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Bad Blood - Chapter 8.

A Rurouni Kenshin x Tokyo Babylon fanfiction by Ariane Kovacevic, AKA Fuu-chan.





I grimaced as the sake's foul taste filled my mouth, but somehow I managed not to spit out the awful drink, and swallowed it down instead. I should have felt warmth spreading through my body as the liquid flowed down my throat and hit my stomach, but all I sensed was cold claiming me.

"Bran."

I looked up from my empty cup to see Shunsuke's worried face watching me. He gave a slow shake of his head, and I thought I heard him heaving out a faint sigh. There had been anxiety in his voice, as well as something that had felt like chagrin mixed with reproaches.

"Fucking sake keeps getting worse," I told him with a lopsided grin. "Get me some more."

He had met me at the work site right before sunset, as I had asked. Even then, there had been that worried light in his eyes--that, and questions. "What's wrong?" he had asked--and, "Answer me, Bran!" I had told him I intended to go to Gion and get drunk, and that if he wanted to come I'd be glad for his company, not that of his questions. I had thought he'd leave when I had seen anger sparking to life in his gaze, but for some reason he had merely snorted, stifling the emotion, and he had followed me.

Soon, I'd have to leave Kyoto. It was hard to know this, to taste this truth and do nothing to oppose it. Shunsuke would become a memory, his presence would retreat and fade into a hazy, unreal dream. I didn't want it to be so--I refused it with an intensity so great that it burnt and tore at my soul. I wanted him to know the truth, I wanted him to hold me back, to tell me to stay--he would, if I turned to him for help. He would protect me and challenge my father. Inwardly, I mocked my pathetic self. Yes, he would do all that if I chose to burden him with my life and its curse, instead of taking matters into my own hands. I wouldn't do that, I couldn't do that. My life was mine to grasp, mine to rise for and seize--not his, not any man's. I was my own person, and I wanted to be free. Flinging myself into Shunsuke's arms would have both wronged him and me--not that I could tell him the truth, anyway. Everything was just hopeless.

Stupid.

Lost.

My path was set. That fundamental truth had been a part of me once, but Shunsuke and his family had almost severed that essential understanding from me. This feeling of belonging somewhere I had experienced in the Sumeragi mansion's inner garden or when Shunsuke's arms had wrapped around me.... It was all coming to me in a blur, a dizzying dance of sensations which would sweep me away if I allowed them to. Everything was confused within me, everything was clashing, rousing dissonant echoes tearing at my mind. Perhaps Winter was right, perhaps I'd go mad for its pleasure and entertainment, and then I'd go on betraying all the fools unlucky enough to cross my path. I'd go on being a mindless tool of vengeance until I died.

Hoarse, broken sounds rose in the air as I laughed at the pathetic wretch that I was, then I reached for my cup of sake.

"Bran."

The cup was empty. I shot my companion a reproachful glance. "You didn't fill it," I mumbled drunkenly.

"No." Shunsuke's hand closed upon my right wrist. "What's wrong, Bran?"

I waved at a serving girl. "Hey! Honey, more sake, hurry!" I winced as Shunsuke's grip on my wrist tightened enough to bruise.

"Stop it, curse you!" The eyes he set on me were far too sober. He should drink too. He liked drinking--we had done it at his house often enough. I wanted him to get drunk as well, I wanted to share this with him. I--

"Bran!"

The low, threatening growl somehow forced me to look at him. I thought he'd start another round of lecture, but as I stared at him, he just shut up. A grimace twisted his face, and eventually he heaved out a weary sigh. Then he said in a quiet voice, "Very well. If you must keep drinking until you drop unconscious on the floor, at least let's do so elsewhere." The amber eyes were locked on me. "You're spilling madness in this place like a wild mountain stream. There's so much despair, anger and sorrow coming from you that even the wards can't contain them completely. Already your unbalance has reached some of the other customers. We have to leave Gion and go to a place where your appearance won't spark fury in people's hearts--that new Korean quarter. You always told me they liked you."

I looked around at the taproom and caught dark glances from quite a few patrons. Bobbing my head in assent at Shunsuke, I told him with a derisive snort, "Yeah. You care too much." I smiled at him. "I warned you not to, remember? Why not let them vent their frustration on me? Maybe they'd even be so kind as to kill me."

He cuffed my hard, as one would a misbehaving animal, and I stared at him, eyes wide. "You're drunk, but that's no excuse for such stupidity." For a moment, I thought I had seen his father in his stead. That Wolf would have said that, he'd have judged me and left me to rot as I deserved. Shunsuke reached out to me and touched the bruise that was coming to my cheek gingerly. "You're lucky," he said softly, "I didn't hit you as hard as you deserve."

I bowed my head, then. I bowed my head and clenched my teeth. I bit my lower lip, drawing blood.

Refusing to cry.

Refusing to weep.

"Come." The gentleness in his voice hurt. It hurt so bad that a muffled sob won through my lips. "It's okay if you won't tell me. Just come out of here with me. We'll go elsewhere. I won't leave you."

Pathetic screwed up rag, I told myself. You don't deserve him. Get yourself together! I did so, savagely. I lifted up my chin and stood. It took me a few seconds to steady my balance, and Shunsuke waited for me in silence. Eventually, I nodded at him and followed him out of the cheap inn.

