email: dreamsmoke [at] gmail.com
artist: abon (Dreamwidth)
The sign on the door says "Closed", but Shuuran slides it open and ducks under the striped awning into the empty restaurant. The air is already filled with the scent of drying onions and boiling miso, and she hears the bustle in the kitchen even as she passes the neatly stacked tables and chairs; she comes to a stop in the second doorway and looks in on the chaos of two people trying to do four's work.
Miyuki looks up from a chopping board and pushes a loose strand of hair out of her eyes.
"Shuuran! You're here!"
"I just got your message. What happened to Yuusuke?"
She gives vegetables a harried stare, then puts the lid back on and comes to the door. Wiping her hands on her apron and trying to pin her dark, curling hair back up, she shakes her head.
"His brother in the next village died. He got the news this morning and had to leave at once, I don't know if he'll be in time for the funeral."
"His brother? Dead?"
Miyuki nods, then adds, in low tones, "He didn't tell me much, but... I think it was an attack. Maybe wild animals? It's such a shock, and..."
Shuuran stares. "Wild animals? But that's..."
"I know. And have you heard the rumours? They say there's been attacks all around west Ika."
"I heard," Shuuran says, very quiet.
"He'll be gone for at least a week, if not more, and you know what business is like during the harvest. I'm so sorry, I sent Aya to get us more wood, so you'll have to start setting things up yourself and--"
"Miyuki!" Shuuran catches the taller woman's shoulder and shakes it a little. "Calm down. I'll do the setting up, let Aya run all the errands. Take a deep breath. Things will be fine."
"Right. Breathe. Right." She closes her eyes and pinches the bridge of her nose. "Ahhhh. Sometimes I feel like I can't even think."
Shuuran gives her a small smile. "How do you keep the place running without us?" she asks.
Miyuki laughs then. "That's why I don't. Alright, now get to work!"
She lets herself be shooed back into the waiting confines of the restaurant. From the kitchen comes the clatter of pots and pans, the low hiss of the fires, the rise and fall of voices; standing in the shadowed space beyond them, there's no one to see the thin line of her mouth or her clenched hands.
Random attacks, rumours of wild animals - in her mind, she can smell the blood and death in the air already. Things that should have been left behind when the war ended; but it doesn't matter where you go, does it? The shadows will always be there.
Taking a deep breath, she lets it out. They don't have to mean anything, but she can't make herself believe that. In the meantime, she has work to do. Picking up the broom in the corner, she starts sweeping out the restaurant with the brisk ease of practice. When that's done, she sets the tables and chairs back in place, checks that the lanterns and lamps are all filled and ready to be lit, and then pushes her head into the kitchen.
"I'm done," she calls. "Do you need any help?"
Naru is crouched by the stove, grumbling as he loads it with more wood, but Miyuki looks at Shuuran and gives her a brisk nod. "You can take the sign down," she says.
Stepping out of the front entrance again and turning to take down the "closed" sign, Shuuran stops. This early, two men are already standing by the door waiting. The younger, a boy in a government uniform and a black eyepatch, gives her a polite nod.
"Are you open? My companion and I just arrived, and yours was the first restaurant we found."
"Come in, we're just ready."
It's not until they step out of the evening sun and into the shade of the entrance that she glances at the young man's companion. Unshaven and bleary-eyed, the older man is a shabby figure as he trails after the young official. He wears a sword on his hip, which would be illegal if he wasn't in the company of an authorised agent. Then he yawns, revealing a thin, red scar along the line of his right jaw, stretching from throat to collarbone.
He finishes yawning just as she tucks her hands into her sleeves with a quick movement. She meets his eyes with a blank expression, and that would be the end of it but--
He stops. Gives her a long, hard stare through narrowed eyes.
"Is there a problem, sir?" she asks.
He frowns, and the boy turns to look at them, surprised. "What is it?" he asks the man.
"You look familiar..." he says, still staring at Shuuran. He scratches his chin. "Have I seen you before?"
"I don't believe we've met. Perhaps you've mistaken me for someone else?" she says, slowly.
"What's your name?"
"Ah... I'm Kuroba Shuuran."
Kaoru's attention snaps from vague curiosity to razor-edged focus. "You say your name is Kuroba?"
The woman gives him a wary look. "Yes. Is there something..."
"Do you know someone named Kuroba Ren?"
Her eyes flicker between them, sharp and dark. "I have a cousin named Ren, but I haven't seen him in years," she says.
"Did he fight in the war?"
"I... don't know. I haven't heard from his family since before the war. Has he done something?"
"No, please don't worry," Kaoru says with the smooth diplomacy of a practiced liar. "My name is Shiroko Kaoru, and my companion is Noya Taketo. We're from the War Office branch in Okada. We've been updating our records of soldiers who fought in the war, and your cousin's name is on the list. We've had some trouble contacting him, and our search brought us here."
The woman studies them for a moment. "I see," she says, tone neutral. "I'm sorry that I can't be of any help. The last time I saw him was almost eight years ago."
"Do you have any idea where his family might have moved?"
