcard to the front of the refrigerator with a magnet, along with others from Shanghai, New York, Rome, Cairo. If he squints and tilts his head, he can almost imagine himself there with them, wandering cobblestoned streets aimlessly and finding life everywhere.

At the moment, he seems to have misplaced his.

He makes a frozen curry for dinner and eats it at his computer, finishing up the proofreading. After he’s cleaned up, he goes back to his briefcase for the file on the Nakamura project. He promised he’d still have it finished by tomorrow, even though he had to redo the proofing, because it’s no good if they get behind, and he definitely doesn’t want to be responsible for another upset client. That thing last month with the blueprints he delivered to the wrong department sort of put him on probation—it took them two weeks to figure out where they’d ended up.

Shit. It’s not here.

He blinks up, staring around the room just in case he’s pulled it out already and just forgotten. Checks under the stack of mail, in the recycling in case he threw it out with the junk. All over his desk, in the drawers, under the magazines on the coffee table where he had his dinner. It’s definitely not here.

He turns in a circle, scratching at his hair, trying to retrace his steps. He definitely had it this afternoon, because he was in the middle of working on it when the boss brought the report back to him for a second pass. He put it aside to work on the report. Is it at the office then? Did he just forget to pack it? No, that can’t be it, because he had it later at the job site when he was dropping off the revisions, they asked to see the original specs again and he…

Shit.

Shiiiit.

It’s still there. He doesn’t remember touching it after that.

He throws on a jacket over his t-shirt and jeans, jams his feet into boots and doesn’t bother to lace them up. Just grabs his keys and wallet off the table by the door and dashes out. It’s pretty late, but it’s not midnight yet. There’s got to be somebody still there—at least somebody who can let him in.

Normally he would take the train, but he springs for a cab this time, just to be safe. He tells the guy to wait for him—he’ll only be ten minutes at the most—and jogs over to the gate in the high fence around the construction site. There’s no light on in the pedestrian lobby, but there’s one on in the little box beside the vehicle entrance. He mounts the steps and knocks on the window, startling the slightly balding security guard from his web browsing.

The guy gives him a curious look, but slides his chair over and opens the little slot at the bottom of the window.

“Hi,” Shuuji says, fumbling for his wallet, slightly out of breath. “Sorry, my name is Kiritani Shuuji—I work for Acorp, the architectural firm that designed the building.” He fishes out his ID badge and passes it through the narrow gap. “I was here earlier this afternoon, and I left an important file behind. Please, can I get in just for a few minutes? I know right where it is. It would only take a second.”

There’s a little frown as the guy looks from the badge to Shuuji’s face. “Yeah, I remember you,” he says, though he still seems reluctant to actually let him in. He looks up at a clock overhead. “There’s no one left in the office though—I’d have to go with you.”

“Could you?” Shuuji says hopefully, giving a little pleading bow. “It would really help me out. I promise I wouldn’t be long.”

“Well…if you’re sure it would only take a moment.”

Shuuji thanks the man profusely as he retrieves his keys from the desk and lets Shuuji into the booth. They cross to the door on the other side, which opens into the work site. “Here,” the man says, putting on a bright yellow hardhat from the shelf and offering another to Shuuji. “Regulations.”

Shuuji nods and puts the hat on, following the guard out the door.

The office is on the other side of the work site. They stay well away from the building’s foundation, and have to take a bit of a meandering path to keep at a safe distance from the piles of steel girders and palates of building materials. There’s very little light here at night, and Shuuji sticks close to the beam of the security guard’s flashlight to avoid stumbling into an unseen pit or piece of machinery.

Finally they reach the small temporary structure that houses the onsite offices, and the Security guard lets them in and turns on the light. As promised, it only takes Shuuji a couple of minutes to locate the file—it’s right where he left it, on the table where he met with the foreman. He clutches it against his chest in relief and returns to the door, nodding his thanks.

It feels even darker than before when the lights are off again. Shuuji stands off to the side a bit, keeping out of the way while the security guard locks the door behind them and punches in the alarm code.

