frameofmind6: (Akame: You&I)
Shuuji to Chikara (Part 2/3)

“I really don’t think this will work,” Chikara says dubiously as Shuuji drags him down the path by the sleeve. “Seriously, you should have seen his face when I asked the first time. I think he only agreed because his wife sort of…um…”

Shuuji slows to a halt and turns around, both eyebrows raised.

Chikara already looks flustered, but it flickers with confusion for a moment at Shuuji’s look. Then his eyes snap wide again, and he waves his free hand quickly in front of his face. “Not like that! I didn’t—I mean we didn’t—I just mean…she liked me. A bit. I think.”

And his ears are going red, and he looks so awkward and so unlike the calm figure who’s so effortless with a bow that Shuuji finally lets him off the hook. “Okay, fine,” Shuuji says with a one-shouldered shrug, not letting go of Chikara’s sleeve as he continues leading the way down the path. “So maybe she still likes you. We can use that.”

“Um…how, exactly?”

Shuuji flashes a smirk. “Not like that. Don’t worry.”

The effect is slightly spoiled, however, when he trips over his feet and has to snag Chikara’s elbow to keep from hitting the ground. Stupid old sandals are too hard to walk in. The broken strap at the back of the left one isn’t helping.

Chikara hoists him back to his feet, and Shuuji brushes down the front of his borrowed kobakama. It’s even a little worse for wear than the one Chikara usually wears, mended a few more times over in a few more places. Shuuji sort of doesn’t mind though. Makes it feel lived-in.

It’s only about a mile’s walk down to the village, but the steepness of the path and the thickness of the underbrush make it feel like longer. By the time the ground finally levels out, Shuuji’s thigh muscles are aching from walking downhill for so long, and he’s fallen off his feet twice more. (Stupid sandals.) He tries to dust himself off and make sure he doesn’t look too much like a mountain-dwelling hobo as they walk up the main road leading into the center of town. Chikara reaches over and plucks a leaf out of his hair.

“Thanks.”

Chikara smiles, though he still looks rather nervous and distracted. “You’re welcome.”

It really isn’t a large village at all, Shuuji finds. They can see most of it from the edge of the main square. Off to the right, beyond the edge of the small collection of houses, he can see rice paddies and vegetable gardens spreading out across a misty plain. The village is surrounded on the other three sides by a mountainous ridge—the same thickly wooded territory he’s been wandering about with Chikara for the past week, looking for signs of the demon.

There aren’t all that many people around either, but after several days in the woods, it feels like walking into a metropolis. There are mostly older women and young children around at this time, as many of the others are off working in the fields. A few stalls are set up in the market square, people exchanging goods amongst themselves. As they pass near a stall hung with linens, Shuuji hears a couple of women hush each other, dropping their voices to whisper about them as they pass. He can’t hear enough to tell whether it’s good whispering or bad whispering, but the way he feels Chikara shrinking a bit beside him he can at least tell that it makes him uneasy.

“You okay?”

“I’m fine,” Chikara says with a little nod. He’s looking down at the ground, plainly avoiding curious gazes.

Shuuji frowns at him. He certainly doesn’t seem fine. It actually worries him a bit to see him shrink in on himself so much so quickly. Not like the guy doesn’t have his quiet spells, but for a moment he seems so self-protective that Shuuji’s even tempted to take him back out to the woods for a bit and give him a chance to chill out first. He never did totally warm up to this plan, did he.

But they need food. And they’ve already come all this way.

“You sure?”

Chikara nods again, a little more firmly this time. And that will just have to do for now.

It’s not difficult to locate the headman’s house—it’s easily the biggest one. It also seems a bit…flashy, somehow, though Shuuji’s not sure he really has the context to judge that in this era. Still, somehow the wood it’s built from just seems sturdier and fresher than the houses around it, the ornaments in the front garden very carefully chosen and arranged. It looks more like a miniaturized version of some feudal manor house than the home of the first citizen of a tiny rural village.

Chikara hangs back as Shuuji steps up to the door. There doesn’t seem to be a bell or anything he’s supposed to use, so he just reaches out and knocks.

A woman in a deep purple kimono answers.

She must be in her forties, at least, but she carries her age very well. Her hair is done up at the back of her head, elegant yet simple, and her hands are smooth and pale. Unlike most of the women they passed on the way here, this is evidently a woman who has not had much experience with manual labor.

When she lays eyes on Shuuji, there’s a little spark before the smile. For a moment Shuuji thinks he even sees a flicker of purple in the irises, mingled with the brown.

“Can I help you?”

Shuuji doesn’t waste a moment before dropping into a bow, perhaps slightly deeper than he would normally use in this situation. It just seems the thing to do.

“I’m hoping you can,” he says as he straightens again, returning his friendliest smile. “My name is Shuuji,” he offers. “And this is Chikara.”

Her gaze shifts to where Chikara is bowing his greeting just beyond Shuuji’s shoulder—and there’s that little spark again.