Cold greeted us as we reached the street--the harsh, bitter cold of a winter's heart. Within moments, it cleared my mind, and I realized how pathetic I had been in the last hours. Pathetic, and selfish, like a spoiled brat. Yes, it was true that I hurt. Yes, it was true that I didn't want to leave Kyoto. Yes, it was true that I didn't have the strength to try and change the fate that my father had tricked me into choosing years ago. What was also true was that my departure would affect other persons than my small self. I had called Shunsuke to my side and demanded he assist me in my stupid quest of oblivion. I had demanded he be there so I could have an audience when I decided to whine about the unfairness of destiny. I had behaved in a fashion worse than if I had still been a little kid. I hadn't even considered him for a moment. He deserved more than this--far better than this.

Looking up at the starts shining in the night sky, I drew in a deep breath, and said quietly, "I'm sorry. My father told me I'd have to leave in a few days. I'm to return to Tokyo--to the Asano household, most likely. I didn't know how to tell you." A self-deprecating smile touched my lips. "I didn't know how to admit that reality to myself."

Silence met my words. I expected him to reach out to me, but he didn't. We walked in the night, the only sound that of our steps in the newly fallen snow. Even the shamisen's music seemed to have retreated in the distance. "It's your life, Bran," he said abruptly. "The choice is yours. Whatever you decide, I'll support you." There had been no emotion whatsoever in his voice. It had risen flat in the night, unconcerned. I stole a quick glance at him, and turned my head aside in a sharp, jerking motion.

His fists were closed into tight fists at his side.

His gaze had darkened; his eyes were veiled with sorrow.

He hadn't touched me because he refused to claim me--to claim the lie whom he thought was me. To him I was free, and he had no right to impose his will on me. I closed my eyes, and focused on the rhythm of my heartbeats. I'm not! I wanted to shout at him. I'm not, and I never will be! There's no choice, no alternative! With an effort of will, I swallowed back the words and gave him a noncommittal nod instead. He had taken enough whining from me tonight to last him a whole lifetime.

We walked on in silence. It would be wiser to return to the Sumeragi mansion. Drinking more sake wouldn't help, deep down I knew it. But while we kept wandering through Gion, my father's words could lose a bit of their power and fade--I could pretend they belonged to another reality.

"Bran!" Shunsuke's sharp, almost inaudible whisper as well as the brief touch of his hand on my right arm brought me back to the world of here and now. Straining myself in an effort to overcome the dulling of my senses caused by the alcohol, I focused on the night around us.

Ruffle of fabric.

Breathing, carefully controlled so that it was almost imperceptible.

Soft, unreal crisp of feet on snow.

People were closing in on us, and they were trying hard not to be heard. How Shunsuke had felt their presences was a mystery, but one I was grateful for. As we set ourselves back to back, I got a glimpse of him reaching out for weird, thin rectangles of paper in his left sleeve. There was no time to wonder what use they could have. All of a sudden, shadows appeared in the dim lights of a nearby inn's lantern.

Five.

As I felt Shunsuke tensing behind me, I understood that his situation wasn't better than mine. Cold hit the pit of my stomach, dispersing the last vapors of sake obscuring my brain, when I realized there was no getting out of this one--no winning. One of the shadows stepped forward.

"Give it up and follow us gently, boys," the man sniggered, and I clenched my teeth, recognizing the voice. "If you resist, we'll have to be a little rough, and we'd rather not hurt you."

Milton.

A trap.

He had known.

My father!

"Hell!" I gritted my teeth, grasping all too well what was happening. "Run!" I hissed at Shunsuke even as I shoved him aside. "It's you they want. I'll hold them!" There was no time to think, no time to plan and argue. Without waiting to know whether he had had enough brains to listen and do what I had told him, I drew the bokken I had made a habit to keep at my side. Then I flung myself forward.

There was a muffled thud when one of the attackers fell listlessly to the ground on my right. In the same time, I pivoted and struck on instinct. There was a sudden cry of pain as my blow connected, and simultaneously something crashed against the left side of my head. Pain exploded within, and everything went black. From very far away, I felt myself stagger backward.

A chant rising in the night.

Ethereal.

Reaching beyond the world.

Calling.

All of a sudden, the border of dreams shattered and realities touched. An unreal wind blew out of nowhere. It was like the beating of a thousand wings, and it filled the night with fury. Dimly, I heard people yelling in fear while I fought the darkness away. I concentrated on the pain inflaming my skull, and opened my eyes. Blood was half-blinding me, and I instinctively wiped it away. The abrupt movement sent a wave of dizziness and nausea coursing through my body. Desperately, I refused it and tightened my grip on the bokken's hilt as I pivoted to face my opponents.

I barely managed to avoid another blow, and bit my lower lip while my head swam. In front of me, Shunsuke was confronting four other people. He was the source of the raging wind. Magic, I thought distantly as I caught sight of the rectangle of paper he was holding between index and middle-finger. Onmyoujutsu, eastern spiritual magic. It was his voice that had risen in the night in an alien song. Abruptly, I saw someone moving behind him, and shouted, "Look out! Behind you!"

He didn't hear me.

He couldn't hear me.

Wildly, I struck at a shadow on my left, and then I flung myself toward him. Why the stupid fool had refused to heed me, I didn't know. All I knew was that I had to reach him before he was taken down. Shadows danced at the edge of my vision, but I ignored them. All that mattered was that I focus on the tip of the bokken, on my balance and on my enemies' flanks. Kamiya-KasshinryŻ had been created to protect people, and it showed its strength as I forced my way through.

"Fucking bitch!"

I had almost reached Shunsuke.