"The last I heard, they were in... Ikkuken, I think. But that was five years ago."
That at least seems to tally with what they have. Kaoru nods, almost to himself. "Thank you for your help, Miss Kuroba."
"It's nothing," she murmurs. "Would you like to take a seat now?"
She shows them to a table and at her shout, a boy with a scrubbed red face and still damp hair sprints out of the kitchen take their order.
The restaurant is tiny; the tables and chairs worn, the wood floor clean but scruffed, the walls hung with small, yellow lanterns and cheap silk paintings of dancers. They are the first customers for the day, but not for long; as the sun goes down and Shuuran and an older woman light the lanterns, the other tables fill with surprising speed, most of them clearly old regulars.
"Well, that was helpful," Taketo says, leaning back in his chair. His stomach grumbles to itself, and he eyes the kitchen door speculatively.
Kaoru frowns and drums a tattoo against the table, and Taketo can almost see him itching to reach for a scroll from his pack, idleness grating on him. He's probably forgotten his order by now; he's too-thin and clearly the worst sort of person to eat with, with no appreciation for food or drink.
"It matches with what we have," he said.
Taketo cocks an eyebrow at him. "Think a five-year-old lead's worth following?"
The boy sighs. "At least we know he's not here," he says.
The food is good, if a little too heavy on the fish and light on everything else. But Taketo likes his food and isn't inclined to be picky; everything tastes better with wine anyway.
He ignores the faintly disapproving stare Kaoru gives him when he calls for a bottle of their cheapest wine.
"It's just one," he says.
Kaoru snorts. "I'm not paying for more than one," he says, sour. "You're not here to drink government money away."
"Yeah, yeah. How many lackeys did they send for this anyway?" Taketo asks. "There weren't more than twenty of us left by the time the war was over, they really want all of us?"
The boy shakes his head. "To my knowledge, they've sent two more agents out. I don't know what their orders were, or whether they were sent to do something else entirely. If they have other plans, I haven't been informed."
"Typical," Taketo says, but with no real rancour.
He's finished the wine; he eyes the empty bottle with regret and considers calling for another, but he doesn't have the coin to pay for it and probably shouldn't provoke his meal ticket into dumping him on the street with no lodging.
Kaoru is counting the coin to pay the bill when the crash of breaking crockery makes them start. Taketo looks over his shoulder to see a rowdy gaggle of young labourers by the door. One of them, lanky and red-faced, is clearly drunk and lurching to his feet, wine bottle in hand, even as two of his friends swear and struggle to hold him back.
"Isn't that the second time this week, Shinkai?" one of the patrons calls out.
"Third," one of the friends says, resigned. "Shinkai, stop being an ass, put that down or we'll get thrown out again."
"She can try," he growls. "I won't put up with this!"
Taketo is debating whether he feels helpful enough to throw the drunk out before he damages anything else, when from the corner of his eye he sees Shuuran stalk across the crowded room, step behind the man and catch his wrist in an iron grip.
He stumbles, thrown off balance, and she twists his arm back, taking the wine bottle when he finally releases it with a yelp of pain. Setting it on a table, she reaches out, catches his collar and then, ignoring his swearing, frowns at his companions.
"Again?" she inquires.
"Argued with his wife, she went to visit her mother's village, you know how it goes," another friend explains.
She snorts. "And getting drunk every night helps?" she asks. "Here, take him. Tell him he's going to owe us a full set of plates and bowls if he keeps this up."
They file out, sheepish apologies trailing after them and the last stays for the bill.
"Huh," Taketo says. Kaoru, who ignored the ruckus once it became clear no murder would be involved, looks at him, blank.
"She's fast," the older man comments.
"Must be the experience, if she's worked here long."
The older man gives him an incredulous stare. "Do you see waitresses breaking up fights in most restaurants? His own friends couldn't handle the idiot."
"So you think it means something?"
"Eh. Who knows."
He studies her as she stands in the door, counts the change and tucks the money into the pouch at her waist. If you'd asked him earlier today, Taketo couldn't have given you a description of Ren's face; time and memory hadn't erased it entirely, but they'd blurred the details beyond immediate recall. But now, looking at the woman, Ren's face is suddenly sharp again in his mind and--
Something feels wrong, instinct says, and most days, Taketo trusts instinct more than he trusts his own intelligence.
She hasn't looked at them again since she showed them the table. When Kaoru asks for the bill, the boy comes running instead. In fact, Taketo could almost wonder if she's avoiding them.
Then a voice calls from the kitchen, and she turns from the door to make her way back. She passes their table without a second glance - until Taketo's hand whips out and grabs her left arm.
"What--" She turns, startled, but it's too late.
On the back of her hand, a scar like a spider, puckered and pink-white. He flips her wrist and the same scar stretches clear across her palm.
"Taketo, what are you doing--" Kaoru's voice is distant in the background; Taketo is too busy staring at the scar on Kuroba Shuuran's hand while a wave of complete horror sweeps disbelief away on a flood before it.
He looks up.