“Yes,” she says, lips curving as she returns her attention to Shuuji. “The demon-slayer. We’ve met.”

“Yes, I thought you might have. We’re both very grateful for the generosity you’ve shown us—I’ve been helping Chikara here look for the demon, you see.” No need to mention how useless he is at it—it’s true at least. Basically. “Unfortunately we haven’t managed to capture it yet, but we have high hopes that we’re getting very close.”

“You do, do you,” the woman nods politely—and though her eyes can clearly see through the bullshit, her smile doesn’t seem to mind. “Well that’s good to hear.”

“Yes,” Shuuji nods, playing innocent. “Yes, it is, isn’t it. There’s just one slight problem in the meantime. You see, although as I say, we both very much appreciated the rice you presented to Chikara as an advance, the truth is that the whole demon-hunting…expedition has taken a little bit longer than we expected…”

She nods again slowly. “I see.”

Yes. Yes, Shuuji can see that she does.

“I realize it might not be possible to prevail upon your generosity for another advance at this time—but we were wondering if there might be any other services we could provide in the short term in return for some more rice.”

The woman’s eyebrows arch slightly. “What sort of services?”

“Not that!” Chikara squeaks.

Shuuji elbows him in the ribs, and there’s a little hiss of pain over his shoulder in response.

“Any sort of services,” Shuuji glosses over with a smile. “Just let us know what you need done, and we’ll do our best.”

The woman’s eyes slide from one man to the other, sizing them up from head to toe without glancing away from their faces. Shuuji keeps his face pleasant and cheerful. Behind him, he hears Chikara swallow.

“Oh, I’m certain we can think of something.”

*      *      *

For someone strong enough to slay a demon, Chikara seems to be remarkably skittish around women. Particularly this one, for some reason—though Shuuji really doesn’t find that too surprising, when he thinks about it. If you’re somebody who’s inclined toward a fear of women, this woman is definitely one you’d be afraid of.

Murasaki-sama—that’s what she told them to call her—has put them to work in the back garden of the house, moving a stack of pickle barrels from one storehouse to another. It’s slow and heavy work, because they have to open each one up and make sure it’s the right kind first, and they’re not very well organized. A few are light enough to be carried by one man—assuming the man is Chikara, anyway—but most of them require both of them to lift.

“Do you think she’d give us a few pickles along with the rice?” Chikara asks breathlessly as they push the fifth barrel back into the corner. “I would kill for a handful of them right about now.”

“Let’s not push it. We’ll just do what she asks and take what she gives us. If it’s not enough, maybe we can push for more.”

“Push?” Chikara says warily as he follows Shuuji back across the yard. “What do you mean by push?”

“I mean negotiate. What do you think I mean?”

Chikara purses his lips and averts his gaze. He doesn’t actually reply, but he doesn’t have to.

Shuuji rolls his eyes and turns to the next barrel. “Relax. I’m not trying to turn you into a prostitute.”

“Shhhh!” Chikara hisses, hastening to join him with the barrel. “Don’t give her any ideas.”

Shuuji straightens to give him an exasperated look. “She’s not even—”

“I thought some tea might be nice,” says a smooth voice from the doorway, and both of them jump at the sound. There’s that knowing little smile on her face, the same as ever, but she gives no indication whether she’s heard them talking or not. “Would you like some?”

Shuuji recovers first, dipping automatically into a bow of thanks, which Chikara copies awkwardly just a half-beat later. “Yes, thank you very much. That would be lovely.”

Murasaki-sama bows her head slightly and carries the small, round tray over to the raised part of the floor by the side of the storage room. She perches herself elegantly on the edge and sets the tray down beside her, sweeping her short sleeve out of the way as she pours tea into each of two fine porcelain cups. Shuuji takes the hint and moves to sit down with her on the other side of the tray. He gives Chikara’s sleeve a short tug when he doesn’t seem to have gotten the message. Chikara settles himself on Shuuji’s other side, always keeping Shuuji somewhere between himself and Murasaki-sama.

When she’s finished pouring the second cup, Murasaki-sama lifts up the first and presents it to Shuuji with both hands. Shuuji accepts it with a little bow and an “itadakimasu.” When she offers Chikara his cup, he ducks around Shuuji just long enough to take it politely, and then sits back again.

It’s quite tasty, and it really is appreciated—all this manual labor is thirsty work.

“So,” Murasaki-sama says, settling her hands in her lap. “How did you boys become involved in demon-hunting?”

Shuuji takes an extra-long sip, just to give himself time to consider his answer. Chikara, still trying to keep out of Murasaki’s direct line of sight, is no help at all. “I just sort of…fell into it, myself,” he says with a little smile, hoping to charm his way out of too many difficult follow-ups. “Chikara has been doing it for much longer than I have, though. He—” Hm. Shuuji actually has no idea how Chikara got into demon-hunting. “His father taught him,” he finishes. It’s as good an answer as any.