One advantage of the darkness is he can actually see the stars a bit. The ambient light of the city drowns them out at the edges, but right now they’re far enough from the center of town and the nearest streetlights that he can see quite a nice array of them, right overhead. He breathes in the fresh, cool night air, and then lets it out again slowly. So much space. It even makes the tunafish cans less annoying, for a little while.

When he drops his gaze back to earth, he notices another light somewhere in the distance. Just for a moment, like a flashlight winking between the piles of building materials, there and then gone. But he’s sure he saw something.

“Um,” he says, “are you sure there’s nobody else here?”

“Nope,” the guard confirms as he finishes with the code and hooks his keys back on his belt. “Everyone checked out. The guy who makes the night rounds doesn’t get in until midnight. Why?”

“Nothing,” Shuuji replies with a little shake of his head, offering a sheepish smile. “Just thought I saw something. But it was nothing, probably just a reflection of the moon or something.”

They’ve only walked about ten yards from the office when Shuuji sees it again—that little flicker, somewhere in the distance between the looming shadows. But it’s not a plain white light like a flashlight, he realizes this time—there’s an odd pinkish-purple halo around it. And it doesn’t move like a flashlight either, jerking and bouncing with footsteps. It’s like it just sort of pulses to life and then out again in the same exact spot, like the light from a lighthouse.

Shuuji almost walks into the guard when he stops abruptly in front of him.

“Uh…did you see that?” the guy says. He sounds like he’s trying to be brave, but Shuuji suspects he didn’t exactly sign up for a night security job because he was big on excitement. And he’s already had one unexpected visitor tonight.

“You saw it too?”

He hears the guy swallow, sees him nod. “Stick close, okay?” the guard instructs. “It’s probably nothing.”

They move quite a bit more slowly after that, both staring around into the shadows, searching for the light. It’s hard to even tell how far away it was, or if it was even in the same place as the first time Shuuji saw it—but there are a limited number of safe places to walk through this area in the pitch dark, and all they can do is keep moving forward.

Shuuji nearly jumps when he sees another light appear in the corner of his vision—but he gulps a sigh when he realizes it’s just the glow from inside the security booth. Only another thirty yards to go.

There’s a sudden flash right in front of them, and the security guard screams and stumbles backward. Shuuji drops the file and grabs onto his sleeve just to keep them both from tripping over each other’s feet. There’s wind whipping at his face, a highpitched ringing in his ears, and he can barely even squint at the thing, it’s so bright. They stumble back against a huge pile of two-by-fours covered with a tarp, and there’s nowhere else to run that won’t take them closer to the thing.

“What the hell is that?” the guard yells over the noise, and even so Shuuji can barely hear him.

“I have no idea!”

It’s huge, this glowing orb, some three or four feet across, hovering in midair at just slightly above their heads. It’s white hot at the center, but a corona of colorful energy crackles around it, radiating outward, and it’s getting brighter, the ringing louder, and Shuuji can feel it pulling at him, like he’s a lightning rod in a storm. He can feel the pulse of it under his skin.

“No!” he shouts, and instinctively shoves the guard off to the side just as the energy bursts forth, an electric beam heading straight for his heart.

A thud, a pulse white hot that rockets through every vein in his body, and then nothing.

*      *      *

It’s damp.

It smells like soil, grass and leaves. Rain. The damp soaks into the back of his shirt, cooling his shoulders. He aches everywhere, especially his head where it hit the ground, but it feels soft too. The ground. There are birds and the air smells fresh, like in the countryside after the first spring rain.

Someone touches his face, and he flinches awake, scrambling back, heart racing. Blinking.

He’s in a forest. He doesn’t remember being in a forest. And there’s some guy there kneeling nearby, looking almost as startled as he is. He can’t be much older than Shuuji is, his dark hair swept back from his striking face, but he’s dressed in very old fashioned clothing, a dark kosode and a cross-gartered kobakama, and—is that a daishou?