And then Shuuran's - no, Ren's - fist meets his jaw, hard, and he must be getting old because it used to take a lot more than a hit to the face to knock him out...
The world goes black.
The day is shading into evening, and the light falling through the half-opened paper doors is blood-red and clear. Seen through the haze of three broken ribs, one dislocated knee and the accompanying medication, the world is a shimmering haze of equal parts dull pain and sleepless boredom.
The sickroom they've left him in is deserted, and he's this close to shouting for a nurse - a doctor - anyone, just for something to do, when a shadow drifts across the screens and Ren appears in the door.
Taketo is pretty sure he's never been this relieved to see him in his life.
"I'm going to kill something. I'm going to kill myself."
Ren snorts. "Don't be in such a hurry. So no one told you the news."
He gives him a blank stare. "What?"
Ren sighs, then crosses the room to examine him with a jaundiced eye. "What did they drug you with?" he asks, but doesn't bother waiting for an answer. "The war. It's over. They signed the treaty this morning, the news came out at noon."
Taketo blinks. The words mean something - but somewhere between knowing them and believing them is a haze of all the things he never believed would happen.
Like surviving this war.
"It's over," Ren repeats, almost patient. "We can leave. Go back. It's... over."
They can't remember what peace means anymore.
He looks away from Ren's watching face and stares at the ceiling. "Finally, huh?"
He turns at the thump when Ren drops a wine jar by his futon.
"If anyone asks, I wasn't here," Ren says, and turns on his heel. But he doesn't leave, only sits himself by the door, back against the screen as he watches the sun set.
The jar is half-empty; if Ren drank the rest, it'd be more wine than Taketo's seen him drink in the past three years. He sits up with a wince, but it's been two days since he was brought in here and banned from alcohol, and there's no damn way he's ignoring the offering.
The wine is cheap and strong and burns all the way down. Taketo can almost begin to believe in humanity again. Propping an elbow on his good right knee, he looks at Ren's unmoving back.
"You can't believe it either, huh."
"... I guess not."
The sun sinks lower, they sit in silence. The war is over, the war is over, the war is over.
A name hangs unspoken between them. They could rattle off whole lists of names of the dead and fallen, the mourned and un-mourned, but of all the lost who never saw this day, this one is theirs and theirs alone.
"Where will you go?" Ren suddenly asks.
He sets the now-empty jar down,. The bandage on his arm itches, but he ignores it.
"Hell. I don't know," he finally says. "See if my mother's still alive. Get really, really drunk. Jump in the fucking river."
Ren doesn't answer and Taketo's pretty sure he just wasted his breath, but can't bring himself to care. He lowers himself back and it almost hurts enough to make him regret getting up - but not really.
"What about you? Brat," he asks, and doesn't bother listening for an answer.
Ren shrugs. "I don't know either," he says, and leaves it at that.
Between the wine and the pain and the unfamiliar relief (everything has changed, nothing has changed) he slides back into sleep. When he wakes, the light is gone and a medical aide is threatening to break a new rib while she shakes the wine jar at him.
It's not until two days later that he hears that Ren has gone, no warnings, no goodbyes. Just one more name, lost in the chaos between war and peace.
As past history goes, he's found himself in worse places - prison cells, gutters, muddy fields in the dead of winter. Flickering candlelight and cool, hard wood under his cheek aren't too bad at all, until you take into account the violent headache and aching jaw.
He groans. Kaoru's face appears in his line of vision.
"Still alive, I see," he says, dry.
"Fucking bastard, where is he? ... She. God, tell me I just dreamed that."
"I'm afraid you didn't," Kaoru says. On his part, he looks torn between lingering skepticism and awed amusement.
Taketo heaves himself up and glares around him, but apart from the two of them and the heavy sacks lining the walls, the room is empty.
"Where is she?"
"They're closing the restaurant for the night, and she went to help. She said she would come as soon as they were done. We're in one of the storerooms at the back."
He gives it up for the moment, and rubs his aching chin. "Fuck, asshole didn't have to hit me so hard..."
Kaoru glances at the door, then looks at him. Hesitates. "So you really believe she's... Kuroba Ren? That she spent three years fighting in the squad as... a man?"
Taketo snorts. "Man? Kid, more like. He - she - couldn't have been more than sixteen when she joined up. Didn't know what possessed them to take him. Her."
But Ren had survived the war - and so had Taketo - so whether it was pure, dumb luck or cold-blooded calculation, someone somewhere had been right.
"That doesn't answer the question," the boy says, voice quiet.
He glowers at him. "Yes I'm sure it's him. Her. God, you think I'd - I don't even want to believe it. How many people do you know with stab wounds right through their hands?"
"None before today. I don't doubt your word, but this is very... unexpected," Kaoru says. Then he suddenly grins. "I can't imagine the look on their faces when I report this."
The scrape of sandaled feet outside makes them look up. The door opens and Shuuran appears, silhouetted in the light of the hall beyond. For a moment, she looks at them, her face unreadable in the shadow.
"You!" Taketo snaps.