Or maybe not, he thinks, when he hears Chikara choke on his tea.

Murasaki-sama’s eyes flick past Shuuji to where Chikara is hunched over, wiping tea off his chest with his sleeve. “Did he now,” she murmurs. “Yes. It’s always a fine thing when the son goes the way of the father, isn’t it.”

Chikara’s teacup hits the ground then, splashing half its contents onto the dirt floor before he can right it. Shuuji glances over at him with a questioning frown, wondering what the hell has gotten into him all of a sudden—but Chikara waves him off to show he’s alright. He doesn’t meet Shuuji’s eyes either this time though.

He wants to ask. But now really isn’t the time.

“Yes,” he says instead, returning his attention to Murasaki-sama and taking another deep sip of his own tea. “Yes, it is, isn’t it.”

“And what does your father do, Shuuji-san?”

This time it’s Shuuji who nearly chokes on his tea.

He’s a middle manager for Ajinomoto’s frozen foods division.

Can’t say that.

“He was a fisherman. He died at sea when I was very young.”

“Oh,” she murmurs. “I’m so sorry to hear that. That must have been difficult.”

“Yes. Yeah, it was.”

Her eyes flick down to something near his cheek. Shuuji wonders what it is until he feels a tiny bead of sweat slip from his chin. Murasaki-sama reaches for a handkerchief tucked into the front of her obi. He expects her to hand it to him—but instead she reaches out and dabs it gently against the side of his face, fingertips just brushing his hairline. And something about it—the natural forwardness of the gesture, that steady focus that seems to linger near his mouth as she daubs at his skin, even a little bit of the way down his throat—makes him shiver a little bit.

Right. Okay. That…wasn’t really part of the plan.

“You must be terribly uncomfortable like that,” she murmurs. “I can run you a bath if you like.”

She’s not talking to both of them anymore.

Shuuji swallows. He opens his mouth to say something clever and gently demurring, but nothing comes to mind. Instead he takes another tiny sip of tea, just to play for time. Suddenly he feels he understands a little bit better why Chikara is so skittish around this woman. There’s something…odd about her. Not evil, exactly, or even necessarily dangerous. Just sort of…formidable.

“Come inside the house and change out of those things,” she says, running fingertips gently down over his rough sleeve. “You’ll be much more comfortable. And I’m sure I can find a goodly supply of rice somewhere in our stores. And anything else you might need.”

That right there—that’s an offer. He might be three-hundred years away from home, but he’s sat in on enough contract negotiations to recognize a bid when he hears it. She had only offered them one small sack of rice for the pickle barrels. A couple of days’ worth at most.

He glances over at Chikara, who’s still sitting slightly hunched over on his other side, trying to hide in his teacup. Now that Shuuji looks at him again, he actually seems a little bit pale—paler than he was ten minutes ago, before Murasaki-sama walked in.

Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea after all. Just being here seems to be sucking the life out of him. Ever since they set foot inside the town and were surrounded by people, and it’s only gotten worse since Shuuji dragged him into Murasaki-sama’s place. He needs to get them out of here.

Maybe he’d better just do it. Get what they came for and go.

Right. He can do that. Just don’t…think about it too much.

“Okay,” he says, tamping down the nervous little lurch in his stomach. He hopes it doesn’t come out too awkwardly.

Her eyes spark again, and that smile spreads. She leaves the tea tray where it is as she gets to her feet, beckoning him to follow.

He can do this. It’s the easiest way. He can definitely just do this and get it done. And then they’ll leave, and they’ll have food, and everything will be fine again.

Shuuji is halfway up when a sharp tug on his other sleeve makes him drop back onto his seat again.

“What?” he hisses, glaring at Chikara.

Chikara is looking back at him, scandalized. “You’re not actually going to go with her, are you?” he hisses back.

“Shuuji-kun,” Murasaki-sama murmurs from over near the doorway. “I’ll be waiting for you back at the house.”

Shuuji smiles, maybe a little too brightly. “I’ll be right there.”

“Don’t be too long…”

Shuuji keeps smiling until she’s out of sight. Then he yanks his sleeve free of Chikara’s grip and gets to his feet. “What are you doing? You heard what she said. If I do this, we can stop messing with the pickles and still get the food. Lots of it.”

“If you…” Chikara gets to his feet and takes a couple of steps toward him. Shuuji doesn’t like that look in his eye. It’s like Shuuji’s just suggested they feast on human children instead of bothering with rice. “You’re not actually going to…do that, are you?”

“Yeah,” he defends, straightening a little. “Sure. Why not?”

“Why not?” Chikara yells—and then darts a frightened glance toward the doorway, remembering thin walls and small gardens and lowering his voice again. “What do you mean, why not? It’s degrading. It’s wrong. And her husband will kill you.”