The man blinks at him for a moment. Then seems to realize that Shuuji is staring at the pair of swords tucked in his belt, and he removes them. Sets them carefully aside.

“I’m not going to hurt you,” the man says.

Shuuji gives a little nod. Swallows. “Good.”

“Actually,” now he looks a bit sheepish, mouth twitching toward a smile, “I sort of thought you were already dead.”

Shuuji nods again. Where the hell is this? Who is this guy? Last thing he remembers…

“Um, can you tell me where I am?”

“You’re in the forest, about thirty yards from the river.”

“I know I’m in a forest,” Shuuji grumbles, trying to keep his patience. The guy is only trying to help. It’s not his fault Shuuji’s brain has gone all freaky on him.

Well. Probably not, anyway. Hell, it could be, for all Shuuji knows.

“I mean where in general,” Shuuji clarifies. “What town? What province?”

The man gives a little nod of understanding. “You’re just outside Shingetsu no mura, in the western part of Musashi no kuni.”

Shuuji blinks at him. “Musashi? Uh…can you give that to me in modern terms? I didn’t pay as much attention as I should have in history class.”

“Modern terms?” the man looks perplexed. And that is not a good feeling right there.

“Yeah. Like, how far am I from Tokyo?”

The frown only grows more incredulous. “Tokyo?”

That’s…not a good sign. That is really not a good sign. He knows there are some rather provincial locales still tucked away in certain parts of the country, but surely even the most remote old hermit has heard of Tokyo.

“Yeah,” Shuuji swallows, trying to keep a lid on the little niggle of panic stirring in his gut. “Tokyo. You know, like…the capitol? Of the country?”

They are definitely in Japan, right? They’re communicating in Japanese, and the guy is wearing Japanese clothes, even if they are a bit out of date. And the place names were Japanese too. Even if they too were…a little out of date.

God, his head is really starting to hurt.

The man tilts his head slightly, and his expression seems a bit sympathetic, like he’s talking to a small child. Or maybe just a grown man with an increasingly evident head injury. “Do you mean Kyoto?”

Shuuji shakes his head quickly, and now he’s really trying not to panic. “No, not Kyoto, Tokyo. The cap—”

He stops.

Blinks.

Glances down again at the old fashioned clothes, worn like the real thing, and not for some festival. The really old fashioned sandals that look like they’ve been on the road at least a month or two past their limit. The pair of very real-looking swords that would definitely get him arrested if he were spotted wearing them in public. At least where Shuuji comes from.

“What year is it?” he asks, dreading the answer.

The man looks a little bit worried too, though Shuuji suspects it’s just because he thinks Shuuji might be completely nuts. And Shuuji thinks he might be right.

“It’s the seventh year of Houei.”

The seventh year of—what? Shuuji’s knowledge of the historical calendar is about as spotty as his historical geography, but he remembers that one, that was the one that came right after Genroku, and if it’s seven years in that must make it about…1710.

Holy shit.

He can’t breathe.

“Are you okay?” the man says as Shuuji’s head throbs again. But Shuuji can barely hear him. Everything is swimming, the damp and the cool forest air and bright lights in the darkness. And then it all winks and shudders and he feels himself falling again.

Shuuji passes out.

*      *      *

It’s dark again when he wakes the second time. Light flickers from somewhere off to the side. A campfire, he realizes when he squints over at it. It warms the air around him, reflecting off the dusty walls of the cave. He’s lying on something a little bit drier and softer this time—a reed mat of some kind—and there’s a blanket draped over him. No, not a blanket, he realizes as he plucks at it a bit and finds a patched and threadbare sleeve. A kosode.

He’s not wearing any shoes, he realizes, wiggling toes inside his socks. As he sits up, he sees that someone has taken off his boots and placed them neatly off to the side, near the entrance to the cave. There’s not much else here besides the fire, though a small traveling sack is sitting over in the corner, a folded bundle wrapped in a neatly tied furoshiki.

“You’re awake.”