She slides the door shut behind her and the candlelight strikes her face. The features are older, starker in peace than they had been in war; she wears her hair pulled back in a braid, instead of cut short and shaggy; the way she moves, easy and assured, is a world away from Ren's restless gawkiness. Her eyes wear the wary calm she'd shown earlier - but now he remembers how Ren carried that same aura of caged tension, watching and never speaking. Same and not-the-same.
In the back of his mind, pieces he'd never realised were there are falling into place, but he doesn't let himself think about that.
"Yes, me," she says.
"Why the hell'd you hit me?" Taketo demands.
She stares at him for a moment and then scowls, unapologetic. "It seemed like a good idea at the time."
"God, four years and you're still a brat," Taketo mutters to himself. "What the fuck were you thinking?"
"You're a woman!"
"Oh, and I never noticed!"
"How did you - why did you even - what were you doing?"
"What were any of us doing? It's not like it made a difference," she snaps back. Taketo opens his mouth, shuts it.
"Dammit," he says, because she's right, isn't she?
She shrugs and looks away. "No one asked if I was a boy," she mutters. "I didn't even have to lie about anything except my name."
Taketo gives her a look of deep irritation. "Don't make me get up and break your nose," he says.
Before she can reply, Kaoru clears his throat loudly. "I hate to interrupt, but," he says from the corner he retreated to when they'd started. He crosses his arms and looks at the both of them. "I think we have business to discuss."
"This is about the attacks," Shuuran says into the ensuing silence, the words quiet and cold.
"You know about them?" he says, sharp.
"I heard the rumours. I didn't want to think they meant anything, but there's too much talk to ignore. What's happening?"
"That's what we're trying to find out," Kaoru says, grim.
"It's not just Ika, is it? When did it start? Why?"
He shakes his head. "We don't know exactly when this began, but the first verified records date six months back. Two deaths in Noya in the north. One of the victims was Hirongo Amatsu. Then a month later, more attacks, in Hitsumo, also in the North. One injured, three dead. Yamori An was one of the victims. Then six weeks after, the Sumari region in the east. Nine verified deaths, three suspected - Ikari Shongo."
Shuuran sucks a sharp breath through her teeth. "Shongo?"
"Yes. Evidence at the scene shows he died fighting, but whatever it was--"
"They're strong, then," she murmurs to herself.
"Yes," Taketo says, voice perfectly flat. But she doesn't look at him, or seem to hear the word.
"So you think they're looking for us. Hunting us."
"It's the only factor we've been able to identify in the attacks," Kaoru says.
Now Shuuran turns to look at the older man. "You fought one of them?"
"Okada. Two deaths and then they found me. If I hadn't been in jail I'd just be another name on the fucking list. If the kid hadn't turned up in time, I'd still be another name on the list."
The stench of blood and rotting meat, a human throat torn by an inhuman scream, the stone wall of the prison cell shuddering--
He feels fear ripple down his spine again, foreign and yet too-familiar. "Just one of 'em. It tried to tear through the fucking prison walls. Lucky the kid was following it and got me a sword in time."
Lucky he'd managed to kill the thing at all, he doesn't say, but Ren - Shuuran - should know that as well as he does.
"When was this?" she asks.
"More than a week back."
"But the attacks in Ika have been going on for over a month."
"Six dead here, if our guess is right. After Sumari, it's clear there's more than one force at work. They must be splitting up, widening the range."
She nods, and then is silent. Taketo watches her face in the candlelight with grim intent; when her eyes flicker and meet his, they narrow. "What?"
"Nothing," he says, because he can't explain that he's searching his memory for all the signs and hints he missed or never thought about during the war, because he can't decide if he should have known. "Who else knew?" he asks, abruptly.
She blinks, then considers. "Kirihara-sensei knew," she says, and her scarred hand twitches with an unconscious movement. "After the fight at Rushon, when I nearly lost my hand. He probably told Captain Sagara but he never said anything to me. If anyone else knew, they kept their mouth shut."
So Haru hadn't known either; Taketo was pretty sure he would have heard something about it if Haru had found out.
"Oh," he says, and then rubs his chin and sighs. "God, this is strange. So what do we do now, kid? You found me, you found him, so how do we find the demon? Hope it just knocks on the door like Shuuran did over here?"
Kaoru frowns at him. "I was thinking of running a perimeter spell on the town, see if it could pick up on anything. Even if they're not here, it might give us a direction to start looking. The last reported death was a week ago--"
"No," Shuuran cuts in. "There was a death in the next village just two days ago."
"What? You're sure of that?"
"The victim was the brother of one of our cooks, he had to leave for the funeral. It's less than a day's walk away," she says. Then she goes very still. "If we're the target..."
"They're looking for you," Taketo says. "The same way they were tracking me."
"How are they finding us?"
"If we knew we wouldn't be sitting here asking stupid questions," Taketo grouses.
Kaoru straightens and looks at the both of them. "They must almost be here, or in the town already. A perimeter spell will take too long to set up, the next attack could come tonight. Shuuran, is it possible for us to do a patrol of the streets? Are there any areas you think would draw an attack?"