“So what?” Shuuji throws up his hands. He’s nervous enough as it is, and Chikara isn’t helping. Fine time for him to get his groove back, now Murasaki-sama is out of sight. “It’s what she wants, and she’ll give us food—and as soon as we find the demon, I’ll be gone anyway, so what difference does it make? And her husband isn’t here.”

“But he might come back.”

“So keep a lookout then,” he dismisses, turning toward the door. Why can’t he just let him get this over with?

Chikara snags him by the sleeve again. “Shuuji…”

“What now?”

When he turns back, Chikara is staring at him with a troubled look in his eye, like he’s trying to put words in order. In the end though, he comes up blank.

He deflates with a sigh and lets go of Shuuji’s sleeve.

“Fine,” he mumbles. “Whatever. Do whatever you want.”

Shuuji frowns as Chikara turns away.

He knows he’s won the argument. And moreover, he knows he’s right. Okay, no, this isn’t how he usually likes to earn his way in the world—but this isn’t his world. There’s not much call for any of the skills he has to hand around here—except, maybe, this one. He knows how to be what people want. And it’s better than just letting Chikara wait on him hand and foot until they find a way for him to leave. He can’t hunt and he can’t fight—but at least he can do this. And if someone will give him what he needs in exchange, then really, what fucking difference does it make?

But somehow it still feels like he’s letting Chikara down. Which is stupid, because since when is Chikara’s vaunted opinion of him the center of the fucking universe anyway?

He’s only trying to repay his kindness.

“I’ll be back in a little while, okay?” Shuuji mutters.

He waits a few moments to see if there will be any response.

There isn’t.

*      *      *

The bath feels really, really good.

They’ve bathed and rinsed clothes in the stream a few times in the past week, but a cold stream is a far cry from a heated tub. This feels like the first time he’s been properly clean since he got here. She’s whisked away his—that is, Chikara’s—clothes for a proper scrubbing, and given him a spare kosode to wear in the meantime. It’s softer and in much better shape than Chikara’s but a little less cozy somehow.

Now he’s alone in a small room at one corner of the house, fidgeting and trying not to think too much about what he’s doing. There’s a futon already laid out in the corner, and he’s acutely aware for the first time today of having left his boxer briefs with the rest of his modern clothes up in the cave, in favor of going whole hog with the contemporary dress.

He wonders what Chikara is doing. Still sulking with the pickles? Keeping watch for the headman to make sure he doesn’t have any sharp implements with him if/when he finds them together?

Heading back up to the cave by himself?

Stupid. Whatever, it is what it is. He’ll do it, it’ll be done, and they’ll have food for another week. At least. Hopefully.

(God, how much rice is “that” actually worth? There’s a question he never thought he’d be asking himself…)

The door slides open behind him. He glances back over his shoulder, watches as Murasaki-sama steps in and closes the door quietly behind her again. She’s changed into a simple yukata in a light shade of lavender, with only one sash tying it closed at the waist.

Oh, shit. He’s really doing this.

Her eyes really do sweep over him from head to toe this time, and he tries not to fidget under her appreciative gaze. He’s not really even sure what one is expected to do in situations like this. Most of his previous partners have expected him to take charge, and he’s been fine with that. It made it easier to control the timing and the situation, and sometimes he needed that. For various reasons.

It’s complicated.

But this is different. He’s hundreds of years away from all the social norms he knows, and aside from the occasional jidaigeki on TV, he really doesn’t have much to go on here. And even if they did, Murasaki-sama isn’t exactly the typical costume-drama heroine.

Fortunately, she doesn’t seem to expect him to do all the work.

She runs her fingertips down along the side of his face, bare this time, and less careful. Her thumb brushes back and forth over his pulse as her hand curls around his neck, and he tries to calm it a bit. Tries to keep his breathing steady and not swallow too hard when she leans in to kiss the base of his throat. Her fingers slide underneath the collar of his shirt, palm flattening against his chest, and his heart kind of goes crazy then, and oh god, this could be harder than he thought—

He jumps a mile when the door slams open again—

And there’s Chikara, eyes wide and urgent.

“Shuuji,” he gasps, trying to catch his breath, “we have to go. Now.”

“What?” he glances briefly at Murasaki-sama, who looks mildly disgruntled at the interruption. “Is it the headman?”

Chikara shakes his head and crosses the room in a few short strides. Grabbing Shuuji by the sleeve, he pulls the shirt halfway down his shoulder as he drags him out of the woman’s arms. “It’s the youkai. It’s attacking the village.”

Shuuji stumbles for his balance and blinks at Chikara. “It’s attacking…?”

Chikara nods frantically.

“Right. Um,” he glances back to Murasaki-sama, then Chikara again, and tries to sort out his kosode enough to keep himself decent. “Sorry. I’ll…have to take a rain check?”

“A…what?” For the first time today, Murasaki-sama looks genuinely perplexed. Chikara mirrors her expression.

Shuuji waves them both off. “Nevermind, we don’t have time for this. Come on!” He grabs Chikara by the sleeve, and together they hurtle toward the front door.