Something crashed against my left arm.

My hand went numb.

The bokken fell soundlessly to the snow-covered ground.

Pain filled my mind, the pain of shattered bones.

I screamed.

Then I fell.




It had been a busy evening.

A runner had come late in the afternoon with a message for Shunsuke, and Yuta's nephew had left the mansion an hour before sunset without saying where he intended to go. It was now late into the night, and the young fool wasn't back yet, judging from the light that came from one of the rooms in the abandoned wing. His sister was there, waiting for her son to return. Of all the times to go wild, the youth had chosen the worst. Before discussing the matter with Tokio, Yuta had been roughly aware of the content of the emperor's summons. They had talked about it long, his sister and he, they had argued during hours, to finally agree that stability and peace were the best choice in the absence of deciding elements for the other option.

War was a terrible thing.

A thing you were forced into fighting to defend yourself.

Never, ever a thing you initiated.

War led to bloodshed and death, then it spawned hatred. Hatred lasted longer than men's small lifespans. It lived on and thrived, it grew and grew, rotting human hearts away until it could rear its ugly head and spark war anew. It fed on human weakness, on human insecurity, instability and greed.

On fear.

And it was also a tool others used in merciless games of power. Better to choose peace when the path wasn't absolutely clear. Better to be called timid and cowardly, indecisive, by fools who were blinded by their short-sightedness and lack of understanding of the world's intricate, interwoven workings. Things touched other things, and decisions triggered consequences which in turn set other sequences of events in motion. Nothing was easy.

Yuta shivered as a gust of north-eastern wind brushed past him, and tightened his cloak around him. To stay outside at night was stupid, but sleep eluded him. He had too many things on his mind, the emperor's summons among them. But it wasn't the choice of seizing an opportunity to conquer land on the continent which had kept him awake. It was a matter of a much more personal nature--and in the same time it wasn't.

The Sakurazukamori was Yuta's lover, he had kept that small piece of knowledge from the clan. He had even kept it a secret from his sister. His loyalty to the Sumeragi demanded that he tell her this essential information, but he hadn't been able to bring himself to betray Keiko in that fashion. She trusted him in her own, strange way. He was a tool that she used, and in the same time she loved him. She was a paradox: stronger than anyone he knew, and yet more vulnerable than a kitten. She was ruthless, she hungered for the hunt, lusted after it like an opium addict, and still she was warm, protective.

Tender.

When he had realized she had come to Kyoto, he hadn't worried too much. Even if she had been commissioned to find out about the emperor's summons, she couldn't hurt his family. The Sumeragi clan was out of her reach; it was a knowledge, a rule that had held true for generations.

Until Tokio had challenged the previous Sakurazukamori.

The delicate balance between the Sumeragi and their shadow had almost been broken for good, then, but somehow that had turned out as a status-quo. Yuta had known that Keiko wouldn't attack his kin, and so he had held his peace. But when his sister had come back, it had changed everything. There was an on-going feud between both women, hatched because of fate's cruel whims. He knew that Tokio had hurt Keiko in a horrible fashion--just as he knew his sister had never intended it.

When Tokio had crossed the threshold of the Sumeragi mansion, he had wanted to warn her that she was in danger, not only because of the Sakurazukamori, but also because of him. There had been no possibility to do that at first, and then he hadn't been able to. Things were awkward between them, and he wanted to bridge the gap he perceived before he told her. If only he was given a bit of time to mend things--

Inaudible bell chime.

Ripple in the night.

Yuta tensed as the sensations reached him and as he felt the hair on his neck stand on end. It had been small, too small and harmless to trigger the wards, and he doubted others in the house had felt it. Slowly, he straightened and looked out at the night.

There, perched on the garden's southern wall.

Basking in the moonlight as if it had been summer.

A great mountain cat was watching him, as if waiting for him to at last take notice of its presence. The shikigami was beautiful, breathtakingly so. It was blacker than the darkness, and yet it shone as the moonlight glistened over its coat like a mantle. For a few seconds, their eyes met, and Yuta's heart skipped a beat. As he faced the magnificent predator, he heard his breath come out in a hiss. The mountain cat's eyes were liquid fire.

They knew him.

They knew his heart.

"Yes," he whispered at last before turning away. He had trusted her before, he had committed himself, and he'd be true to that. He couldn't be otherwise.

Quickly, he crossed the inner garden toward the deserted wing that Shunsuke had claimed and where Tokio was housed. The light in her room was still shining. He didn't pause to let his presence be known before pulling the sliding panel open.

"Yuta?" Tokio stared at him, wide-eyed, before setting a cup of steaming hot tea down beside her. She was tired and worried, he could see it in the lines of her face. Next to her, Saitou Hajime raised a questioning eyebrow, apparently unperturbed by Yuta's sudden appearance, but didn't say anything.

"You must come with me, ane-ue," Yuta said in a tight voice, "to the front gate. Now."

Words shone in her eyes, questions, but she merely nodded and stood up, responding to the urgency she could read in him. They had been inseparable as young children, they had understood each other without words--but that hadn't lasted long. Tokio had already been in training at the time, coming back to Kyoto only for short periods of time. Then Yuta had been snatched away by the elders as well. Now of all times, he felt the old connection between siblings again when she followed him out of the room.

Trusting.

Behind her, her husband followed as well, but Yuta didn't care about him. He was an outsider in this, one who could never understand.

It took them less than a minute to reach the high, imposing doors. Yuta swung them open, and closed his eyes when he heard his sister gasp.