Shuuji turns toward the cave entrance. It’s that guy again, ducking a bit so as not to hit his head where the ceiling is a bit lower near the door. He’s got something slung over his shoulder—another furoshiki, looks like, but much smaller than the first.

“How are you feeling?” he asks as he crosses to the bundle near the wall and starts sorting through whatever he’s brought back.

“I’m…okay,” Shuuji replies. And his head actually does feel better, though he’s still not any closer to figuring out exactly where he is and how he got here. Other than the fact that he appears to have traveled through time, but he’s still not totally ready to confront the magnitude of that prospect just yet. “Thanks.”

“Sorry to leave you alone,” the man says, and he seems to be preparing a pot of water for the fire, producing a small cooking set and a canteen from the larger of the bundles. He removes the swords from his belt and places them aside as he kneels by the fire. “I would have taken you to the inn, but it’s kind of a walk—I wasn’t sure it was a good idea for me to carry you that far. Anyway, I…I can’t really pay anyone.”

Shuuji glances down at the carefully mended spare kosode the man has him using as a blanket, and thinks yeah. Probably not. “It’s okay,” he says. “I’m fine. Thank you for your help.”

The man glances up at him a bit uncertainly. Then there’s that little smile again, and he nods, returning his attention to the cooking pot.

“I did get some rice though. If you’re hungry. It shouldn’t take long.” He indicates the little bundle sitting at his knee.

Yeah. Wow, now that he mentions it…it must have been hours since Shuuji last ate. Or centuries, depending on how you’re counting. “I am. Thank you.”

He pulls the kosode up over his shoulders a bit. He’s still got his jacket on over his t-shirt, but it’s a pretty light one, and the cave mouth seems to sort of line up a draft. The fire helps though.

“If you don’t mind my asking,” the man says, “what should I call you?”

“Kiritani,” Shuuji replies, rubbing one hand over the shoulder nearest the door a little for warmth. “Kiritani Shuuji.”

The man blinks at him in surprise. Actually, he looks a bit wary all of a sudden. “You have a surname?”

Oh. Right. Um…that. “You can just call me Shuuji if you want,” he offers, dodging the real question. Because he can’t sit here pretending to be some kind of nobleman, and the time-travel thing…he’s still not really ready to think about that. “It’s fine.”

The man looks like he wants to ask him something else—but then he stops himself, just nods instead. Goes back to work.

Actually, it’s a good question, come to think of it.

“What should I call you?” Shuuji asks.

The man’s shoulders tense a little bit, but only for a moment. Then they loosen again.

“You can call me Chikara,” he replies, still looking at the pot as he carefully measures out the rice.

Chikara. Cool. That’ll be easy to remember.

Shuuji lies back down again on his side, resting his head on one arm as he watches Chikara work. Once he’s set the rice to boiling, he produces a small pouch of dried food and sets out a few pieces, folding the rest away. He’s very careful, and very quiet. Shuuji can see sword callouses on his palms sometimes in the firelight, but there’s something soft about him too. Something that doesn’t quite match the rough living he’s apparently accustomed to.

When the rice is done, Shuuji moves to join Chikara closer to the fire. Chikara distributes the dried food evenly between the two of them, but Shuuji can’t help but notice that he dishes Shuuji a slightly larger portion of the rice.

Shuuji nods his head awkwardly as he accepts the rice bowl with both hands. “Itadakimasu.” It’s hot and good, and he has to stop himself from wolfing down the whole thing in a few short bites. The dried food turns out to be fish, and it’s not bad, though it doesn’t exactly taste like what he’s used to. Still, it fills his stomach, and it goes down well with the rice.

“Can I ask you what happened?” Shuuji says, picking at the last of his meal. “I mean, how you found me?”

Chikara nods over a bite of fish, swallowing it down. “Sure. I can tell you what I saw, though…I guess I was hoping you could tell me what happened. I’m not really sure.”

He catches Chikara eyeing the worn-through knee of his blue jeans. When Chikara notices, he gives a little apologetic smile and returns his attention to his food.

“I was tracking a youkai,” Chikara says scooping up another mouthful of rice with his chopsticks.