As soon as they’re outside again, Shuuji can hear the chaos—screams of panic, people running this way and that. Occasional unearthly shrieking noises that Shuuji can only imagine must come from the youkai. He should be terrified, probably—he doesn’t even have the bow, they left it up at the cave, not that it would do him much good in practice—but between the adrenaline in his veins and the sudden sense of purpose in his mind, he can only feel excited. And yes, a bit anxious.

The sounds are coming from the main square, just a couple of small blocks away, and between the houses Shuuji can see a massive winged creature overhead, all blacks and greens and purple scales. He’s about to run straight up the main avenue, but Chikara tugs him toward a narrower side street instead, running toward the end of the square that’s behind the creature’s current location. He skids to such a sudden halt at the corner of the last house that Shuuji stumbles right into his back.

“You okay?” Chikara asks.

“I’m fine,” Shuuji says, tightening the belt keeping his clothes on again, just to make sure. “What do we do?”

“We have to lead it away from the villagers first. Then maybe we’ll be able to capture it.”

Shuuji leans around Chikara’s side, taking in the scene across the square. All the women and children are scattering between the houses, a couple of which appear to be on fire. The menfolk are crowded throughout the square, swiping fruitlessly at the demon with farming implements—sharp enough, but really too clumsy for combat. Not to mention midair combat.

Shuuji gasps when one of the men gets picked up by a massive claw and flung through a wall of one of the nearby houses.

“Shit…”

Okay. So maybe demon hunting isn’t all boredom.

Just mostly boredom. With occasional moments of abject terror.

“Here,” Chikara says, and Shuuji tears his eyes away from the battle to watch Chikara place the handle of his shorter sword into Shuuji’s palm.

He meets Chikara’s eyes with a questioning frown. “I thought you said it was too dangerous to give me one of these.”

Chikara gives an apologetic shrug. “No choice now, I guess. This is all we’ve got.”

Shuuji tries not to feel like that’s his fault too. Sure, the village was his idea—but Chikara didn’t exactly urge him to drag the bow along, so. They’re even on that one.

“Okay,” he says, looking down at the sword and testing its weight a bit in his grip. “So what do we do now?”

“You head out there first, try to get its attention. Lead it back toward the edge of town—back the way we first came.”

Shuuji blinks at him for a moment. Then he shifts his weight to the other foot.

“Are you asking me to be the bait?”

Chikara purses his lips and doesn’t say anything. Which obviously means yes.

“You’ve got to be kidding me…”

“I won’t let anything happen to you, okay?” Chikara rushes to reassure him.

“An hour ago you were worrying I’d get murdered by a human—but now suddenly a huge, fanged, scaly dragon thing with time-travel capabilities is no problem?”

“Well do you have a better idea?”

“I don’t even know what your idea is! So far, all I’ve got is me waving my arms and volunteering to be dragon food.”

“It’s…we just…look, it would take too long to explain, okay? But trust me, I have a plan.”

Shuuji glares at him. “Well it better be a fucking good plan. Because if that thing eats me for lunch, I’m haunting your ass from here to eternity…”

Chikara winces, but gives another little firm nod.

“Right,” Shuuji says, adjusting his grip on the sword and watching the beast take the roof off another house with its spiny tail. “I just…run then, right? And hope it follows?”

“Right. And whatever you do, whatever you hear, don’t look back. Just keep running. I’ll handle the rest.”

Shuuji looks at Chikara again. Chikara is looking at the youkai, a little nervous twitch at the hinge of his jaw—and somehow it’s only just now occurring to Shuuji that while he’s going to be running as fast as he can away from the thing, Chikara is the one who’s actually going to have to fight it.

He really hopes Chikara knows what he’s doing.

“Be careful,” Shuuji says.

Chikara glances over again, slightly surprised. Then there’s a little smile on his lips. And a little nod.

“I will,” he says. “I promise.”

Shuuji nods.

Then he runs.

It doesn’t take much to get the creature’s attention, just a little shouting and a few rocks thrown from the ground. He yells to the menfolk to clear the area, and they seem only too happy to follow his instructions, despite not having any idea who he is. But presumably anybody willing to attract the demon’s attention singlehanded is a welcome addition to their ranks at the moment.

Once the other tasty morsels have scattered, the demon zeroes in on Shuuji. Shuuji looks back only once to make sure it’s actually following him, and then he does as Chikara said—he runs. He runs like hell, straight toward the place where the square narrows into a road again and heads back toward the woods. An unearthly screech rings out behind him, and a blast of white-hot pink shoots just past his shoulder, making him flinch and stumble a bit. In an eyeblink, a giant tree a few yards ahead is engulfed in wicked, poisonous flames. Shuuji keeps running.

Where the fuck are you, Chikara…?