"A pleasant night to you, Sumeragi Tokio-san." There was a hint of mockery in the Sakurazukamori's voice, barely perceptible.

Yuta clenched his teeth and looked up to see the two women facing each other, perfectly immobile. There was an awful tension in the air, coming from his sister. The night was crackling with restrained power.

Tokio had reached out to the ancient wards and gathered them around her.

Ready to strike.

"It's a cold one, though, Sakurazukamori-san." His sister's voice was deadly quiet. "What can I do for you?"

"Nothing." The other woman's crystalline laughter echoed in the night, and her utterly black eyes glittered as she added, "It's I who came to do you a service." She paused, waiting for a reply, but Tokio remained silent. "It's about your son," Keiko said softly, "and his companion."

"You cannot touch my son," the Sumeragi clan head hissed, "and neither can you reach out to Asano Bran as long as Shunsuke is with him." There had been no uncertainty in her voice, only anger--an anger that was bordering on fury.

"Not I," the Sakurazukamori shook her head. Then she smiled, and said in a confiding tone, "The westerners have them." In the shocked silence that followed those words, she whispered, "I might lead you to the place where they're being detained, if you wished."

Beside Yuta, Tokio dragged in a shuddering breath. "Why should I believe you, Sakurazukamori-san?" She gave a single, slow shake of her head, then lifted up her chin. Something nameless glittered in her eyes, then she took a step toward the master assassin. "Perhaps I should simply tear the truth out of you," she continued in a strangely detached voice.

A Shadow had come over Yuta's sister.

A Shadow, alien and terrible.

Yuta knew it: sometimes it whispered to him in dreams, but it wasn't as strong as it was in Tokio. It was a darkness in their branch of the clan. It had never come over him like it did with her. She would attack. She would fight.

No.

"No, ane-ue." Yuta barely heard his own voice as he stepped into the night. "You must listen to her," he said as he walked to stand beside the woman he loved. As he pivoted to face his sister, he felt a painful smile twist his lips. "You must," he repeated softly, "simply because she has no need to take her vengeance any deeper--she has me."

Abruptly, all the power Tokio had gathered was released, and Yuta felt his mind reeling as the insane wave thundered past him, rippling through the air and tearing through the fabric of the night. "Yuta," she whispered, her pure emerald eyes veiled with tears. "Oh, dear spirits, Yuta!" She bowed her head, but the infinite sorrow there had been in her voice lingered. Beside Yuta, Sakurazuka Keiko's eyes flashed in triumph, and he felt her quiver with something that was neither joy nor satisfaction. What engulfed the Sakurazukamori had no name, it was a black wind that would sweep her away, but in that instant, she reached out to him and rested a hand against his right arm. On instinct, Yuta covered her hand with his own, and squeezed when he felt her tremble.

"Don't grieve, ane-ue," he told his sister gently. "I chose this. It was my decision to share her path if she wanted me to."

"I know." Tokio lifted up her head and looked at them. She looked at them and saw them--saw them truly. He knew it when she gave an imperceptible nod of her head. Tears had rolled down her cheeks, small beads of crystal that she didn't even seem to feel as they glistened on her skin.

"We have no time for this."

Saitou Hajime had walked up to Tokio's side. There was nothing in his voice, except a faint trace of annoyance. "We must go retrieve that stupid son of yours, as well as the fool who holds his heart."

Beside Yuta, Keiko chuckled softly, then nodded. Without a word, she turned her back on the Sumeragi mansion and disappeared into the night.




The back of Shunsuke's head hurt. There was a throbbing pain there that sent fleeting shadows dancing before his eyes, and impaired his vision. It was worse than a hangover, even though there was no wave of nausea raking through his body. There was also a dull ache in his back and his right flank. He had tried moving once a bit earlier, but he had given up when pain had flared up and blinded him. It was all he had been able to do not to cry out. Slowly, he opened his eyes, and this time he managed to get a clear vision of the room where Bran and he had been locked up.

It was small and white. The walls looked solid, as if they were held underground. A cellar, perhaps. Again, Shunsuke gingerly attempted to pull at his bonds. It was likely he suffered form several bruised ribs, no need to cause another flash of pain. His hands were tied behind his back by something that felt like thin leather ropes--incredibly resistant ones. No, no matter how he tried to twist his hands or wrists, he couldn't loosen the damn bonds. The only thing he had been able to achieve had been to have them dig in his flesh and draw blood. With an imperceptible sigh, Shunsuke bowed his head and focused on calm.

The attack had come too quickly, and the opponents had been too many for him and Bran to handle. They had tried--he had even used Onmyoujutsu against them--to no avail. He could remember Bran yelling at him to make a run for it, that he would hold them back. Had the idiot really believed Shunsuke would heed such insane words? It was true that his friend fought well. He had known before this that Bran had had true kenjutsu training and that he was good at it, but he had never realized before the true meaning of that. The brawl at the inn on the night they had first met had been nothing compared to this. Bran had seemed to sink into a trance in which he and his bokken became one after he had taken a nasty blow on the head. Even so, Shunsuke had been painfully aware that they couldn't hope to win. Kempo and kenjutsu weren't enough. He had reached for his ofuda on instinct, but rules and constraints that had been ingrained in him since infancy had stayed his hand.

Never use Onmyoujutsu to do harm on another living being.

Never use your talent to kill.

Never, lest the stain of it marked your soul forever.