Shuuji stares at him. “Excuse me?”

“It’s been attacking the villagers,” Chikara explains, misidentifying the source of Shuuji’s confusion. “I was just passing through, and they asked for my help. I’m not a trained demon-slayer or anything, but I have…some experience. So I told them I could do it.”

Shuuji nods vaguely, still hung up on the “youkai” thing. Maybe he’s not the only one in this cave who’s a little bit crazy…

“Took me three days to corner it,” Chikara says with a little sigh, slumping to rest his elbows on his knees and his rice bowl in his lap. “When I caught up with it in that clearing, I really thought I had it—but then there was this huge flash,” he motions with his hands over the fire, like he’s holding an invisible globe, or an expanding universe between his palms, “almost like it came from inside the thing, or something. I had to duck behind a tree to get out of the way, and when I got up again I saw you lying on the ground on the other side of the clearing. I thought you were one of the villagers. The thing was only there for another second or two, and then there was another little glow and it sort of twisted in space and disappeared.”

He purses his lips in consternation and slumps again, poking at the last few grains of his rice. “It’ll probably be harder to find this time. Now it knows I’m looking for it.”

Shuuji cups his empty bowl between both hands and runs a thumb along the edge. “Sorry…”

Chikara straightens up and shakes his head quickly, eyes wide. “Sorry, I wasn’t blaming you. It’s not your fault. It’s just…you know.”

Yeah.

Shuuji sets the rice bowl down on the ground in front of him, laying the chopsticks neatly across the top. He rests his palms against his knees and glances up at the ceiling of the cave, scratching at the little patch of skin that peeks through the wide hole over his kneecap.

“You’re not from around here, are you,” Chikara says.

Shuuji looks at him quickly. “What makes you say that?” he asks defensively—though even as it’s coming out of his mouth, he knows it’s a stupid question.

Chikara’s little grin confirms it. “Where do you come from?”

Shuuji pulls his knees up to his chest and wraps his arms around them, resting his chin between them. “The truth?”

Chikara nods.

“I think I’m from the future.”

It’s weird how scary it sounds. Scary and simple at the same time. The future has never sounded so far away.

Chikara just nods again and hums sympathetically, mulling over another mouthful of rice.

Shuuji gives him an incredulous look. “That doesn’t freak you out?”

Chikara shakes his head, still focused on his rice. “Not really,” he says. “I figured it had to be something like that. You look different from anyone I’ve ever seen. Either you’re a time-traveler, or a foreigner. Or a youkai, maybe. But you don’t look foreign, and I used to know a man who was half-youkai, and you don’t look like him either, so…”

Well. You can’t fault his logic.

“Half-youkai?” Shuuji repeats.

Something falters in Chikara’s expression, like he’s said something he thinks he shouldn’t have. He waves the question away. “It was a long time ago.”

Shuuji nods. Rests his chin on his knees again and stares into the fire.

“How am I going to get home?”

It clenches in his stomach, the question he’s been trying not to ask since he first sort of suspected what had happened. He doesn’t even understand how or why it happened, but by now he’s pretty sure that it did. Unless this is some elaborate delusion, and he’s going to wake up in the middle of the construction site with that security guard splashing water on his face.

But he keeps waiting. And that doesn’t happen.

“I’ll help you,” Chikara says. When Shuuji looks up, there’s that little smile again. “If I can. I mean, the youkai probably had something to do with it. If we can find it, maybe it can…send you back somehow.”

A light. The light. “I saw a light too,” Shuuji says, remembering suddenly. “On my side, there was this weird light sort of floating in space. And then it got brighter all of a sudden, and it was like it physically hit me, like—”

“—a lightning bolt,” Chikara finishes.

“Yeah.”

The little smile spreads into a grin. “That settles it then. We have a demon to catch.”

*      *      *

Demon hunting, as it turns out, is not nearly as exciting as the name makes it sound.