Another bloodcurdling wail, right behind him this time, and he can actually feel the heat of its breath as it’s about to pounce, crush him and tear him to shreds with massive pointy teeth, and his foot slips on a rock and he’s falling, and oh shit

He lands hard—much harder than he’d have thought possible, actually, because the ground actually shudders—arms covering his head, limbs curled inward protectively, waiting for the crunch…

But there’s another wail, and it’s still a few feet away, and nothing has eaten him yet. The ground gives another little tremor, and Shuuji flinches, pushing himself up on his elbows—and there’s the demon, writhing on the ground, its wings and one of its four clawed feet tangled and immobilized by some kind of rope. Chikara is hovering nearby it with the end of the rope in one hand and the sword in the other trying to keep the creature’s free limbs from slashing him to bits. He’s bleeding in several places, a look of fierce concentration on his face, but he seems basically okay.

And then the creature thrashes violently again and nearly pulls him off his feet.

Shuuji jumps up and grabs his dropped sword, taking two steps back toward him before remembering Chikara’s explicit instructions.

No matter what, don’t turn back. Just keep running.

He might just get in the way if he tries to help. Chikara seems to have this mostly under control, and Shuuji’s not even sure what he’s trying to do. But still, he can’t just…stand here…

When Shuuji sees the spiny tail aiming for Chikara’s face while Chikara is busy fighting off one of the giant claws, the decision is made for him. He dashes back into the fray, throwing both sword and body into the path of the tail and shouting, “Chikara!”

“Shuuji, don’t!”

It barrels into him like a Mack truck, sword first and then body, throwing him sideways across the ground. He tries to get up again, still hearing howls and struggles behind him, but a sharp pain in his ribs and a very unpleasant tilting sensation in his head knocks him over again before he gets farther than his knees. A bright pink light seeps in through his eyelids suddenly, a light ringing, and he can’t tell whether it’s coming from inside his head or outside it—and then, just as suddenly, it’s quiet.

Something metal hits the ground. Then something not metal and—thankfully—breathing.

Shuuji opens his eyes, trying to blink the dust away.

Chikara is lying spread-eagled on the ground a few feet away, trying to catch his breath. He’s bleeding in a couple more places, but the way he scrubs his hands over his face seems to suggest his limbs are in working order. There’s a tangled mess of rope nearby, but the demon is nowhere to be seen.

“Are you okay?” Shuuji asks.

“I’m fine,” Chikara sighs. “Are you?”

“Pretty much,” Shuuji says, wincing and holding his bruised ribs as he pushes himself up to sit.

“I told you to keep running. You should have kept running.”

“That thing nearly took your head off,” Shuuji protests.

“But it didn’t.”

“Because I stopped it.”

“I would have stopped it,” Chikara pouts, pushing himself up to sit as well and brushing ineffectually at his hopelessly dirty shirt.

“Bullshit.”

“I would have. I told you I wouldn’t let it get you.”

Shuuji makes a show of glancing over the blood and dirt smudges covering the both of them from head to toe. “How could I have doubted you for a second…”

Chikara just sighs and runs a hand through his hair. It comes away a little less bloody, but a little more dusty.

Then Shuuji notices something odd sitting in the dirt near the clump of rope—a big curved white thing, like an elephant’s tusk. “Hey,” Shuuji says, jerking his chin toward the thing. “What’s that?”

Chikara blinks at him, then follows his nod over to the tangle. He frowns for a moment—and then he gasps, stumbling awkwardly to his feet and rushing over to extricate the weird artifact. Shuuji gets to his feet a little more carefully, favoring his injured side, and walks over to join him.

“It’s a spine,” Chikara murmurs, and he runs a thumb carefully over the impossibly sharp tip.

“From the youkai?”

Chikara nods. “From its tail, I think. You must have cut it off when you threw yourself in front of it.”

“I did that?” Shuuji says, feeling a bit woozy now that he’s looking at the thing. It had been all adrenaline in the moment, but if he’d been close enough to the spines to cut one off…a few inches over and the bruise on his side would have been a pretty nasty new piercing.

“Yeah. Isn’t it great?”

Shuuji gives Chikara’s gleeful smile a perplexed look. “Is it?”

“Of course it is! Don’t you know what this means?”

Shuuji blinks at him and shakes his head dumbly.

“We’ve got a compass now,” Chikara says, holding up the spine between them. “We can use this to find the demon’s nest. Everything will be so much easier now—we’ll catch the thing in no time.”

“Oh,” Shuuji says, looking at the spine and then at Chikara again—though he still really has no idea how this pointy bit of monster is supposed to help them find the rest of it. “That’s…good?”

“It’s fantastic.”

“You boys,” a stern voice interrupts, and both of them turn quickly to face the stern man it belongs to. From the set of his face and the relative fineness of his dress—although he looks a bit banged up at the moment too, like everyone else in the vicinity—and the way Chikara straightens up a bit at the sight of him, Shuuji guesses this must be the headman. He has a sudden urge to apologize, though he’s not even sure what for. The man just has that aura about him.