He had shied away from spells that would have sent the attackers fleeing and screaming at the top of their lungs, their minds gone, tapped in monstrous nightmares. Ensnared by his clan's laws, he had resorted to the simple spells his mother loved so much: he had summoned a myriad of small shikigami and set them against his opponents. It would have been enough to hold them, if there hadn't been another man he hadn't noticed. Bran's warning had come too late: once he was focused on the spell, Shunsuke couldn't change it, not on a moment's notice. He had seen Bran being struck savagely and then sinking unconscious to the ground, powerless to intervene. He had followed soon after, to wake up in this place, the gods knew how much later.

In front of Shunsuke, Bran stirred, and a moan of pain escaped through his lips. His left arm was covered by his jacket's sleeve, but Shunsuke knew it was bad. He had heard the soft, sickly sound of bones breaking when the blow had connected, and he had felt Bran's pain flooding the night despite the wards. Slowly, the young man lifted up his head, and his eyes widened when he saw Shunsuke.

"Are you all right?" Shunsuke asked in a whisper. The question was ludicrous, but he had to know if Bran could understand him. That would at least tell him that the wound to his friend's head wasn't too grave.

A grimace twisted the lines of Bran's face, then he whispered, "They're my father's men. I doubt they'll hurt you." He sighed. "Damn you, I told you to run." Shunsuke didn't reply. There was nothing he could say that would help, but it looked like Bran hadn't expected him to. The grey eyes suddenly grew distant, and the young man experimentally pulled at his bonds. Beads of sweat appeared on his forehead, and his face twisted in pain, but no sound passed through his lips.

"It's no use," Shunsuke told him softly. "It's some kind of leather, and it's solid. You're tied to the wall. There's a metal ring set into it."

Bran didn't react. Slowly, he shifted his position, and his gaze veiled with pain. Damn you, stop! Shunsuke wanted to shout, stop hurting yourself, you won't win free! But he remained silent. Yelling would only bring their captors. Again, Bran tried his bonds. His face was livid, and drop of perspiration had started rolling down his temples, mixing with dried blood. With time, shock would have settled in and dulled the pain in his arm, but Shunsuke knew that that reprieve was only temporary. The simple existence of the broken limb, hanging limp at Bran's side must be radiating pain through his body. The smallest motion must be torture. Still, the cursed idiot kept at it, twisting his right wrist this way and that. Enraged, Shunsuke gave a violent pull at his own bonds.

Nothing.

"Stop that."

The rasp whisper had come from Bran. A crooked smile crept up his lips. "No sense in chiseling your wrists as well." His voice was like nails grating over glass. "I was trained for this. I'll be faster." With that, he started working his wrists against the leather once more, and Shunsuke waited, powerless, as agony flashed in the grey eyes and then was savagely mastered.

It went on and on, and time lost all meaning to Shunsuke. The room's source of light came from two lanterns; there were no windows to allow him to know whether dawn had risen or not. A creak eventually covered the sound of Bran's ragged breathing, and the young man stopped moving at once. He was as pale as death, the only thing alive about him were his eyes.

Two men entered the cellar. One was a westerner, and the other was Japanese. The last one came to Shunsuke's side and looked at him. "Any feeling of nausea?" he asked quietly.

Shunsuke considered telling him that there hadn't been until he had laid eyes on a traitor who had sold himself to the enemy, but instead he gave a slow shake of his head. There was no sense in inviting more blows to himself and Bran. The question at least confirmed his friend's words: they weren't bent on killing them.

"Well, well, well." The gloating triumph and mockery there had been in the westerner's voice as he turned to face Bran sent a shiver down Shunsuke's spine. This man despised Bran--worse, he hated him. "Poor darling little Bran doesn't seem to be in the same high spirits as the last time we met. Does it hurt bad, kitten?" Bran gasped and crumpled to the side as the man poked at his left arm. "It looks like it does. That arm must be broken." The westerner sniggered, and Shunsuke drew in a deep, steadying breath.

Don't let fury overcome you, he told himself sternly. Bear with it. For now, there is nothing else to do. That man will die for this. Cold, frightening calm came over Shunsuke as the though formed in his mind. He would kill that vermin, and the sadistic bastard would never torment anyone again. There was no doubt in him. The man's time would eventually come. Shunsuke could wait.

Before him, Bran slowly, painstakingly lifted up his head, and stared at the westerner steadily. "My father will certainly be happy when he hears about the way you treat his hostage." Bran's voice was low and calm. The grey eyes had gone distant once again. The westerner scoffed.

"Yes, he will! The Sumeragi brat's wound was an unfortunate necessity, and you, my dear," his blue eyes glittered malevolently, "he has entrusted to me. Your old man believes you need of discipline beaten into you, and for once I agree with him." Casually, the man squatted down to face Bran, and then seized a handful of his hair before pulling him up in a sitting position. "You won't be able to loosen these bonds, you know," he added softly, "I saw to them myself."

Bran didn't say anything. He didn't look at the man. There was an eerie, frightening emptiness in him. Nothing had touched the wards, no black storm had battered at them when he had been hoisted up. The only thing that had betrayed the horrible pain he must have felt was the small rivulet of blood spilling from a corner of his mouth.

"Leave Bran alone, slime!" The snarl escaped from Shunsuke's lips before he could control it--he didn't want to control it. "If you harm one hair on his head, I'll tear you apart limb by limb and feed you to the dogs!"