Mostly it involves a lot of walking very slowly and being very quiet. Chikara seems to know what he’s looking for, and occasionally he pauses to brush delicate fingertips over a few blades of grass, or close his eyes and press his ear against the trunk of a tree. Whenever Shuuji asks him exactly what he’s looking for, however, Chikara seems a bit helpless to explain. The best he manages is “traces of youki.” Which isn’t particularly illuminating.

Chikara doesn’t say all that much in general, Shuuji finds. Sometimes he even seems to stop himself from saying things, which is just frustrating. Then again, sometimes when he asks just the right question, Shuuji gets an entire paragraph of earnest observation about how some trees are better in tune with youki wavelengths (or something) than others and how lately he’s even been able to pick up vibrations from different species and match them with tracks. Shuuji doesn’t understand half of it, but it’s hard not to be a bit charmed by his little bursts of enthusiasm.

Occasionally it occurs to Shuuji that he might just be following a lunatic around in circles in the forest. But when the alternative is wandering around in circles in the forest by himself, given that he has no skills whatsoever at hunting or gathering, and would be likely to either poison himself or starve to death if left to his own devices (assuming he weren’t eaten by one of the many and varied youkai that apparently live in this forest), he decides to put the thought aside and just trust that Chikara knows what he’s doing. At the very least he seems to know how to find dinner on a consistent basis, which is better than nothing.

*      *      *

He keeps one arm straight in front of him, strong and taut. His fingers wrap around the well-worn handle. With the other, he hooks two fingers around the bowstring and draws it slowly back, keeping it close to his body. Back and back, just a little bit further, slowly, evenly, keeping his aim steady, until the frame makes the perfect arc.

And release.

“Ow! Fuck…”

Shuuji hisses and shakes out his left arm, another angry welt surely blossoming on his forearm under his jacket. It’s a pretty warm day, actually, and he’s sort of overheating in the thing at this point, but Chikara didn’t have any arm guards or anything, so he figured he’d better leave it on for protection. It’s better than snapping the bowstring against bare skin.

(Not by much though.)

Chikara bends down to pick up the arrow Shuuji’s just fired, which is lying sideways about ten feet in front of them. (And a futher ten feet short of the tree they’re using for target practice.)

“At least your aim is getting better,” Chikara offers.

Shuuji gives him a flat look. “My aim sucks,” he grumbles as he tugs up his sleeve to inspect the accumulated damage—the inside of his forearm is notched with a series of little red tally marks. “This bow sucks.” Then he holds the stupid thing itself up in front of his face and glares at it. “Archery sucks!”

“Hey, don’t take your temper out on the bow,” Chikara frowns, plucking it out of his hand protectively. “Just because you don’t know how to use it—”

“I told you I didn’t.”

“And I’m trying to teach you,” Chikara mumbles, which is his version of a grumble. He’s very tough to rile, this guy, which Shuuji is starting to find slightly irritating. Though in fairness, the repeated bruises on his arm are starting to make pretty much everything from the sunlight to the butterflies to the cute little rabbits scurrying in the brush pretty fucking irritating.

“Why do I even need to know?” Shuuji whines as Chikara checks the bow over for…dents, maybe? Shuuji has no idea. This all sounded like a good idea when Chikara first suggested it, but now it’s definitely losing its shine.

“Because you can’t just go looking for a youkai with nothing but your bare hands to protect you. I’d lend you one of my swords, but you don’t know how to use that either.” He hooks his fingers around the string almost absentmindedly, like they know the right spot by the feel alone, and then he pulls at it a little, testing the resistance. “You’re much less likely to injure yourself with a bow.”

Shuuji doesn’t bother responding to that. Just lifts his battered forearm in pointed protest.

Chikara blinks at him for a moment. And then he smiles and chuckles to himself, returning his attention to the bow. “I mean seriously hurt yourself.”