That is, until he drops to his knees in the deepest bow he can possibly offer.

“Thank the heavens for you both! If you hadn’t been here, our entire village and all of its people would have been utterly destroyed. Please, you must let us treat your injuries and see to your needs. How can we ever repay you?”

Shuuji and Chikara look at each other. Chikara just gives an awkward shrug, and they return the thanks.

*      *      *

They spend another few hours in the village being patched up with the rest of the injured and taking part in an impromptu feast. There’s drinking and celebration late into the night, led by the village headman—who, it turns out, isn’t really such a bad guy after all. At least not once you get a few pints into him. Or threaten him with death-by-giant-scaly-demon.

Eventually Murasaki-sama gently pries the cup out of his hand and ushers him off to bed. She pauses only briefly in the doorway to give Shuuji a slightly wistful look, and a little shrug of farewell. Shuuji nods back, ears aflame, and hides his face in his cup.

They head back to their cave laden with gifts—a few sacks of rice, fresh clothing, and other goods, but most notably four jugs of fine sake. They’re both already a bit tipsy from the feast, but after the long walk—and the even longer day—they find themselves propped up against the cave wall beside the fire with a jug each, drinking and talking through the day’s events.

During a pleasant lull in the conversation, Shuuji thinks back to the pickle barrels and tea in Murasaki-sama’s storeroom. The heat and the sweat, and odd snatches of conversation.

His father. For maybe the first time since he’s been here, he thinks of his father. And his mother, and his little kid brother, not that he’s so little anymore, really. He misses them all of a sudden. Not that he even sees them all that often when he’s where—when—he’s supposed to be, because they all live in different cities these days, and it’s rare that they’re all in the same place. But, still. He’s never been quite this far away before. If he gets back, he’ll try to see them as soon as possible. When he gets back.

It’s always a fine thing when the son goes the way of the father, isn’t it

That’s right—he meant to ask about that.

“Chikara?”

“Hm?” he mumbles lazily past a slow blink and another little sip of rice wine.

“I was just wondering…what does your father really do?”

Chikara stills.

Shuuji sneaks a glance over at him—his face looks very tense all of a sudden. Not really angry or upset or anything, just…very, very wary.

Okay, there’s definitely something behind that. He’d been wondering if it was just the twitchiness about Murasaki-sama before, but they’re nowhere near her now—and unless Chikara has just suddenly decided to get all twitchy around him too (which he wouldn’t like one bit, but that’s not for him to decide), there’s definitely something he’s not saying. Maybe it’s the same thing he keeps not saying.

And Shuuji really wants to know what it is—but after everything, if Chikara still doesn’t feel like he can tell him, then he doesn’t want to pry it out of him by—

“My father was ronin.”

Shuuji looks over at him again, surprised. Chikara is looking down at the sake jug in his lap, picking at a stray thread in the rope handle tied around the neck. Now that he thinks about it, it does sort of make sense. Between the swordsmanship and the manners, Chikara would have to be a person with some kind of background—but given the way he lives his life, he probably doesn’t have much of a place to go back to. He doesn’t really seem like the type of man who would choose a life on his own in the woods just for the fun of it.

Chikara swallows, apparently being very careful to keep his voice quiet and steady. “We were thrown out after our lord was convicted of conspiring against this other…neighboring lord guy,” he explains, waving a hand a bit drunkenly as he fumbles for the words. “He hadn’t done anything wrong—” he says quickly, almost looking at Shuuji before apparently thinking better of it. “He was a good man. My father had a lot of respect for him. We all did.”

Shuuji feels a frown pulling at his brow. There’s something weirdly…familiar about this story.

“It wasn’t fair, and all of us knew it—he’d obviously been set up. There was this witch lady, she did stuff with spiders—I don’t know. But he never would have tried to kill the guy just for—and we knew that, it was obvious, but we couldn’t prove it in time to save him. So…we took revenge for him instead. All forty-seven of us. I’m the only one left.”

And that, of course, is when the penny drops.

Chikara peeks over at him, trying not to show his unease. Meanwhile Shuuji is staring at him, mouth slightly agape—and normally he would be more sensitive to the fact that Chikara is clearly nervous about telling him this and afraid of what his reaction will be. But at the moment he’s a little bit busy having an aneurism.

“You…you’re…Oishi Chikara.”

Chikara blinks and looks at him more directly, perplexed. “How did you…? I never told you my…”

“Holy shit, you’re Oishi Chikara,” Shuuji repeats, and it’s actually like he’s seeing him for the first time.

“You’ve…heard of me?”

“Of course I’ve heard of you. You’re, like…legend or history or whatever. We studied the Chuushingura four times in high school. Every school kid in Japan in the last three centuries has heard of you. You’re Oishi Chikara…” By now he’s sort of staring into the middle of the room, mentally slapping himself for not putting it together sooner. Not like Chikara’s such a terribly uncommon name, especially in this era, but with the timing and the swords and all the…stuff. Idiot.