Taketo sighs, then takes his time climbing to his feet. "You in for this at all?" he asks, looking at Shuuran.
Eyes fixed on the dusty floorboards, she doesn't look at them. Finally, she sighs.
"I guess I am," she says.
Shuuran lets them out by the back door. The restaurant stands off the town's main street, on a smaller street leading to the residential district. The sky above the alley is clouded; Kaoru looks at the stars sturggling to gleam through the cover and thinks he can smell coming rain in the air.
"Not much light to go by," Taketo comments. "Think we should take a lantern?"
"I'll bring one," Shuuran says. "Turn west on the street and keep going until you see the houses by the river. I'll catch up when I'm done."
From the kitchen behind her, a woman's voice calls. "Shuuran? Are those your friends?"
She turns quickly, shutting the door in their faces before they can blink. The alley is plunged in darkness, save for the thin line of gold gleaming under the door.
Taketo snorts. "Wonder what they'd make of her if they knew," he says, but turns and follows the alley to the street.
All the shops and restaurants along it are shut for the night, and the air is still. But not silent. A dog howls in the night, and they can already hear the faint whine of crickets from the far distance, and Taketo starts in the direction Shuuran gave when Kaoru stops him.
He presses his palm to his eyepatch, then closes his eyes and takes a deep breath. Around him, the town sleeps, clustered along the streets, scattered through the fields, deeply dreaming. He doesn't know if he truly senses the people around him when he does this, or if he only imagines that he does because he needs to, because he uses the weight of their unknowing lives and deaths as an anchor.
Then he pulls the patch from his right eye, covering his left instead - and opens his eyes.
On the surface, the world looks no different. The street, the night, the man watching him with a poorly disguised mixture of fascination and disbelief.
"Fuck. Your eye," he says. "How did you--"
"How do you think I found the demon in Okada so quickly?" Kaoru says, voice tight with concentration.
He looks away from the fires that he can see swirling under Taketo's skin, bright and ever shifting, from the black light that edges his sword. He looks around him at the street, the buildings, but they show no traces of black fire, no scorch marks invisible to the human eye. The demon hasn't passed this street yet. If he could get a better vantage point, the way he had in Okada, maybe he could see something. The street they stand on climbs slowly uphill, he knows, before sloping down towards the river. Maybe he could climb a roof on the rise and get a better view there.
"Come on," he says.
In her small room above the restaurant, Shuuran listens. Aya is long since asleep and by now she knows Miyuki's habits; the older settles quickly and sleeps deeply. When faint snoring crosses the narrow hallway, she stands and moves across the room on noiseless feet. The tatami mats are worn and cool under her feet, and with her bedding rolled and tucked in the corner, the room looks barren in the moonlight.
In the corner, under the window, two chests hold all her clothes. A clumsy carving of a wooden crane stands on one of them, a gift from Yuusuke last year. The chest itself is filled with winter clothing and bedding, put away in spring, but she pulls away the layers until she reaches the bottom. Then, using the small knife she carries in her sleeve (old habits, dying hard), she pries it in a crack at the bottom of the chest. It comes off with a creak of protesting wood, revealing a shallow compartment.
Only two things here: a sword, the dark wood of the sheath stained and scratched, and one suit of clothes. She stares at them, but doesn't let herself hesitate for long.
Lifting the sword from its hiding place, she shifts it against her calluses until she finds the right grip, written into her nerves and bones, apparently past memory or forgetting.
Four years ago, she had stood on a footbridge over the Ika river, on a night much like this, and held this sword above the waters. She'd never known what made her pull back at that last moment, but now, it seems, she does. She'd been waiting.
There is no time, so she leaves the chest as it is, contents scattered, secret revealed, and ties the sword around her waist. Shuuran picks up the paper lantern on her table, still unlit, and then she is out of her room, down the stairs and through the back door with practiced silence. In the street, she stops to listen but the night's sounds reveal nothing. So she turns west, to the river, and starts running. She doesn't have to go far - just as she reaches the rise in the road, a raw, mad scream tears the air.
She takes the second side street to the left, and the only sound as she twists through the narrow alleys is the sound of her pounding feet. Then she bursts out of a side street into crossroad and has to skid to an abrupt halt.
The air, thick with the sour stink of death; the boy turning to look at her with his eye burning red with fire; the man standing with his sword drawn. Cold steel, bright in the moonlight but for the blood that shadows the edge in black.
Before them, the shifting, grotesque figure of what had once been a man.
Taketo doesn't bother to look at her. She draws her sword in a smooth motion and holds it before her, tip to the ground. Lips thin, she presses the tip of her little finger to the edge until skin breaks and blood runs down it to drip on the ground, then absently licks the cut.
The demon looms over them, with his too-long arms, twisted, distended neck, hunched back. A jaw stretched too wide claws at the empty air, and then he - it - turns to look at them. Its eyes are dead and dull and black, and almost lazily, it swipes a clawed hand at Taketo. He leaps back with an oath and Shuuran blurs into motion even as Kaoru ducks for cover. When it screams again, it howls silence - the very air around them seems to bend and warp and silence crashes over them like a wave.