Shuuji sighs and rests a hand on his hip, just watching as Chikara nocks the arrow himself and takes aim at the target. It even looks better when he does it—it looks totally effortless, like he can’t even feel the pressure of the frame trying to snap itself back into shape. His fingers just know where to go, he doesn’t have the check them or think about it. His aim holds steady, his stance is almost relaxed, like he’s pointing out an interesting feature on a nature hike and just happens to be holding a deadly weapon in his hands. When he releases the string, it doesn’t hit him or throw off his aim or pull him off balance. And the arrow sticks straight into the center of the white circle they’ve chalked onto the tree with a tidy little “thwok.”

Show-off.

Shuuji moves to cross his arms as Chikara goes to retrieve the arrow again, but hisses and uncrosses them again when his knuckles poke against the bruises.

“Plant your feet just a little bit wider, I think,” Chikara says as he returns. He offers Shuuji the bow again, and Shuuji dawdles just long enough to tug his sleeve down again before he accepts it. “And try not to let your elbow lock inward quite so much—if you can keep it straighter and stronger, that’ll help with the string.”

Easy for him to say, Shuuji thinks as he adjusts his footing and fiddles with the arrow again. Not that Shuuji is a complete weakling—but one look at the two of them side by side, and it’s pretty obvious who would win in an arm-wrestling match.

“Lift the back elbow a little more,” Chikara says, and Shuuji almost jumps when he feels Chikara’s hand on him, adjusting his form like he’s a figurine. He nudges the elbow up a bit, hand closing briefly over Shuuji’s as he helps him straighten out the wrist. It’s a bit weird. And Shuuji’s arms are getting tired trying to hold the pose, but he concentrates on remembering the adjustments so he’ll be able to reproduce them on his own.

“Satisfied?” Shuuji grits out against the effort of holding still.

Chikara flicks his eyes over the shape one last time, then nods. “Try it like that. Keep it steady.”

Shuuji releases.

“OW! Shit, fuck, fuck, fucking shit…”

He nearly throws the bow on the ground in his frustration—but he stops himself, looping an arm through it instead to rub vigorously at his poor bruises. That was a bad one, right on top of a couple of the others…

“That’s great!”

Shuuji shoots a glare at Chikara’s callousness, but soon realizes he’s not even looking in his direction—he’s looking at a spot some twenty feet away. When Shuuji follows his gaze, he even stops rubbing at his arm.

It’s a hit.

Okay, no, it’s not a bullseye—the arrow is stuck into the ground near the base of the tree he was aiming at, slightly to the right and at a bit of a wonky angle. But still, it’s stuck in. Not just lying on its side this time. And it almost made the distance. That’s definitely the best he’s managed all morning.

Chikara jogs over and plucks the arrow out of the dirt. When he turns back, he’s smiling from ear to ear—and although Shuuji resumes rubbing petulantly at his throbbing forearm, he can’t completely fight of a little smile of his own. Just a little one. Though the smile doesn’t really go away even after Shuuji’s frowning down at the bow again and checking it for…dents. Or something.

“See? I told you you could get the hang of this,” Chikara says, handing him the arrow again. “It’s not that hard. Try it again. Try to get that front elbow straighter, and don’t drop your aim too much.”

Shuuji takes the arrow and fiddles it into place, taking a breath as he starts to pull back. He notices his back wrist bending too much and straightens it out, trying to keep that elbow up.

“Good. Not too high,” Chikara says, and Shuuji can feel his concentrated frown double-checking his posture as he circles around behind him. “That’s really good. Try to breathe into the tension—don’t let it be a struggle.”

Then suddenly he gets really close, right up behind Shuuji, with one hand sort of hovering over his on the bowstring and the other wrapped around his on the handle. His cheek is right next to Shuuji’s eyes, his gaze focused down the line of their arms toward the target. He pulls the handle up just a little bit, gently. Moves his hand to Shuuji’s straightened elbow and eases it out of its locked position. Then back over his at the handle again, another little adjustment to Shuuji’s aim. Shuuji hears his even, thoughtful breaths, in and out his nose. He reminds himself to keep breathing, swallows and keeps his eye on the target. Mostly.

“There,” Chikara murmurs. And then he leans back just a little, leaving the bow to Shuuji. “Release.”