“I’m a legend?”

Shuuji looks over at him again to find Chikara turned inward with a little bit of a grin on his face. It’s sort of cute, and so much nicer than that stiff, grim expression he’d been wearing a few minutes ago that Shuuji can’t help but smile back.

“Yeah,” he says. “You are.”

Then Shuuji punches him in the shoulder. “Why didn’t you tell me, you jerk?”

Chikara winces and rubs at the bruise, but there’s still a little smile there. “I don’t know. I don’t really tell anyone anymore.”

“Why the hell not?”

“Because most people sort of tend to run me out of town with torches and pitchforks when they find out,” Chikara says.

When he notices Shuuji’s confused look, he gives a little shrug. “I might be a legend where you come from, but where I come from I’m a conspirator and a landless ronin and a convicted murderer. Things were okay for a while when my mother was still around, but after she passed away and I was on my own…let’s just say there aren’t a whole lot of people who want to take a chance on letting someone like me hang around anywhere once they know the truth.”

Shuuji hums in sympathy. Yeah. That wouldn’t be a good feeling.

It’s still hard to believe though. Anyone who’d spent even a little bit of time with him should know he’d never hurt anyone who didn’t seriously deserve it.

“I think Murasaki-sama knows though,” Chikara says in a bit of a hush, as if she might be listening in on their conversation. “She seems to know pretty much everything, somehow.”

“Yeah,” Shuuji concurs. “A little bit spooky, isn’t she.”

“I think she might have demon blood in her somewhere. I can’t be sure though. It’s harder to tell with humans.”

“I thought you said you didn’t have a problem with people having demon blood.”

“I don’t,” Chikara says quickly. “But most of the half-demons I’ve known haven’t tried to hit on me every time their husbands left the room…”

Shuuji chuckles and raises his sake jug in a toast. “To Murasaki-sama—the demon at the feast.”

Chikara grins and takes a deep drink. Shuuji catches himself watching the way it ripples down his throat when he tilts his head back like that. Then he turns his attention back to his own jug and takes another quick sip, before busying himself making sure the stopper is in the hole just right. Twisting it a little this way and that.

“I’m glad you didn’t sleep with her.”

Shuuji starts and glances over at Chikara. He looks a bit hazy, but relaxed still, sort of staring into the middle distance again. Shuuji wonders if he even realizes he said that out loud.

“It wasn’t that big a deal,” Shuuji says, clearing his throat a little and trying to keep it casual. “I mean, it all worked out, so whatever—but it was fine. I’d have done it. We needed the food, and it was my turn, and I can’t hunt or fish or kill demons. I can’t let you do all the work.”

“I know,” Chikara says, nodding. Still drifty. “You’re right. You were right. I shouldn’t have jumped on you like that. You were only trying to help.”

And then he lowers his eyes. And his head sort of rolls to the side a bit, until his gaze finds its way back up to meet Shuuji’s. Still sort of hazy, but a bit something else too.

Shy, maybe?

“But I’m still glad you didn’t.”

Shuuji just stares back at him. He had other things he’d meant to say, other things about Chikara being too prudish and righteous and the ends justifying the means. Being practical. But none of them fit anymore.

Because the truth is, he’s glad too.

He licks his lips.

“You are?”

Chikara hesitates. Then nods slowly.

“Yeah,” Chikara murmurs. Shuuji sees his throat move again. “Is that—is that okay?”

He’s fiddling with his sake jug and his cheeks are stained a bit red, and Shuuji wonders how much is from the drink and how much is from the thing Shuuji thinks he just said. There’s a warm sort of glow in his own chest that definitely wasn’t there a few moments ago.

“It’s okay,” Shuuji says. And then, without really giving himself a chance to think about it too much. “Me too.”

“Yeah?”

Shuuji nods.

“Are we…talking about the same thing?”

Shuuji gives him a careful, scrutinizing look. “I’m pretty sure. Let me test.”

“How are you going to do that?” Chikara asks, frowning curiously.

“It would take too long to explain,” Shuuji says, lips quirking at the edges. “But trust me, I have a plan.”

And then he shifts around a bit and puts a hand on Chikara’s shoulder to steady himself as he leans in. He feels Chikara watching him all the way like he’s not sure what’s coming, but Shuuji just lets his eyes fall closed and his lips fall open just a little. Just a brush. Chikara’s lips are warm and as soft as they look, and it’s a bit sloppy, maybe, but that’s the drink.

Maybe it’s all the drink. Or at least that’s what he can tell them both in the morning if it turns out he was wrong.

There’s a little breath between them, and Shuuji’s not sure which one of them it belongs to. And then nothing happens. And he’s just about to lean away and laugh it off when suddenly a warm, calloused hand curls around the side of his head clumsily and slightly crushes his ear.

And Chikara kisses him back.

*      *      *

[Part 3]
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