"His?!" The man laughed, and looked at Shunsuke. "His, hey," he smiled, then pivoted to face Bran. The young man shivered, and a flash of desperation lit the grey eyes. Whatever it was he feared, the westerner picked it up and sneered. "Shame on you, honey," he breathed in Bran's ear. "And him so taken with you! You didn't even tell him the truth." Bran closed his eyes. "Dishonesty is a bad flaw, darling," he added spitefully.

Then he drew a knife.

"No!" Shunsuke shouted at the top of his lungs, pitting all his strength against the bonds in a desperate attempt to free himself.

"Relax, boy," the man said above his shoulder. "I'm just going to do you a service. I won't harm the bitch."

"No." The faint whisper had come from Bran. "No." He was shaking. Then, as the westerner raised his knife, the words he had used registered in Shunsuke's brain.

Bitch?

The small blade cut through the fabric of the jacket's front and the kimono under it. It cut through and undershirt and wide bandages binding Bran's chest tight--bandages that Shunsuke had never gotten a glimpse of. For a terrible moment, he thought he'd see a wound behind them--scars, but as the man stepped aside to give him a better view, Shunsuke drew a sharp intake of breath.

Breasts.

Breasts small enough to be dissimulated by the tight bandages.

Bran was a woman.

The westerner's left hand reached out and cupped one of her breasts. "Do you see now?" he asked while he absentmindedly ran a thumb over the white skin. There was a sickening mixture of lust and hatred in the whisper's tone. Bran's head was bowed. She sat motionless, giving no sign of being aware of the man fondling her.

There was laughter rising up Shunsuke's throat--harsh, bitter laughter that mocked him for never having realized the obvious. It had all been there for him to see: Bran's excessive shyness and timidity, her stubborn refusal to share a bath with him, her regular isolation during a few days of each month. He had attributed it all to her foreign heritage. He had been a fool, and she--

She had betrayed him.

Pain washed over him and burnt him, leaving only ashes in its wake. It burnt and burnt. She had warned him, it was true. She had told him she would hurt him--she had stated plainly that she would betray them all, but he hadn't thought.... Not in this! he cried out silently. Not in something so deep and important as this!

I'll be the judge of that.

It had been he who had said this. Once before, he had forborne to judge, but now--now his words were coming true. As the harsh flames of his sorrow retreated, he gazed inside his heart, and nodded. He acknowledged his love for her, and he acknowledged the truth of himself. He would judge, that was who he was. He couldn't forget. As the Shadow within rose, he felt its cold, unyielding determination, and deliberately he allowed it to claim him. Yes, he would judge her, but not now--not yet. For now, they had to get out of this trap.

There's only one way. The Shadow's ethereal whisper filled his being.

I know, he told it softly. I will be damned, but it doesn't matter anymore. Focusing inward, Shunsuke reached out for sounds and words.

Then he sang.

The westerner whirled around to face him, dumbfounded. His Japanese companion stepped back from him, and fear shone brightly in his eyes. This one knew, most likely, that the song was a spell. Shunsuke couldn't use his ofuda to help focus his mind and lend him strength, but somehow it didn't seem to matter this time.

A wolf appeared in the room, and the two men froze. Shunsuke could feel the frantic beatings of their hearts as the great shikigami's yellow eyes turned toward them. A feral smile uncovered Shunsuke's teeth when the beast lunged.

It was over quickly--far too quickly. Silently, the unreal wolf came back to Shunsuke and tore the leather bonds apart in a moment. Shunsuke bit his lower lip as blood started flowing again to his hands, and gingerly he massaged his wrists. He gave himself a minute to gather his strength, and then he stood up. The floor beneath him swung dangerously, but he willed it to steady. Discarding the two corpses, he went over to Bran, and reached out to her.

"Can you stand?" he asked her quietly as he freed her from her bonds. It was surprisingly easy. She had loosened them far.

She shuddered when he touched her wrists, then lifted up her head. "Yes." She nodded. "We have to get away." There had been no emotion whatsoever in her voice. The light in the grey eyes was a dead one. Shutting himself away from the feeling of her, Shunsuke concentrated on what had to be done. While she awkwardly closed the front of her kimono and jacket, he tore at his sleeve to get a long piece of fabric.

"It's going to hurt," he warned her. Then he set her left arm against her body and bound it as best he could so that the broken limb wouldn't dangle when she moved and make her fracture worse. She didn't cry out, she didn't even move. Once he was done, he pulled her up, and somehow she managed to stand. She was drawing air in in short, ragged gasps, as if she had ran for a long time--as if she had almost drowned.

"Terror hasn't left their eyes, even in death," she observed distantly. Her gaze had turned to the two men sprawled on the floor. It was true, now that he paid attention to it. He smiled at the frozen tableau.

This was the way the Sakurazukamori killed.

Both true and false, the Shadow within murmured.

Steady.

He obeyed. He held on to himself with all he had, and at that moment, the sakanagi struck.

He thought he had fallen, drawing Bran with him, but he was still standing, incredibly enough. He stayed on his feet while pain thundered down his being--he stood through it, sustained by alien arms which reached up from within to embrace him and offer him strength. You did what was necessary, no more. No less, the Shadow said. Then it retreated, leaving Shunsuke empty.

Alone.

"There must be guards. How are we going to win past them?" Bran's question brought Shunsuke back to reality, and he shrugged.

"My shikigami will tear them to pieces if they're mad enough to stand in our way. Come," he told her without turning toward her. As he walked up the steps leading to the cellar's door, he heard her following him and he called the wolf to his side.