The drumming of blood in her ears is the only sound Shuuran can hear, but she doesn't blink, can't hesitate. She dives under the demon's arm and rolls to her feet in a swift movement, coming up behind it. Taketo's yell breaks the roaring silence in her ears as he brings his sword down on the demon's hand. It howls, with a voice almost-human, and a spray of blood marks his strike.
Shuuran leaps at the demon with her sword aimed right between its shoulder blades. It whirls at the last moment and the second arm whips around to meet her. The weight of her momentum drives her blade right into the palm, and then she's thrown across the street. Her shoulder hits the wall and she grits her teeth against a scream. The world vanishes in pain, blinding and complete - the things you forget, she manages to think to herself and staggers up. Her breath whistles through her teeth, equal parts hurt and exhaustion. Peace has dulled her reflexes; kicking hooligans and drunks out of the restaurant isn't much of a challenge as fights go, and four years is... four years as Shuuran is a world away from the three years she spent as Ren.
A gunshot breaks the air, shatters the stunned haze in her mind; she starts and looks up to see Kaoru standing in the middle of the street, face pale and terrified and determined, pistol in hand. He shoots again but the demon barely troubles to feel the shot. The bullets are clean and useless, but he tries anyway.
Taketo lies sprawled at the boy's feet. He's groaning, which means that he's still alive, at least. Shuuran doesn't wait to see more before she pushes herself into a sprint, not at the demon, but at the opposite wall. Her feet slam into the wood, one two three and then she throws herself back into the air - not high enough, but it will have to do. Almost level with the back of the demon's neck, she slashes up. Blood sprays wet and hot against her arm, and it bucks, head thrown back to the sky. She lands on her feet and it lurches around to face her.
Teeth, black and rotting, bare in a snarl and it swings at her once, twice. She jumps back out of the way the first time, is less lucky the second. It opens a gash in her shoulder as she ducks under its claws, but she ignores it. Stabbing deep into its side, she twists the blade and holds it there even as it crashes into her and then tries to throw her off. Her back hits the ground and she can smell death on its breath as it screams in her face, but she pushes her sword in deeper,holds on. A third gunshot rings out behind the demon, this time close enough that the impact makes it flinch, ever so slightly--
Taketo brings his sword down on the demon's neck, cleaving through muscle to strike bone. Then he drags it out and brings it down again, through the spine. Shuuran is on her feet and she brings her sword down the third time and now the cut is clean.
The demon's head falls on hard earth with a dull thud and the night air is suddenly silent again, but for the hiss of their breathing and the hard stutter of Shuuran's heart, almost loud enough to drown out everything else. She steps back from the body without looking at it, then closes her eyes and shakes her head, hard, before opening them again.
"God," Taketo says, the first words anyone's spoken since the fight began. "I'm too damn old for this."
Kaoru looks shaky but is staying on his feet, probably by sheer force of will. He lifts a hand to touch his eyepatch; his right eye still burns a glowering red, but then he pulls the cloth back over it and it's gone.
Shuuran meets his left eye, dark and bright and human like his other eye isn't. He looks away.
"Please don't ask," he says, very low. "I. It's not - there's a reason--"
She frowns. "Don't ask? You have a demon's--"
Then a sound behind them makes them freeze.
They'd turned their backs on the demon's body when they staggered away from it. Now, what had once been a man's body lies convulsing on the ground as someone tears it apart from the belly-out. Skin rips like paper and peels back to reveal a creature, skeletal-white in the moonlight but for the blood that coats it like birthing fluid. It scrambles out of the remains with bony arms and legs, shape shifting like mist. Its bulbous head turns to look at them with incongruous gold eyes, and then it turns and flees down the street.
In three years, Shuuran had only seen a demon survive the death of its host once, and even then they hadn't managed to take corporeal form like this. For a startled blink of an eye, they stand transfixed - too long.
Her feet are moving before she even realises, but the creature is lightning-quick. Behind her, she hears Taketo swear and pick up speed but Ren was always the faster runner and Shuuran hasn't lost that at least. The demon turns into the main street, and a woman's voice cries out.
She knows that voice.
The world moves too slowly. She reaches the street and sees Miyuki, her face stark with fear as the demon reaches for her. It draws itself into an enormous spider, all grasping arms of bone and mist with Miyuki trapped in its embrace.
She slashes at it and one arm falls to the ground to dissolve like cloud. But another arm grows to take its place, and then another, and--
The demon makes a whispery noise that could be a laugh, and it knows that if she's not careful, she could hurt Miyuki. Without even stopping to think, she reaches for the demon with her bare hands and pulls, dragging it off the older woman until it turns on her, winding around her arms, filling her vision. She gasps, startled, struggles to hold her breath.
It can be fought.
She doesn't remember who told her this anymore, but in the sudden dark filling her mind like the only thing she's ever known, she can't let herself think beyond the words. Her thoughts run like sand against the tide, until anger is the closest thing left to solid ground.
She didn't come this far to let a demon win, not here, not like this.