Shuuji does.

The bow pings, but his arm doesn’t. The relief of expecting pain and not feeling it rushes out of him with the speed of the arrow, which flies much farther and straighter even than the last one. Of course, it heads about forty degrees in the wrong direction, past the edge of the brush to disappear into the river with a pitiful plop.

There’s a beat of silence.

And then an undignified snort.

Shuuji glances over his shoulder to find Chikara curling in on himself with laughter, looking slightly boneless. That broad smile and bright eyes again. His face looks so different when he smiles, like someone’s turned a light on inside him. And somehow Shuuji feels like laughing too.

“That was, um…” Chikara says, trying very hard to master himself. And failing utterly. “Better?”

Shuuji punches him in the shoulder. But he’s chuckling too now, in spite of himself. “I told you my aim still sucked…”

*      *      *

It’s been over a week now, and still no sign of the youkai. Well, none that Shuuji is aware of, anyway. But Chikara would tell him if he’d found anything. (He’s pretty sure. Chikara can be a bit absentminded sometimes though, so who knows, maybe not.)

Chikara gives him an apologetic grimace as he passes Shuuji his rice bowl. There’s more in Shuuji’s than Chikara’s, but neither one is more than half full.

“I should probably do some hunting tomorrow,” Chikara says. “You can sleep in some if you want—I’ll just be out for a few hours to replenish our supplies.”

‘Our supplies.’ Shuuji feels a pang of guilt. The rice would have lasted twice as long if he hadn’t been mooching it. He hasn’t even really thought about it, just let Chikara keep feeding him like there’s an unlimited supply of everything—like getting more is just a matter of running down to the conbini on the corner. Hasn’t really thought about what happens when the supply runs out.

“What about the rice? Can’t we buy more wherever you got this?”

Chikara shakes his head, scooping in a small mouthful. “I didn’t buy it,” he admits, still looking into his rice bowl. “It was an advance.”

“An advance?”

“On the youkai,” he says. “They offered me food and a place to stay for a while if I could bring them its head. I didn’t think it would take long, but…” And then he catches himself again. Doesn’t-say something, and just clears his throat instead. “Anyway, when I told them I’d seen it that first time and showed them the scars, they gave me the rice to tide me over. I don’t think they’ll give me any more unless I can show them a fang or something, at least. The headman seemed a bit…”

Chikara trails off, only slightly wrinkling his nose in distaste.

Shuuji just stares at him. After a week of talking to no one but Chikara, Shuuji is getting pretty good at reading between the lines all the things Chikara is too polite to say. If not for Shuuji, Chikara probably would have slain the youkai on the first try. If not for Shuuji, Chikara would be living in a little house down in the village eating decent food and maybe even getting to know some people who aren’t useless time-travelers who can’t hunt or farm or fight worth a damn, instead of huddled up here in a cave in the woods scraping the bottom of one pathetic little sack of rice. And making plans to get up early to hunt so he can continue to feed this accidental houseguest.

Oh yeah. Guilt. Guilt bigtime.

Shuuji nibbles on the ends of his chopsticks, even though there’s still a little rice left in his bowl. Somehow he’s suddenly lost his appetite.

He has some cash in his wallet, of course, but most of it is paper money. There are a few coins, which might get them something, but somehow he thinks spreading around money minted three hundred years in the future wouldn’t be a good idea even if he could find someone willing to accept it. And he’s pretty sure the credit cards would be worth even less than the paper—not to mention the plastic itself would cause a bit of a stir.

Still. There’s got to be something he can do.

He casts his eyes about the shadows at the edges of the cave. There’s not much here, obviously. Shuuji didn’t bring any luggage with him to the construction site, and Chikara seems to be the type to travel light. Chikara’s swords and bow are over in the corner next to the empty rice sack and the small bundle that holds all his other belongings. Mostly spare clothing.

Hm. Spare clothing.

Interesting…

“Chikara.”

“Hm?”

“I’ve got an idea.”

*      *      *

[Part 2]
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