Then he opened the door.

They fled for a long time. It was neither pleasant, nor swift. Bran could manage hardly more than a walk, and Shunsuke knew with painful certainty that he himself couldn't run. Their escape had been an easy one: once the men guarding them had realized they couldn't harm the wolf, they had run for their lives. Bran and he had emerged in an unfamiliar place. For a moment, Shunsuke had been lost, then he had caught a whiff of humidity in the air which was most unnatural for a cold winter night with the stars shining brightly in a clear sky. On instinct, he had led them toward it, and very quickly he had recognized the immense gleaming shape of lake Biwa in the distance.

Otsu, he had thought then. They took us away from Kyoto. In that moment, he had abandoned the crazy hope of rejoining the Sumeragi mansion. Steeling his heart against despair, he had dragged Bran southward, toward the great lake's mouth and the Yodo-gawa. Water would at least help them to confuse dogs if their pursuers had any. Nobody had come after them yet, but they would. Shunsuke knew they had to be recaptured before dawn. In daylight, Bran and he could ask for help. It was that fragile, tenuous thread of hope which had kept him going.

At last, they reached a bridge, and the sound of a river filled the night. A faint smile touched Shunsuke's lips as he led Bran to the bridge's left side so they could hide under its structure. Once he was satisfied with their shelter, he dropped to his knees, while Bran slumped to the ground beside him. For a moment, he thought she would tell him to go on, to run to safety, but she remained silent. Perhaps she had no strength left to argue with him.

No.

The Shadow's distant denial made Shunsuke clench his teeth. No, of course not. He knew that weakness or pain weren't the true explanation for the young woman's silence. He could run, he realized. He could try to flee in the night and get help, but he didn't move.

He couldn't leave her.

He couldn't abandon her.

Something bitter and cold inside him kept insisting he do just that, arguing that the whole evening of drinking had been staged to lure him out and capture him. No, he told himself. He knew better than that, and he knew the source of that ugly voice within.

Resentment.

Anger.

He was exhausted and he was hurt, both in body and in spirit. Now wasn't the time to consider the paths laid before him. Deciding what consequences should follow the discovery of Bran's betrayal would wait.

Movement.

Shunsuke abruptly tensed, reviving the pain, but the shikigami guarding them hadn't reacted. Belatedly, he realized that what he had felt had come from the huddled figure beside him.

Bran was trembling.

Unable to help himself, Shunsuke bent toward her, but the young woman didn't acknowledge him. Her eyes were set on the darkness of the Yodo-gawa before them, and there was an awful tension spilling out of her.

Anguish.

Distress.

She's thinking about dying, he realized with a start. It was in the black despair drowning her aura and in the way her jaw was set. It was in the absence of light in her eyes and in the way she had allowed the bindings on her broken arm to come undone. "No," he told her softly, not knowing where the impulse to speak out had come from. Not caring that she didn't hear him, he reached out to her. Gingerly, he brought her against him, pausing when she winced reflexively as he touched her arm, and then completing the movement with as much care as he could manage.

She was in pain, terribly so.

She was cold, as cold as if ice had claimed her soul.

She was fevered.

He held her close.

One last time.

He smiled sorrowfully. One last time, he would give himself. One last time, he would share his warmth and his strength. Gently, he tucked her head under his chin. When silent sobs shook her, he didn't reach up to wipe her tears away. There wouldn't be any. She had none to shed, he knew. He hugged her tight. There was nothing he could say to her. Eventually, he surrendered to exhaustion and closed his eyes.




It was too much.

The Sakurazukamori's presence at my side.

Yuta walking out to stand by her with determination shining in his eyes.

The abduction of Shunsuke and Bran.

Sakurazuka Keiko's claim on my brother.

The feeling of sakura blossom petals whirling in the air, just beyond the range of human perceptions.

The sweet, terrible taste of the woman's vengeance.

It was all far too much for me to absorb. There was too much fear, too much pain and far too many questions. So I did the only thing I could do: I acted on what was the most urgent.

We had left the Sumeragi mansion around midnight, Hajime, Sakurazuka Keiko, Yuta and I. My brother had insisted to accompany us, and I hadn't had the heart to deny him. Nobody had even mentioned involving the police. I knew that Hajime had sent a short message to one of his men, but I doubted that they could act against the westerners easily--not to mention that we had yet to find my son and his companion. I had thought it wouldn't be so easy to get a cart in the middle of the night, but Yuta had managed that wonderfully. "Where are you leading us?" I had asked Sakurazuka Keiko, but she had ignored the question. She had climbed up the driver's seat and sent the two horses at a swift trot.

"We're leaving Kyoto," Hajime observed suddenly as we took another left turn.

"Yes." The Sakurazukamori chuckled. "They're being held in Otsu."

Something unreadable flashed in my husband's eyes and he tensed, almost imperceptibly. "Clever," he muttered between his teeth. "That puts them out of my immediate reach, and they can use either lake Biwa or the Yodo-gawa to ship them out in a moment's notice." He leaned toward the driver's seat. "We must hurry!"

"Sakurazuka Keiko laughed. "I know." With a clap of her tongue and a touch of the long reins on the horses' rumps, she sent them into a gallop. The cart jolted and danced, and dimly I wondered what we'd do if it turned over. "I like the way your mind works, Saitou-san!" The woman's eyes glinted with mischief as she briefly turned to face the Wolf.

She found all this amusing.