Think of how many have lost already, a voice that is not her own murmurs, and Haru's face is suddenly too clear in her mind. He lost. You lost him. You lose, the voice tells her.
No, no, no.
Then the shadows scream and she opens her eyes and for a moment, everything is on fire, even herself.
Shuuran hits the ground with every bone in her body and realises that it's not quite true. The demon writhes on the ground, burning in the remains on what had been Miyuki's lantern. Someone is shaking her and yelling - "Ren! Answer me, goddamit! You idiot!" - and she realises that it's Taketo.
She stares up at his furious face, then rolls over and is violently sick.
Kaoru finishes the job with two purification spells, one on the body in the alley, which crumbled into pale, white ash, and another over the demon's remains, which melted into something black and liquid and smelling too strongly of copper, and then oozed into the ground as a dark patch.
They watch him, silent, until the last rites are complete. Taketo regards the proceedings with tired indifference, and yawns a lot while he rubs at the new bruises he's just acquired. Shuuran sits by a gutter and stares at her feet, too much of a coward to face anyone. Distantly, she knows that her head hurts, dull and insistent; that her shoulder and arm are sticky and stiff with blood; that she's not Ren anymore and she's not really Shuuran now.
Kaoru makes a nervous noise behind her. "Kuroda," he starts, just as Miyuki speaks.
"Excuse me-" They turn to stare at her and she stops, meets their gazes (curious, tired, surprised, empty), then continues. "You're all hurt. It's too late to get a doctor but I have some medicine and bandages back at the restaurant. You'll need a place to rest..."
Shuuran blinks, slowly, and Miyuki gives her a hard look, the kind where she's made up her mind and tied up her sleeves and nothing anyone can say will change her mind.
"I'm not saying no," Taketo says, and nods at her. He looks at Shuuran, still blankly staring, and says, not unkindly, "Oi, still possessed? Want me to kick you?"
She glares at him. "No," she says, and manages to drag herself to her feet without falling over.
"Thank you for the help," Kaoru says, ever polite. "Especially after--"
She chuckles then and, somehow, her laughter is a surprise. "Please, don't. After this - The honour is mine..."
So they straggle after her, walking wounded through the still-sleeping streets. They'd never been good for victory marches. Back at the restaurant, they sit in the kitchen, washing away the blood and dirt in salt and water, letting the bitter stink of herb and salve fill the air. Kaoru starts to give Miyuki a spiel about secret government investigations and unexplained phenomena but stops when Shuuran looks up and says, very clearly, "Don't."
"I won't lie to her," she says when he opens his mouth to argue. He subsides, and she leaves the kitchen to climb back up the stairs before anyone can call her back.
The door to her room stands ajar and she pulls it shut behind her. Dropping her sword, she lies flat on the floor and closes her eyes. When the quiet rap on the door frame comes, she's already half asleep.
She jerks back into consciousness and finds her hand on her sword even before her eyes are open. She stops herself, looks at the door and then says, "Come in."
Miyuki's face looks older than it should in the moonlight, or maybe it's the lines of worry around her eyes and mouth that make her think that. Shuuran starts to climb to her feet again but the older woman says, "Oh, don't, I know you're tired and... I'm sorry."
Shuuran blinks. "What?" is her intelligent reply. "There's nothing to be sorry for."
"For following you. For looking in your room when I shouldn't have. It's just - you were acting strange, and with those attacks, it's not safe to be on the streets at night and I didn't really think--"
This time, she stands before Miyuki can protest. "There's nothing to be sorry for. I was the one lying--"
"I nearly got you killed," Miyuki says, and her hands curl into fists.
"Ah?" Then Shuuran realises that she's started laughing while Miyuki blinks at her, puzzled. She smiles at her and it comes easier than it should have. "You idiot. You threw the lantern at it, you saved my life. If I died it'd be my own fault for being stupid."
"That's not true. You were fighting it--"
"If it weren't for me it wouldn't have come here at all," Shuuran tells her, laughter gone as suddenly as it'd come.
Miyuki looks at her, intent and unwavering. "Why?" she asks.
She has to look away from that stare. Then she lifts a shoulder in a half-shrug and says, "Maybe you'd better sit down."
"This has something to do with the war, doesn't it? When you left after your mother's funeral..."
Shuuran draws her knees to her chest and then slowly nods. "You know... my father and brother died in the first six months of the fighting. It killed my mother. And after she died... what was left? The land went back to my uncle. I could have gone to him, like I told everyone but by then... I didn't care."
It'd been that simple. Too much death, too little time; what was left at all? She didn't care who won the war or who else died - she'd already lost everything she'd had to lose. The war would break her and kill her like it'd killed everyone else; all that remained was when and where and how.
"So I took my brother's old sword and went to Kyoto. I thought... I might as well let it kill me there. At least I'd die doing something, not just waiting here for the troops to come."
"So you fought as a soldier? All the time you were gone?"
She smiles then, a thin, bitter thing. "You know what was funny? I thought I didn't care if I lived or died. But when the fighting started - I didn't want to die. I could have let them kill me, but I wouldn't. I don't even know why."