As I felt anger rise within, Yuta reached out and laid a hand on my right forearm. "She means no harm, ane-ue. There's a child in her, and sometimes that little girl comes to the fore of her mind."

The little girl.

Yes.

I heaved out a sigh and chased away the horrible memories that the great Sakura had held for her.

It didn't take us long to reach Otsu; the smaller town was very close to Kyoto. Just as I wondered how the hell we'd be able to find Shunsuke and Bran, Sakurazuka Keiko drove the cart to a halt. We had stopped right next to the harbor, and there was quite a bit of commotion on the quays. People were running with torches, and some were yelling with shrill, high voices.

The night reeked with terror.

"Damn!" The Sakurazukamori jumped from her seat. "Don't move. I'll go have a look." As she ran away, she blended with the night and disappeared, swallowed by the darkness. It took all my self-control not to jump after her. I ached to go rescue Shunsuke, but I knew that the master assassin was best suited to gather information.

Fortunately, we didn't have to wait for long. Sakurazuka Keiko abruptly reappeared beside the cart, parting the night around her as if it had been a cloak. "There's no denying Shunsuke is your son, Saitou-san." She grinned at us. "The men are trying to for a search party, but most of them are scared witless. They claim that a great wolf ripped the lives out of three of their own--a wolf no weapon can touch or wound. You son and his companion made a run for it less than two hours ago. Their captors don't think they went far, because both of them are wounded." I ignored the painful lurch of my heartbeats, and jumped down the cart.

"Let's go!" Without waiting to see of they'd follow me, I reached inside my left sleeve. Holding the ofuda between index and middle finger and summoning the concentration necessary to will my shikigami into being didn't require more than a second. I didn't pause to establish wards against the sakanagi. We were old companions, the simple spell and I, and setting up the shield against the backlash was an instinct like breathing. The great raven shimmered in the darkness, and then was gone--high above the houses to look after the runaways.

There was no sound beside that of the Yodo-gawa's waters gently lapping at the shores. Everything felt peaceful here, but the scent of magic in the air was unmistakable. "Under that bridge," I whispered, and then I ran toward it.

I was greeted by a threatening growl, and I skidded to a halt as a great wolf emerged from under the bridge's structure. "It's all right." I reached out to it with body and spirit both. "It's me, Shunsuke. We've come to get you out of this nightmare." For a moment, the wolf's great shape wavered, then it faded into nothingness. Shunsuke had released the spell.

Cautiously, I went under the bridge, and caught my breath when I saw the two shadows huddled together. As I approached them, one stirred, and my son's emerald eyes met mine.

"Mother?" He dragged in a shuddering breath. "I thought I had dreamed you."

"No." I shook my head and stepped to both young people's side. Pain and exhaustion were written all over Shunsuke's body, and dried blood was smearing his left temple. He had been wounded, indeed.

Hajime came beside me, and asked quietly while reaching out to help Shunsuke stand, "What happened?"

A pitiful croak of laughter escaped my son's lips. "Bran needed to get drunk. We were both foolish." Shrugging his father's help away, he added, "No, take care of Bran first. Her wounds are bad."

Her.

We both froze, Hajime and I. As I looked once again at Shunsuke's face, I saw what I had missed before. The light in his eyes was a haunted one, and the grief shining there--

"Did she betray you?" Hajime asked in a dangerously pleasant voice.

"She didn't lure me into a trap."

No, no of course she hadn't, but still Shunsuke felt that she had betrayed him. It meant that she hadn't told him the truth about herself. It meant that it had been flung in Shunsuke's face against the young woman's will, and the consequences of that were all too plain in my son's veiled gaze.

"Better to let her rot here. Her friends will find her soon enough," Hajime snorted, his amber eyes set on Shunsuke, intent.

"No!" The vehemence in my son's voice started even the Wolf. "No," he repeated tonelessly. "She has to come with us. She needs to rest and to heal, and she needs a shelter from her father and his men." A crooked smile came to his lips. "She took those wounds fighting to protect me, father. We owe her this much."

In the darkness, Hajime's hand clasped mine fiercely. So, he had felt it too. Perhaps things could still be mended, perhaps there could be healing--forgiveness even.

Yes, forgiveness. Perhaps. There was something like smug satisfaction in the Shadow's touch. As quickly as it had risen it retreated without deigning to explain itself. Hajime bent down and easily took the young woman in his arms. She looked awful, and the dreadful light in her unseeing eyes.... Poor child, I thought to myself. You don't deserve this, but there's nothing we can do about it. Once my husband had borne his fragile burden away, Shunsuke's deep green eyes locked on me.

Burning with pain and anguish.

"I've taken lives, mother." The terrible words echoed in the night around us, and I let them fade into silence without replying. There was more to it, and Shunsuke had to get it out of him.

"I used my talent to kill. I used Onmyoujutsu to shed blood."

Oh, my son.

My beloved, beautiful son.

I didn't gather him into my arms. I didn't hold him and tell him everything would be all right. Instead, I nodded at him. "Sometimes, it's inevitable." The emerald eyes veiled with tears, then--they veiled with tears when he heard the quiet acceptance in my voice. I hadn't judged him and condemned him, and I wouldn't. Laws were absolutes, but life wasn't, and life wouldn't heed them. Life was compromises and a constant, terrible funambulist game between what one believed in, and what one was forced to do.

Slowly, I knelt beside my son and brought his head against my chest, wrapping my arms around him. "Cry," I told him softly, and he did.

End of chapter 8.


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