Could you live on nothing but pure, stubborn will?
Miyuki's fingers brush her arm. "You're too strong for that," she tells her.
She doesn't know if it's the right word. Shongo was strong, and he lies buried in a faraway grave in the east. Haru had been stronger than her and Taketo together - but they're here and he's not.
"They assigned me to the Thirteenth Squad. They were the smallest squad, but they had the highest casualties. But we didn't fight on the frontlines - they sent us on smaller operations, missions that they never reported or wrote about. We weren't fighting soldiers or warriors - we fought demons."
"Like the one today. It attacked the other villages too, didn't it? Like Yuusuke's brother..."
Shuuran nods. What she doesn't add is, it wasn't the only one. The demon they found was weak, almost mindless, driven only by hunger; there'll be others where it came from, and even further back, in the shadows, a puppetmaster pulls their strings. But Miyuki has seen enough, and it's not her burden to carry.
She looks her in the eye. "Not everyone we fought was a demon. We killed men. We killed women too. They chose us because we weren't warriors - what they needed were killers, not heroes."
They'd all had their reasons to be there. Shuuran had never planned on winning, or even surviving, but she had. At what price?
Miyuki looks past her, to the window beyond. The night is nearly gone, but the sky is dark and heavy with cloud. Her hands fiddle with her sleeves, an old habit when she's thinking hard.
"That time, just after the war, when old Gohan and his gang tried to make me give up the restaurant... that was you, wasn't it?" she asks absently.
Shuuran has to stop to remember. "Old Gohan...? Oh."
"He claimed that a monster threw him and his boys into the river and told them to stop making trouble or it'd hunt them down. Remember?"
Miyuki frowns at her. "I wondered, but I didn't think even you could take on the gang yourself - but you did, didn't you?"
There's no reason why Shuuran would feel sheepish for a crime that's almost three years old, against someone who richly deserved it - but under Miyuki's stern stare, she does. "Yes?"
Miyuki's hand on her wrist is warm and callused and familiar. "I don't know what you did in the war. You don't have to tell me if you don't want to. But whatever happened then, you're my friend. Here. Now. If it weren't for you and the others, I couldn't keep the place running, Aya and I wouldn't be here. Sora..."
She stops. Sora had never come home from the war; Miyuki will never know what he did there, or what secrets he would have tried to hide. They both bear their own ghosts, for their own reasons.
"Sora would say the same."
"Promise me you'll come back. Whatever happens."
Shuuran opens her mouth, then stops.
"I will," she says.
Outside, it begins to rain.
The rain, having begun, continues.
At Miyuki's insistence, they spend a day recuperating before leaving Furamen. Taketo takes their second killing as an excellent reason to celebrate and drink the government's money away, and Miyuki is only too pleased to cooperate. Kaoru's protests are ignored ("Oh, please don't worry, it's on us--" "Madam Inoue, we can't do that!") until Shuuran very calmly removes Taketo's coin purse and empties it in Miyuki's hands, and the ensuing battle in the kitchen ends in Taketo soaked and covered in mud in the back alley
The morning after that, they wake to find Shuuran gone. There is no note, no message; Miyuki has no idea where she could have gone. She has taken only her sword and her money, and her room is as neatly packed and swept as if she could return in a moment - or never return at all. In the end, they leave the town without her in a hired carriage, splashing through the wet streets on the road to the capital.
Taketo grumbles and sprawls in his seat, too busy nursing the remains of a hangover to worry about his missing - comrade? Partner? Friend? Kaoru watches him, exasperated, but has to give it up. Shuuran's whereabouts and intentions remain a mystery; maybe she only left to avoid being asked to return to the capital with them.
The carriage rattles across Furamen's biggest bridge, the waters of the Ika river swollen and grey beneath it. At the far end of the bridge stands a roadside shrine, like the hundreds that scatter the countryside, maybe a little larger than most because the road here is busier. With the torrential rain, the bridge and road are nearly empty, but as they near the shrine, a figure in a large, woven straw hat steps out of its scant shelter.
Kaoru calls to the driver to stop, and the carriage pulls up before the traveller. The hand that tips the hat back is scarred and still neatly bandaged, the face beneath it familiar - but now, the hair is trimmed short, pulled back into a neat tail. Dressed in a light green robe and dark trousers, Kuroba Ren could be any other young man passing through the town - but for the sword that hangs at her - or is it his now? - hip.
"I thought you'd pass this way an hour ago," she says when Kaoru opens the carriage door.
He musters up a scowl. "Maybe if I'd been informed that you would be waiting here--"
She doesn't reply, only climbs into the carriage and settles, damp if not dripping, into the seat beside him.
Taketo lifts one lid to eye her. "So, didn't jump into the river or something stupid like that after all," he says.
Shuuran looks at him, then shrugs. "I thought about it but changed my mind," she says.
He flicks a glance at the rain outside the window. "Bad weather for it, huh," he says and suddenly grins. "I'd say welcome back, brat, but that'd be a lie."
Her mouth quirks in an anwering smile. "Same to you too, asshole."